There are no two ways around it. If you’re using spruce tips in a beer, “they have to be fresh,” says Jack Harris of Oregon’s Fort George Brewery. “You need to pick them just as they are coming out and before they get too long and toughen up and then turn more bitter than flavorful.”
Spruce tips add a delightful combination of pine, citrus, woodsy, green, and even wine grape or red berry that has long been used in beer, sometimes replacing hops. Based in the Pacific Northwest, Harris has always had an affinity for the ingredient and first started using spruce tips when he worked in a brewpub twenty years ago. He says that the best spruce tips come from trees that are ten to fifteen years old. This is important because you’re able to pick them directly from the tree without the use of a ladder and because they are less tough than what you might get on older trees.
Each spring, spruce trees begin to sprout new needles. These are the tips, and they are soft and pliable and a brighter shade of green than the existing needles. If left on the tree, they will eventually harden into the needles we’re more accustomed to with the tree.
When creating a recipe for a beer with spruce tips, Harris says it’s best to go light to help the ingredient really shine. He makes a 5 percent golden ale and adds the spruce at just about every step of the process from the boil to the whirlpool to fermentation. He’s also added them like hops additions during the boil. At his brewery, they’ve installed a hop back–like device specifically for spruce tips for beers such as Spruce Budd and Magnanimous IPA.
“With some ingredients, subtle is king and what you add shouldn’t be the dominant character, but with spruce, I’ve never been able to use too much. The more I add the better and better it gets,” he says.
Since spruce tips have a limited harvest season, Harris has been picking them in the spring, vacuum packing them, and freezing them for use throughout the rest of the year. He’s found no detectable loss of flavor as a result.