Nick Carr on February 2, 2018 3 Comments What Do You Want To Learn About? Choose your adventure below. History Brewing 1536: Early Use 1757: French & Indian War 1772: Captain Cook Spruce Beer & Colonial Times Popularized in Cookbooks Ben Franklin’s Recipe Spruce & The Craft Beer Movement General Characteristics Common Species To Use Foraging & Harvesting Availability Aroma Expectations How to Use Spruce Tips Common Beer Styles The History of Brewing With Spruce It might surprise many just how far back the use of evergreen trees in beer extends. “Ancient Scandinavians and their Viking descendants brewed beer from young shoots of Norway spruce,” according to the Oxford University Press, making this, perhaps, the oldest known reference to the use of spruce in beer. The use of Spruce is also referenced in Rune XX of the ancient Finnish epic Kalevala, when a white squirrel is sent to collect cones from the fir tree and twigs from the pine. These are then added to Ilmarinen’s wedding brew in an attempt to start fermentation. 1536: The Early Use of Indigenous Ingredients During the early exploration of North America, the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier and a party of 110 men spent the winter of 1536 in Quebec. Almost all of his men came down with “Scorbut” (scurvy). It was only through assistance from the Iroquois Indians that any of them survived. The Iroquois showed them how to make a tea from the bark and leaves of a certain tree which was boiled and administered to Cartier’s men twice a day. Within six days the crew quickly recovered. A more detailed account of the encounter and subsequent cure can be found on pages 87 and 88 of The Mariner of St. Malo by Stephen Leacock. It is hard to know exactly what species of tree was used in the curing of Cartier’s men. Many references, including the one listed above, say it was likely a white spruce (Picea glauca), but it also could have been a cypress or other evergreen, rather than a spruce. Whatever tree was used, it is one of the first documented uses of indigenous medicine in North America, and likely drew attention to the high vitamin C content and other healthful properties of evergreen trees. 1757: Spruce Beer During the French & Indian War This knowledge was used by the British Army in North America during the French and Indian War. John Knox references the making, distribution, and cost of spruce beer throughout the journal he kept during the time. He even talks of a regulation made by the Earl of Loudon stating that each man should get two quarts per day at a cost of seven pence. He also talks briefly of its brewing: “It is made of the tops and branches of the Spruss-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into cask, with a certain quantity of molasses; and, as soon as cold, is fit to use.” The Conifer Question: Did Spruce Beer Cure Scurvy? Spruce beer would continue to be important to the British, French, and American armies. Whether the beer can truly prevent scurvy, at least owing only to vitamin C content, has been long debated. On page 40 of the book, A Social History of Medicines in the Twentieth Century, John Crellin and Dennis Worthen sight a study showing that almost none of the vitamin C found in spruce remained after fermentation. They gather from this that only when spruce beer was prepared by infusion of spruce tops in already fermented beer might the vitamin C remain. However, another study titled “Arginine, scurvy and Cartier’s tree of life“, gives evidence that, along with vitamin C, there may have been other properties at work, such as “arginine, proline, and guanidino compounds” these “would have provided additional nutritional benefits for the rapid recovery from scurvy by vitamin C when food supply was limited.” Add to this the fact that the sterilized beer was, no doubt, “safer to drink than water or similar beverages,” and there is little disputing the beneficial role that spruce beer played. 1772-1775: Captain Cook Brews Spruce For Second Voyage Captain James Cook was another seafaring explorer who also made spruce beer. During his second voyage, between 1772 and 1775, Cook and his crew brewed spruce beer in New Zealand. His version included molasses, as most recipes of the time period seemed to, but it also included cuttings from Manuka (Tea) tree (Leptospermum scoparium). A detailed description of his process can be read here. Cook seems to have endeavored to make spruce beer available to his men throughout his explorations, and he owes its presence to the rare occurrence of scurvy among his crews. Other Historical Mentions: The Swedish-Finnish botanist Pehr Kalm, who traveled through parts of upper North America between 1748 and 1751, wrote an in-depth description (PDF) of the making of spruce beer. J. Claudius Loudon also describes the process in some detail his 1838 book, The Trees and Shrubs of Britain. The Rise of Spruce Beer During Colonial Times Spruce beer was popular in Britain for a time, and it continued to enjoy popularity throughout America well into the 19th century. Part