Tips for Sprucing Up Beer

We were driving past groves of Sitka spruce, Alaska’s state tree that’s everywhere in SE Alaska. The bus driver/guide made the remark in passing: “A tavern in town serves a local sour beer made with the tips of these trees.” I was immediately intrigued. Spruce buds in the making of beer?

He added that this unusual ingredient is foraged by area locals and sold to nearby Baranof Island Brewing in early spring when the tender, lime green tips are ready to pick. As an historical side note, the guide also said the buds, because they’re high in vitamin C, cured early British and French explorers in North America of scurvy.

Sitka spruce tips (image from

Curious and eager, I found said tavern back in Sitka town where Baranof Island Brewing’s Sitka Spruce Tip beer was on tap. The beer was herbal and citrusy, a profile I’d never tasted before. I was pleasantly surprised. My wife didn’t care for it much, put off by what she said was too strong a piney flavor. It reminded her of retsina.


Baranof Island Brewery’s Sitka Spruce Tip Beer

By chance, I stumbled on another spruce beer in Skagway a week later, Skagway Brewing Company’s Spruce Tip Blonde Ale. This was lighter in style with spice notes, creamy with a floral nose. My wife enjoyed this more.

Skagway Brewing Co’s spruce tip blonde ale

After returning home from the cruise, I had to find out more about this beer additive. So, I did some research.

It happens that adding spruce tips is not new. Centuries ago, Scandinavians brewed with Norway spruce tips. When the Vikings got to North America, you can imagine the high-fives after finding spruce trees in abundance. In 1773 Captain James Cook made his first beer in New Zealand using spruce. Even Benjamin Franklin made one that I could easily imagine his quaffing while flying a kite on a stormy night.

Spruce needles’ curative property has been historically recorded. For example, a tea made by the St. Lawrence Iroquois from spruce bark and tips saved the scurvy-afflicted men of Jacques Cartier’s second expedition to Quebec in 1536. For nutritional reasons, the British added spruce tips to beer when exploring the West Coast of North America.

In colonial America, the tips were used in place of hops for flavoring since hops imported from Europe were too expensive. Nowadays, there’s a renaissance of spruce beers, no longer crafted to combat disease but to add any of a host of flavors. The most widely available is probably Alaskan Brewing Company’s seasonal Winter Ale that’s released in the fall. Curiously I detected no hint of spruce; instead it was sweet and had berry flavors. Alaskan’s Spruce IPA follows in January.

Sitka spruce tips (image from

What started out as an informal statement on tour led to a project of mine to learn more about one of beer’s most interesting ingredients.

Better Than Your Average Brew Pub: Falling Sky Brewing (Eugene, OR)

Craft breweries are springing up almost everywhere. The Pacific Northwest has seen its mini-explosion start business only within the last decade. It’s fun when the beer is served in a pub setting, even more so when there are noshes, too. Most of these places are content to sell burgers, fries and pizza, maybe chicken wings. It’s the rare pub that aspires to something more and succeed at it. Better still that its ingredients are sourced locally and has vegetarian and gluten-free options. Enter Falling Sky Brewing and Gastropub in 2011, which has received numerous commendations and a loyal following. In 2013, Falling Sky Pour House & Delicatessen opened with even a larger food menu and questions began to be raised if this could be the best brewpub in all of Oregon, which could tweak Portlanders. Zounds, they even do their own baking, smoking, curing, brining and fermenting.

Copper brewing equipment

Copper brewing equipment

Order counter

Order counter

Finding the place can be a bit tricky, located as it is in an alleyway. The tavern is spacious with communal beer hall tables from which can be seen their huge copper brewing equipment through large glass windows. The current beer list is printed on a blackboard, as are the specials and wine list. Their standard menu is also handed out before you order.

Flight of four beers

Flight of four beers

The list of house beers is impressive, covering the gamut of styles, from lagers to IPAs. And, if you have specific preferences about your beer but know nothing about Falling Sky’s offerings, a convenient system of classifying their beers is provided: alcohol percentage (ABV) and bitterness (IBU), which can sort of tell you what to expect. (Falling Sky also supplies a beer’s original gravity, or OG, number.) I had a four-beer flight: Ready to Mingle Belgian Single (4.6% ABV, 19 IBU), Morning After Pils (5.0% ABV, 25 IBU), Dr. Optic Standard Bitter (3.6% ABV, 28 IBU) and Mash Transit Ale (5.8% ABV, 40 IBU), all of which were pretty nice.

