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Unloose the Spruce

Easy to forage and easy to use, spruce tips can add a range of flavors to your beers and be used in a variety of ways—and the best time to harvest them is just around the corner.

Josh Weikert Feb 13, 2024 - 13 min read

Unloose the Spruce Primary Image

Photo: Jamie Bogner

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and brewers have embodied this mantra for centuries. For example: Did you know that Captain Cook came ashore on America’s West Coast to make some beer with spruce buds? The ale was a way to help prevent scurvy among his crew as they sailed across the Pacific toward Hawaii. Apparently, his crew were fans of the spruce beers they’d brewed while surveying Newfoundland. They knew its benefits, and when they found good spruce in the Pacific Northwest, they jumped at the chance to stock up for the long voyage.

For our part, we don’t need the nutritional excuse. Instead, we can simply brew it because great spruce beer is delicious.

I realize that many of you might be skeptical. It’s understandable—it’s an unconventional ingredient, and not every spruce beer is great. Over the years, I’ve had a fair few that reeked of Pine-Sol and tasted something like how I imagine a car air freshener might taste. But here’s the good news: It can be surprisingly easy to get good, fresh spruce and other evergreens to flavor your beer, and with some advice from experienced hands, we can make beers that beautifully marry the flavors of spruce with those of the other ingredients.

Give it a try once, and I predict you’ll be sprucing up your beer at least once a year.

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Spruce as an Ingredient

My first use of spruce was, to put it kindly, a disaster. It involved pomegranate, black malt, way too much alcohol, and—I regret to say—spruce extract.

See? Sometimes, this is how we learn. I inflicted some of it on others just to get feedback, and I drank the balance of it myself as a form of penance. The experience was so painful that I don’t think I’ve used any kind of extract since. Yet I remained sold on the idea of spruce as an ingredient, and later attempts would show that it can work beautifully—with the right ingredients and in the right proportions.

Spruce is robust. You can add it at several stages in the brewing process—including mash, boil, whirlpool, and cold side. In fact, spruce is a lot easier to get right than hops. If your climate offers access to evergreens, it’s also easy to source, and it stores easily.

Spruce is also versatile, able to exhibit a wide range of evolving flavors. Trevor Rogers, head brewer at de Garde in Tillamook, Oregon, shares a revelation that he and cofounder Linsey Hamacher Rogers had when brewing with spruce about 12 years ago: “Linsey and I picked more than we needed one spring,” he says. “We didn’t want to waste them, so we vacuum-sealed and froze the remainders for later use. When I opened the bag later, it had the most insane aroma of freshly macerated dark berries.”

Once you start to work with spruce, you’ll quickly see, smell, and taste just how much it can add to your beers, depending on the trees, time of picking, and how and when you add it.

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Searching for Spruce

The first step, of course, is sourcing some spruce tips.

“The best trees are 10 to 15 feet high, where you can get to the limbs,” says Jack Harris, co-owner and brewer at Fort George in Astoria, Oregon. “If you need a ladder, it is too big.” (For a recipe from Harris, see the Fort George Spruce Budd Ale.)

There are other pragmatic aspects of choosing which tips you pick, including preserving the trees for future harvesting. Avoid trees that are too young and try to harvest tips from different parts of the tree. Also, don’t reach too high. “Don’t remove the top tip on the tree,” says Rogers at de Garde. “I’m told that it is important for the tree’s future growth. It can be tempting, as it’s often the largest, but it’s important to forage responsibly.”

It’s best to plan to harvest in the spring. “The best time I’ve found to get spruce buds,” Harris says, “is in mid- to late spring, when the new growth is just emerging from the tree tips.”

Even within that timeframe, it’s worth thinking about just what flavor you hope to get from the spruce. The flavor will change depending on where the tips are in their growth cycle. When freshly grown—when they’re still soft and a vivid light green color—“they have a similarly vibrant aroma and flavor, reminiscent of fresh citrus zest, particularly Meyer lemon,” Rogers says. However, if you harvest later in the spring—when the tips harden and become more “tree-like”—the tips will have taken on sap, and they become correspondingly more piney and “foresty,” Rogers says.

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Obviously, this will be easier for some brewers in particular latitudes and climates. Paul Higgins of the Munich-based Higgins Ale Works notes that being in an alpine or mountainous region means having both plenty of spruce trees and the flexibility to adjust your harvesting time by altitude—because trees higher up the mountain will mature later in the season.

For those in warmer climes without ready access to conifers, it is possible to source spruce tips online. Also, keep your eyes open during the winter holidays. John Stemler, director of brewing operations at Chatty Monks in West Reading, Pennsylvania, shares a story about visiting a big-box garden center before Christmas and buying a balsam fir, which they processed and added to the whirlpool, “in a very big bag,” he says.

The bottom line: There is a wide range of edible—and, therefore, brewable—evergreens from which to choose, even if you don’t have giant Sitka spruces growing in your backyard.