of its popularity in the Americas was due to the fact that brewing ingredients were hard to come by. Some domestic barley and hops (of course there were some wild hops, too) were grown in colonial America, but yields were often low and the quality not ideal, so these ingredients were still largely imported from Britain, making them very expensive. In the face of this scarcity and expense, early American brewers turned to local ingredients. Squash (including pumpkins), persimmons, parsnips, corn, and molasses were all used as sugar sources in brewing. While, spruce often took the place of hops. Colonial Cookbooks Often Featured Spruce Recipes Many old cookbooks contain brief recipes for its making. Amelia Simmons’ 1798 cookbook, American Cookery, contains a recipe for spruce beer on page 48, which states: “Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in on gallon of water, strain the hop water then add sixteen gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissolved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off the bottle , add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.” Note: The next recipe in her book is how to make Emptins, which is not unlike a sourdough starter. It was leavening made at home from potatoes or hops. Ben Franklin’s Recipe for Spruce Beer In his book, Beer in America: The Early Years 1587-1840, author Gregg Smith includes Ben Franklin’s own recipe for spruce beer from around 1783. Interestingly, the author suggests Franklin brought the recipe back from Paris. “For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one Pot of Essence [of Spruce] and 13 pounds of Molasses.- or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water; Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.” Craft Brewing & The Modern Day Use of Spruce Today, spruce has, once again, found a small amount of popularity among brewers. Yards Brewing makes a year-round spruce ale based on Ben Franklin’s recipe, and the Wigram Brewing Company in New Zealand makes one based on Cook’s recipe, including tea tree and all. It is always fun retracing our brewing past, and spruce is one ingredient that not only connects us with history, but may also offer the possibility of some health benefits, too. Brewing Beer With Spruce: What You Should Know Before You Start Below, we have put together a guide on everything you need to know if you’re wanting to brew your own beer using spruce. It may not be the most conventional ingredient found in beer, but it does have the ability to impart all sorts of interesting characteristics to a recipe. General Characteristics Soil Generally acidic with good drainage. Hardiness Zone Varies a bit, but somewhere in the range of Zone 2 to 7. Maturity / Size This will also very between species; the Blue Spruce can be from 50 to 75 feet tall at full maturity, with a circumference of 10 to 20 feet. Growth Rate Depends on the species of spruce. Ease of Harvest Easy. Storage Pack well, if possible vacuum seal, and freeze. Vacuum sealed, frozen spruce tips can last at least a year. Without vacuum sealing the time may be a little less. Getting Started First, you have to decide what type of spruce you’re going to use. There are many species that are commonly associated with beer. Most brewers will likely prefer to find a local flavor. But, spruce doesn’t grow everywhere, so you may have to find another option. The best way to pick a spruce that will grow in your area is to talk to a local plant nursery. They will be able to point you toward the likeliest candidates that grow in your area. Colorado Blue Spruce is probably the most popular species for ornamental planting. Common Species for Brewing: Spruce is a type of evergreen coniferous tree. Most species native habitat range is the temperate and boreal regions of the northern hemisphere. There are around 35 different species. Red Spruce (Picea rubens) Norway Spruce (Picea abies) Black Spruce (Picea mariana) Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii) Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) Distinguishing Spruce Needles & Cones Spruce can be confused with both fir and certain pine species. Incidentally, both of these can be used in much the same way as spruce when brewing beer. Spruce trees’ most distinguishing characteristic is their stiff and sharp needles. They grow individually from the branch not in clusters, like a pine. Fir needles, though they do grow individually from the branch, are pliable, even soft. Pine needles are also longer than either spruce or fir needles. The cones also can be an identifying characteristic. They have flexible, paper-like scales while both fir and pine cones have much more rigid scales. Possible Diseases: There are two diseases to be aware of in spruce, especially if you plan to grow them — Cytospora Canker and Rhizosphaera needle cast. In all cases of disease, it is best not to harvest from the tree. Harvesting will stress further, and you don’t want to harvest infected foliage, so it is best to leave them be, both in your yard and in