As I mentioned, the food menu is taken very seriously. Going through it gives an indication of how serious. For example, appetizers include roasted brussels sprouts with hazelnuts and pretzel sticks. The chicken wings are thankfully not buffaloed but coated in za’atar and honey. One of their favorites is poutine, that Canadian snack of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Falling Sky’s gravy is made from mushrooms. Their sandwiches include two vegetarian ones (one of them a burger), a lamb burger and a burger made from grass-fed local beef and served (hallelujah!) medium-rare, which can only be possible when the quality, safety and provenance of the meat can be verified. It would normally be VERY tempting.

Moules frites

Moules frite

But, we weren’t particularly hungry, so we settled for a shared house salad and moules frites, one of tonight’s specials. The salad with lemon-tahini dressing and Belgian-style hand-cut fries were very fine, but the mussels were outstanding (☆☆☆☆). The mollusks were perfectly cooked, meaty and succulent, bathed in a cream sauce with leeks and star anise. No spoon was provided, so both my wife and I polished off the broth with empty mussel shells. It’s tragic that this is not on the regular menu.

Falling Sky’s motto is LET IT POUR, which (aside from being a clever phrase) has significant meaning in this Land of the Ducks. When it rains, a discount is applied to your beer, which happens often.

Count me in for return visits whenever I’m back in town.

Falling Sky Brewing and Gastropub
1334 Oak Alley
Eugene, OR 97401

Sunday Fried Chicken at Brave Horse Tavern

When Amazon moved its headquarters from the imposing, ex-VA hospital building atop Beacon Hill to the soon-to-be industrial park at the southern end of Lake Union, it dramatically changed the economy and redevelopment of a section of town that had been characterized by light industry, small businesses and warehouses. Not only do employees of Amazon now work and live in South Lake Union (SLU), but eat here, too, as restaurants quickly opened to take advantage of the concentration of young, well-paid high-techies. Local restauranteur extraordinaire Tom Douglas was one to jump on the bandwagon. To go along with his other endeavors elsewhere in Seattle, he now has three places in SLU: Serious Pie & Biscuit, Cuoco and Brave Horse Tavern.

Sunday would seem to be the ideal time to go to any of these, for on any other day of the week, they’re packed with Amazonians and other diners who appreciate the goodness that Douglas consistently produces. There is also another incentive to eat at Brave Horse Tavern (located above Cuoco)—buttermilk fried chicken dinner that is served only on Sundays. Four of us split the dinner, smorgasbord of bar snacks, house-made pretzel and beers.

Tonight alone, I counted 34 beers on tap, most of them from West Coast microbreweries, which can be ordered in 12- or 16-ounce glasses or in a pitcher. Three of us individually chose Dos Borrachos Mexican Lager, Thai Fi Basil Pale and Rio’s Rompin’ Rye Ale. A good selection of ciders is also available as well as cocktails, wines and a long list of stiffer drinks. This place is not lacking for ways to get buzzed.

Brave Horse makes its own soft pretzels baked in a brick oven. By itself, the pretzel was very good, but the tavern gives you a choice of several accompaniments, including smoked peanut butter and bacon that one of our party ordered. Personally, peanut butter is on my list of prefer-not-do. I do like it in sauces used in southeast Asian cooking. But, I have to say that Douglas’ smoked version with bacon was remarkably good paired with a pretzel straight out of the oven, deeply browned and as good as a freshly made soft pretzel should be (☆☆☆½).

Brick oven pretzel with mustard, smoked peanut butter and bacon

Brick oven pretzel with smoked peanut butter and bacon

The tavern’s equivalent of an antipasto plate is its smorgasbord of bar snacks (☆☆☆). Outstanding were the house-made kielbasa, pickled vegetables and onion dip. Not quite so lofty were deviled eggs, pretzel chips and trail mix. Least impressive was an ale cheese that seemed curiously bland. Sliced apple and Rainier cherries completed the snacks.