Photo: Jamie Bogner

Recipe Considerations

There’s no single way to use spruce in beer, and different uses lead to different outcomes—one reason why good spruce beers can be so much fun to sample.

The first thing to bear in mind is that, by weight, it’s going to seem like you’re using a lot of tips—on the order of between three to five ounces per gallon. (That’s roughly one to 1.5 pounds for five gallons, or 500 to 700 grams of tips for a 20-liter batch.) I typically recommend using a light hand with herbs and spices, but spruce is different—possibly because the aromas and flavors are both pleasant and beer-adjacent.

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At Fort George, Harris shares some perspective: “I’ve brewed with lots of herbs and spices and always aimed for a subtle touch,” he says. “But with spruce buds, I cannot ever remember thinking we used too many.”
If spruce is your only flavor adjunct and you want it to shine, I recommend a simple grist. The Fort George recipe uses almost exclusively two-row or pilsner malt. For my money, it’s hard to beat a slightly breadier Maris Otter grist, maybe with a touch of light crystal.

If you plan to add hops to complement the spruce, you may not need to use as many tips. Hops can pair beautifully with spruce, but it also depends on the character of your tips—which, again, depends on when you pick them. Younger, fresher tips exhibit little to no pine, but they can kick off a lot of pure citrus aroma—thus, pairing with citrus- or tropical-forward hops can boost those flavors while adding some floral notes. On the other hand, if you want to accentuate a “darker,” more mature spruce flavor, something like Chinook or Simcoe can provide a similar boost.

Stemler at Chatty Monks recommends hops with stone-fruit aroma—think Amarillo, Rakau, Wai-iti—or even additional spices such as cinnamon or cardamom to create a distinct profile. For a more “English” character, I can’t help but recommend Bramling Cross hops—their unique blackberry flavor pairs nicely with both younger and more mature spruce tips.

One more flavor suggestion: If you plan to use the spruce in a darker, more roast-forward beer—anything from schwarzbier to imperial stout—try going dark on your tips, too. The woodsier, more piney and resinous character you can get from more mature tips will stand up to the firm flavors of a roasty flavor profile.

Process Considerations

Storage, preparation, when to add, and how to use tips will all factor into our process choices, but the good news is that spruce tips are a durable and survivable ingredient. In fact, if you’re used to working with hops, you should find spruce tips to be quite user-friendly.

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We’ve discussed harvesting, but you may find that you want to save some tips for later batches or that you’ve harvested more than you can use in a short time. In that case, you can simply freeze your tips. Multiple brewers share the same advice: A vacuum sealer and a freezer will go a long way to preserving the tips’ freshness. (Even without a vacuum seal, a sealable bag with most of the air pressed out will work well enough.) If you do this when they’re fresh, their flavors will hold up surprisingly well.

Processing is minimal. “For preparation, you certainly want to remove any foreign debris and any of the residual brown papery covering,” says Rogers at de Garde. “We don’t do anything other than that, and [we] see great character contribution. I suppose processing them—like coarsely chopping or something along that line—would likely increase the efficiency of use and extraction of character per pound.”

Because of that berry flavor that they once discovered in a previously frozen bag of tips, de Garde always freezes their tips first, and not just for the ones they plan to store longer-term. Rogers says that it yields some interesting flavors, including blueberry and blackberry. “There’s still a pronounced citrusy element, but with a unique new twist,” he says. “So, while it’s a bit strange to take a freshly foraged product and then freeze it, that’s now what we do. It adds an extra element of aromatic character and intensity.”

Your choice of when to add the spruce tips provides a lot of runway for experiments and flavor extraction. As with many Scandinavian farmhouse ales that use juniper, including sahti, adding a layer of tips or even whole branches to the mash is an option. If you’re adding tips to the boil, don’t be afraid to add them early—they’re not hops, so we’re not trying to preserve volatile aroma compounds or worry about isomerization of alpha acids. Spruce’s flavor tends to hold up well in the boil. However, you can also add them to the whirlpool, just as you would hops.

That brings us, ultimately, to “dry-tipping.” Here, I can find no consensus among brewers. Some swear by it, others forswear it. What we’re left with is “try, then trust,” and know that your mileage may vary.

However, here is a solid piece of advice from Rogers: One advantage of using spruce tips on the cold side is that you can assess the intensity of the aroma contribution—and in a natural product, that is helpful because flavors from any given harvest will vary significantly.

The Tipping Point

Ultimately, spruce is a highly versatile ingredient that can add complexity to a range of beers.

Whether you’re going all-in on a spruce-heavy single-malt beer, brightening up a standard, or aiming for a headier winter beer, spruce is a high-reward and low-risk addition. So, leave the extract on the shelf, get out into the woods, do some responsible foraging, and you’ll be able to add a whole new dimension to your beers in this season, or any season.

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