Why shouldn't beer taste like Christmas morning?
Image by the author.
I expected Pine-Sol. Pine-Sol, or maybe that cloying pine scent that car air freshener companies seem to think people like. But it wasn’t that. Not at all. My first spruce tip ale was juicy and melony. It was bright and citrusy. It was the smell of Christmas mornings. It was delicious.
I’d never heard of a spruce ale before road-tripping (and ferry-hopping) up the British Columbian and Alaskan coast this summer. At Vancouver’s Postmark Brewing tap room, I actively avoided the stuff. But by the time I’d reached Vancouver Island’s Tofino Brewing Co near the famed sea-meets-rainforest Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, my curiosity had gotten the best of me.
Tofino Brewing Co’s spruce tips are harvested from the sitka spruce which literally blankets the island. “It’s one of our most popular seasonals. It’s one of those beers that’s a little bit surprising,” says the brewery’s sales and distribution manager Heidi Fifield. I took as many bottles as I could carry to go.
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Heading north out of Tofino, it was sitka spruce as far as the eye could see, but I had to hit Alaska before I’d find another spruce ale. In Ketchikan and Juneau, Alaskan Brewing Company’s Spruce IPA was everywhere and I drank it all: at the gritty 1930s marina-side dive The Potlatch and while listening to bluegrass at the longest operating hotel and bar in the state, the Alaskan. In the historic gold-rush town of Skagway, the Skagway Brewing Company’s Spruce Tip Ale kept me busy as the midnight sun burned late into the night.
So had these Canadian craft breweries just been experimenting with local resources and stumbled upon something amazing? I mean, if there’s one thing Canada has in spades, it’s spruce trees. But it turns out brewing with spruce tips is a North American tradition that dates back at least 500 years.
Back before hops became the go-to for bittering and flavoring beer, beers in North America were gruits—ales seasoned with herbs like yarrow, mugwort, and horehound, the kind of flavors that peaked in popularity in the colonial era for good reason. In the northeastern U.S. and Canada, brewers added pine needles from local red and black spruce trees to their ales. On the extreme Pacific Northwest coast, it was sitka spruce.
As far back as the 16th century, the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence River region of Canada gave Vitamin C-starved Europeans advice for warding off scurvy—boil spruce needles, strain, and drink. By the 18 th century, the British Royal Navy was brewing spruce ales during their explorations of the North American coast. Even Benjamin Franklin was in on the spruce ale brewing game: A variation of his original recipe still lives on in Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Co’s Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale.
In general, though, today’s spruce beers only slightly resemble those of yore. “A lot of the colonial ale recipes call for only spruce, no hops, which would be really challenging for the American palate,” says Randy Schnose, owner of Spruce on Tap, a company that harvests and sells Colorado blue spruce and Engelmann spruce tips to brewers and chefs. Most modern spruce beer makers add the tender shoots of the pine to already-hopped beer during the final conditioning phase, so the flavor ends up light, not overwhelming.
When you’re that far north, there’s a narrow window each spring to pick new growth from the sitka spruce. Some breweries, like Tofino, use them fresh, putting their Spruce Tree Ale on tap in early summer. Other breweries around the U.S. and Canada use spruce in a Christmasy winter ale like Alaskan Brewing Company’s Winter Ale, or the Cranberry Spruce Juice Ale that Randy Schnose and company brew at their Pagosa Springs, Colorado brewery Riff Raff.
And depending on where you are in North America, spruce ales will taste different. There are over 30 species of spruce and each has a distinct flavor profile. The Colorado blue spruce is more pungent, says Schnose. “It offers a very strong potent characteristic. Sitka is a much softer characteristic.”
Back in California where spruce tip ale has yet to make an appearance in any of my local craft breweries, the scent of Christmas trees haunts me. Sure, they’re nice to look at, but it’s hard to see spruce trees the same way once you know that they are so much more than their looks. Spruce trees are meant for something bigger. Something tastier. Something with alcohol content.