the wild until they become healthier. New Growth on Spruce Tree When to Forage & Harvest: Whether you are wild foraging for your spruce tips, or harvesting off a tree in your backyard, the time for picking is early spring. You want the new growth tips just as they fully emerge from their brown chaff-like casing. The brown chaff is very bitter, which could be useful if using some of them for a bittering addition, but you won’t want any chaff in the later additions. When new growth needles emerge they are a bright emerald green and much softer then mature needles. This lighter color is easily noticed due to its contrast against the rest of the tree. Always harvest with gratitude and sustainability in mind. Look for a place where the trees are plentiful, especially if you plan to harvest a large quantity, and don’t over-harvest from any one tree. Also, never take the very top new growth off of small trees because this will likely stunt their overall growth. If you plan to use some of your bounty as a bittering addition while brewing, consider gathering a few small branches of the older growth to cut up and add, wood and all, to the brew pot. Bottle of Spruce Essence Availability If you are not in an area where spruce tips are readily available for foraging, it is possible to buy spruce essence and/or spruce tips online. Here’s a good option on Amazon, but you can also find it at many online homebrew supply shops. Who knows, your local homebrew store may even carry it. Because the essence is very powerful and easy to overuse, I’d recommend getting it only as a last option. With the increased popularity of both options, wild/foraged foods and the use of spruce tips in brewing, a few places online do sell the fresh tips. One such source that includes recipes is Spruce On Tap. You could also buy a tea made with spruce tips, or even spruce syrup to use in your brewing adventures. Aroma & Sensory Expectations Spruce imparts a fresh, bright citrus-like pine character to beer. It can bring a floral and fruity character to the nose and can be spritzy and nicely thirst quenching in lighter beer styles. Higher usage may bring flavors reminiscent of cola and will become more pine-like and resinous as usage quantity continues to rise. Common Styles Using Spruce: Saisons Pale Ale & IPAs American Brown & Amber Ales American Stouts & Porters Pilsners Historical Ales Using Spruce Tips While Brewing: Brewing with any ingredient beyond the normal malt, hops, yeast, and water is going to be mostly about experimentation. In the case of spruce, much will ride on whether you’re trying to brew a historical interpretation, or using the spruce as just another ingredient in a modern style. If you are looking to brew a historical example, the next question would be how historical are you making it? Are you going to use hops at all? Or are the spruce tips replacing them? Will you use malt with just enough molasses to check it off as historical and add a bit of flavor? Or will molasses and other sugar sources beyond malt makeup your entire recipe? Use Like Hops You can use spruce tips much like you would use any hop. Add fresh tips, and possibly small cut twigs and branches to pickup more of the earthy bitter resin, to different parts of your boil. Then add fresh spruce tips only, to the end of the boil for aroma additions. Dry-Hopping Alternative You may even try adding them into the fermenter as a dry hopping alternative. Or, thinking of the data showing most of the vitamin C is lost in spruce tips through boil and fermentation, consider adding some tips after fermentation is complete and letting your beer lager on them for a week before bottling. Getting Started With Spruce Tips If this is your first venture into brewing with spruce tips, keep in mind, just like with any other flavor, different people will like different amounts. A good place to start is a simple pale ale recipe with 2 to 4 ounces of spruce tips added between 15 minutes, and flame out. From this first batch, you can shrink or expand the quantities as your taste buds dictate. Again, I’d recommend using the actual parts of a spruce tree, and save the essence as a last resort. I have never used the essence, but from what I’ve read it is way too easy to use way too much. Getting Started With Spruce Essence Of course, if you do use spruce essence just keep this in mind, and undercut the quantity you think you should use. The folks over at SpruceOnTap.com equate 2 tsp. of essence to about 4 ounces of fresh tips, which to me seems a little high, but then I guess they’d know better than me. Just remember, a light hand is the quality of the day when using the stuff. Spruce can bring a fresh, spritzy, thirst-quenching character to lighter beer styles. In darker and/or stronger styles, such as stouts and old ales, spruce imparts a subtler pine and wood quality that can work well with dark malts and alcohol warmth. The only beer I’ve brewed with spruce tips was a stout with molasses added, and it turned out really nice. Sadly, that recipe is lost or I’d add it here.