Spruce has been a plant I have long wanted to explore in herbal brewing, and back in November of last year I finally tried it out. Winter Sprucer the 1st turned out well (extremely well for a first try actually) but was not as authentically ‘sprucy’ as I had hoped and so I decided to give it another shot, this time complimenting the spruce with some well chosen conventional hop varieties.If you are interested in reading about my first attempt at a spruce beer (which also featured chamomile blossoms and no hops whatsoever) then you can read about that right here on Beers for Breakfast, although pretty much all of the ethnobotanical information that I have included in this post is directly taken from my earlier article because there isn’t much of a point in me reiterating the same information using different words.
Spruce has a rich history of being a flavouring and preservative in beer for hundreds if not thousands of years throughout the northern temperate regions of the world. In Europe, the young shoots and cones of the Norway spruce (Picea abies) were boiled down into a thick paste, resembling malt syrup. This extract, also known as spruce essence, could be stored throughout the year and used to make beer. Some even enjoyed pouring it over pancakes as a substitute for maple syrup, although the flavor of straight up spruce essence is likely to be much too strong for most modern palates. In North America, the shoots of black spruce (P. mariana) and the eastern red spruce (Picea rubens) were favored, even though the apparently foul-tasting white spruce (P. glauca) is relatively more common and widely distributed.
The fresh spring shoots were favoured for brewing, and to a lesser degree the young cones that mature throughout the summer. These tender parts of the plant contain high concentrations of vitamin C, resin and turpentine which are responsible for the characteristic pungent scent of spruce and other closely related conifers. Spruce beer was usually brewed for the sole purpose of being a winter tonic. The high vitamin C content was very much needed during the winter months to prevent scurvy from a lack of fresh fruit or vegetables. Although this is not usually much of a problem facing people today, it was a real conundrum in centuries past before the widespread transportation of fresh or adequately preserved produce was made possible. Additionally, spruce beer was also consumed as an astringent, stimulant and restorative that helped keep the body clean and to purify itself during the sometimes monotonous diets of winter and early spring.
I collected the young shoots of a Colorado blue spruce (P. pungens) earlier this year when they were available, weighted them out and froze them immediately to preserve their flavor and medicinal properties. P. pungens is a particularly strong scented species, and it is also one of the most common spruces if you live in a city; it’s hard to find a yard on residential block that does not have one of these vividly blue spruces planted. Figured I might as well use the spruciest of the spruces. I decided to compliment the spruce, which will give the beer a resinous, citrusy flavor, with Simcoe and Pacifica hops which have woodsy, spicy and piney notes and well-rounded bittering qualities. Only time will tell if I made the correct pairings.
4 gallons filtered water
1 kg (approx. 2.2 lbs.) dry light barley malt extract
1/2 L both liquid light barley malt extract & liquid amber barley malt extract
2 ounces vacuum sealed pelleted Simcoe hops
1 ounce vacuum sealed pelleted Pacifica hops
10 ounces flash frozen young Picea pungens tips (from early June 2014)
1) bring approx. 1 – 1.5 gallons of water to a boil.
2) remove from heat and stir in all of the malt extract until it is completely dissolved. Bring back up to a boil.
3) Once boiling, add 6 ounces of the spruce tips and 1 ounce Simcoe hops. Stir to incorporate and stir occasionally throughout the boil. Set timer to 60 minutes.
4) With 15 minutes remaining in the boil, add 3 more ounces of the spruce tips and half an ounce of Pacifica hops. Stir to incorporate.
5) With 10 minutes remaining, add half an ounce of both Simcoe and Pacifica hops. Stir to incorporate.
6) When the boil if finished, remove the brew pot from the heat source and add the last remaining once of spruce tips and the last half ounce of Simcoe hops.
7) Allow wort to cool to at least 100°F before pouring and straining into fermenter.
8) Add enough cool, fresh water to bring up the total volume to 4 gallons. Pitch yeast, insert airlock, agitate carboy and allow to ferment, approx. 1 week.