Smorgasbord of bar snacks

Smorgasbord of bar snacks

It’s not clear why Douglas doesn’t offer fried chicken every day. It could be that the kitchen would be overwhelmed by orders on any other day but Sunday. The chicken is that good (☆☆☆☆). The flesh is supremely moist, encased in a perfectly seasoned and crunchy batter that hints of herbs. My first bite released juices that ran down my fingers and onto the plate. The sides changing seasonally, tonight were served (in Southern style) waffles, grilled corn and watermelon. The waffles were almost the chicken’s equal (☆☆☆½), studded with bits of bacon. The corn was blackened too much for my health-conscious comfort but tasty nonetheless, and I will probably not have a juicier melon all year.

Buttermilk fried chicken dinner

Buttermilk fried chicken dinner

Brave Horse Tavern can accommodate lots of people. The interior space is huge, filled with long tables for communal dining. We were the only ones at our table, and we would have enjoyed our own “space” just as much dining al fresco at individual round tables outside. There have been complaints about the extraordinary noise levels when the place is packed and even shouting at your companion is not a guarantee of being heard. Shuffleboards and darts, not to mention beers and plenty of good noshes, encourage customers to hang loose. You must be 21+ years old to enter. This is a fun tavern and another win for Tom Douglas.

Related posts of other Tom Douglas restaurants

Brave Horse Tavern
310 Terry Ave N
Seattle, WA 98109

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Late Lunch at Harmon Brewery (Tacoma, WA)

After the high-calorie dim sum meal at Jade Garden this morning, we weren’t very hungry even in mid-afternoon. We walked up and down Pacific Avenue during a respite from the Washington State History Museum to find a place to have a quick bite. Nothing appealed to us until we came across Harmon Brewery that was about to offer happy hour in just a few minutes (3pm).


The happy hour menu advertised all Harmon beers and house wines for $3 and a range of nibbles from salads, nachos, sandwiches and more.

The brewery crafts several styles of beer, including the Expedition Amber Ale that I ordered. It was hoppy, smooth and amber-colored, a pretty good brewski.

We split a Caesar salad and, get this, BONELESS chicken wings. The salad was serviceable (☆☆½), not particularly memorable. Recently, my wife read or overheard somewhere that young adults nowadays don’t like handling chicken wing bones. Really? Heaven knows, there are plenty of young adults at UW Tacoma next door. This no doubt was the impetus for inventing this hybrid thing called boneless chicken wings. The “wings” were actually something akin to chicken tenders made into wing shapes, battered and fried. Chicken skin, which may be another reason why some people may shun them, was nowhere in sight or bite. But the batter was generous and, to the restaurant’s credit, quite crunchy. The buffalo wings we ordered were nicely slathered with, not Tabasco, but probably the milder Frank’s hot sauce. When all was said and done, whatever-you-want-to-call them were pretty good (☆☆☆) if you don’t think of them as real wings. I was pleasantly surprised.

Caesar salad

Caesar salad

Boneless buffalo chicken wings

Boneless buffalo chicken wings

Harmon Brewery
1938 Pacific Ave S
Tacoma, WA 98402

Lunch at Elliott Bay Brewery and Pub (Seattle)

After 4 hours of trekking in warm and humid weather on our urban walk in West Seattle, I was ready for a cold beer. Already 2:00 in the afternoon, we hadn’t yet had lunch, actually nothing since breakfast at Marination Ma Kai at 9am. It wasn’t that we were hungry so much as we needed some refreshment. Elliott Bay Brewery and Pub was recommended by the proprietor of a kids’ clothing consignment store as a good place for a meal, located in an area called West Seattle Junction where many shops and restaurants do business.

Like many taverns, Elliott Bay is dark. Even at 2pm, there were a good number of customers. To the brewery’s credit, it manufactures seven certified-organic beers, all of which were on tap. The gold medal-winning Alembic Pale Ale was a solid brew, their best-selling beer. My No Doubt Stout was dark and smooth with a pronounced coffee flavor.

