Spruce up your Beer May 03, 2016 14:10

Long before we cultivated hops and bred them to create every conceivable flavor and aroma under the sun, brewers used a wide variety of other ingredients to balance the sweetness of malt. There have been too many non-hop bittering agents used throughout time to list here, but if you want to read more about them, check out a book such as Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. We even stock a beer kit made with no hops - Not-so-Wee Heavy Scottish Ale, an 80-schilling ale made with heather tips. It’s a good beer and you should check it out, but I am wandering off course.

Among the more popular “other” ingredients to use in beer, spruce tips have long been a favorite. You are probably going to see a handful of beers made with spruce advertised here and there throughout the spring and summer. Sometimes these beers have a pleasant evergreen character - that is, it tastes like a spruce tree smells, which is great -, but they can also be overwhelming and even feature a sticky mouthfeel. Why? Because brewing with spruce is a crapshoot just like anything else you harvest and throw in beer. Here are my suggestions for a successful spruce beer:

Cut new growth!
    • The best flavor and aroma comes from new growth. As with all ingredients, fresh is best. (Though you can freeze tips; I have done this with success.) Using old branches will be like using a KD 2x4.

     Don’t worry about the season.

      • Traditional brewing knowledge says you should cut new growth in the spring, but it doesn’t really matter. I generally gather spruce in November to make a pilsner. Works great.

       Don’t cut on someone else’s property without permission!

        • Possibly illegal, definitely rude. Definitely might get shot.

         For real, just new growth.

          • See above.

           Use flavor extract instead.

            • This is the safest way to get a nice spruce flavor, but definitely less fun and adventurous.

             Do pasteurize it.

              • Rinse off the bugs and maybe give it a quick dip in some Star San.

               Don’t boil it.

                • Spruce tips are not hops. Conventional wisdom, and many traditional recipes, calls for spruce to be boiled as you would a hop addition. In an ideal world, I would have some recommendation that will work for most homebrewers. Alas, the world is not perfect. A local pro-brewer and smart guy - I don’t know if he wants to be revealed, but I will say his name has something to do with trees - gave me a lengthy lesson on why you should not boil spruce tips, but we were at Nocturnem and I forgot the bulk of the talk. In short, he reminded me, “The main thing is you're going to extract tannins, like when tea is boiled or steeped too hot. Astringent polyphenolics.” He suggests steeping spruce tips closer to 160 degrees to get desirable flavor and aroma without pulling tannins. This is great - if you have a way to do it. Steeping with the grains may work, but the temp is a bit low. Using a Hop Rocket filled with spruce would be a good idea. Another option is to make a spruce tea - steep your spruce tips as long as you want at about 160 degrees and add the product sometime after the boil. A final option - and what I do - is to add the tips at the very end of the boil. I have added spruce for the last 5 minutes, and recently tried the addition in the whirlpool. I have been very happy with the results.

                 Bitter with hops; flavor with spruce.

                • Like Sammy says, it’s the best of both worlds! This is the modern world; all you have to do is mix in a little of the old world.

                 Less is more.

                  • My recommended dosage is 2oz. or less for a light beer. You can probably get away with more in a higher alcohol or dark beer.

                   Don’t expect consistency.

                    • Growing conditions are different every year and the quality of the spruce will vary. If you want consistency, use extract. Otherwise, relax and enjoy the process!