For lunch, the Luna Weizen Calamari (☆½) was a clear failure. Not only did the batter not adhere, but the calamari itself was not fried quite enough, just past raw, and was not seasoned at all. Normally, well-made fried calamari tastes good on its own, but frequent dipping in the lemon and chipotle aiolis was necessary to give them some semblance of flavor. These were among the worst calamari I can recall ever having had.

Luna Weizen Calamari

Luna Weizen Calamari

On the other hand, my wife’s Tomato Parmesan Soup (☆☆☆½) that was part of the soup and sandwich special was very good. The special salmon sandwich (☆☆) suffered from less than fresh fish, probably previously frozen,  and like the calamari, it was unseasoned, served with cucumber and red onion.

Elliott Bay Brewery and Pub
4720 California Ave. SW
Seattle, WA 98116

Lunch at El Bruno’s (Cuba, NM)

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

Having just left Chaco, where the night before all we had to eat was freeze-dried food and this morning, coffee and nut bars, we were ready for some real food. Luckily for us, one of the legendary restaurants in New Mexico happened to be in Cuba, less than 2 hours away, and on the way to our next destination, Taos.

Cuba is a small town at the intersection of Hwys 126 and 550. El Bruno’s is almost at that junction. It has steadily gained quite a reputation for serving some of the best Mexican/Southwestern food in all of New Mexico. Success has been such that a branch has opened in Albuquerque, which no doubt pleases the restaurant’s fans who live there.

One of the most admired dishes at El Bruno is the carne adovada. I ordered it for lunch and it was great, just great (☆☆☆☆). Not only did it have a deep taste of dried red chiles but it also had the tang of lime juice. It was the first adovada on our trip. The Mexican rice was not as impressive, being on the mushy side.

Sopaipilla stuffed with beef and vegies

Sopaipilla stuffed with beef and vegies

A cold Modelo Especial in a salt-rimmed glass really hit the spot. The salsa (☆☆☆☆) served with the chips was extraordinary. It was thick, tomatoey and spicy, had great chile flavor. It was so good I purchased a jar of it on the way out.

Chips and salsa (and what a salsa!)

Chips and salsa (and what a salsa!)

El Bruno is a great restaurant in a small town. Outside seating has a lot of atmosphere and should be the dining spot of choice.

El Bruno
6453 Highway 550 Main St.
Cuba, NM 87013

Zion Pizza & Noodle Company (Springdale, UT)

Combo Pizza

This is our second time at Zion Pizza & Noodle Company; the first time was in 2008. Pizzas here are pretty good, the dough thicker than we prefer. Our Combo Pizza of tomato sauce, pepperoni, black olives, onions, mushrooms, Canadian bacon, and two kinds of cheese really hit the spot after a long day. You can have your pizza in the Beer Garden in back.

And there are plenty of brewskis, both on tap and in bottles. Utah beers, a term that invites oxymoronic humor, are featured. I still love Polygamy Porter if for no other reason than its motto that offends some people, “Why just have one?” It’s pretty good beer.

Zion Pizza & Noodle Company
868 Zion Park Boulevard
Springdale, UT 84767
Link to menus

Kona Brewing Company (Honolulu, HI)

On our way to southeast Oahu and the North Shore, we stopped at Kona Brewing Company, a restaurant that serves food and the beers made on the Big Island, which the staff affectionately calls the “Mother Ship.” One of their distinctive brews is the Pipeline Porter (available on the mainland), a smooth and dark beer blended with Kona coffee. The Longboard Island Lager (also available on the mainland) is smooth and slightly spicy, a great all-around beer. Another interesting one is Wailua Wheat, which contains lilikoi. At the restaurant, all their beers are on tap.

One good way to taste their beers available only on-tap is to purchase a flight, a sample of four 4-ounce glassfuls, which you can select. Our flight consisted of Black Sand Porter (very dark, bitter, chocolatey, roasty), Duke’s Blond Ale (light, crisp), Lavaman Red Ale (caramel, orange-red in color, malty), and Wailua Wheat (medium, slightly sweet, passion fruit, tangy).

This is a great place to stop before or after visiting southeast Oahu.

Kona Brewing Company (Koko Marina Shopping Center)
7192 Kalaniana’ole Highway
Inside Hawaii Kai, waterside