A favorite of mine since 2017 is Alaskan Brewing Company’s Spruce IPA. I love spruce beers. Not everyone does, but spruce is a favorite ingredient in specialty beers for me. Like most everyone else, I enjoy a good IPA, so this style combination is a winner.
Spruce is a coniferous evergreen tree that’s not unique to, but really prevalent in northern climes. It’s symbolic to me because I live within a lot of it when I’m down in Hope and see it everywhere else I go up here. Spruce has a unique look, feel and smell and it makes me feel at home when I’m around it.
The use of spruce in beer is nothing new. It’s been used for centuries, but Alaska beer lovers and historians are fond of giving explorer Captain James Cook credit for going ashore in what is now Cook Inlet to harvest spruce tips because — in addition to flavoring beer — spruce tips are rich in vitamin C which helped ward off scurvy during long ocean voyages when citrus fruits were scarce or unavailable for long periods of times.
It was actually French explorer Jacques Cartier, who when exploring the St. Lawrence River in 1536 used spruce tips in tea for the same preventative measures. Who cares? History’s boring, but spruce beer is exciting and damned fine when it’s done right.
As a homebrewer, I made a spruce beer once. It didn’t turn out very well. I didn’t do my homework and rather just walked out into my back yard and started plucking the lively looking buds right off the tree, musing to myself that the reminded me a lot of compressed hops. That worked for me. It didn’t for the beer, which came out tasting like a combination of tree sap and solvent.
That doesn’t say much about my homebrewing skills or experience, but it does point to the inherent complexity in spruce tip selection and harvesting. Alaskan Brewing Company’s Communications Manager Andy Kline chuckled at my experiment. “The two types of spruce tips that work best in beer are the Sitka and White Spruce varieties,” he explained. “The black spruce in your backyard produces a much more pitchy and piney flavor profile. That’s why the abundance of Sitka spruce in our area down here are perfectly suited for spruce flavored beers.”
He’s right all the way around. Sitka spruce tips provide a more delicate, lemony, slightly bubble-gummy flavor instead of the pine and resin profiles produced in other varieties. And it’s not just the type of spruce tips; what they produce in flavor and aroma depends on climate and the time that the tips are harvested. “The spruce tips are different every year. It’s the weather and climate difference every year; sort of like tree ring growth,” explains Kline. “If there’s lots of rain, the flavor might not be as intense and more berry characteristics come out. So, if it’s dry or wet, or if it’s an early or late harvest, it can vary from year to year. We typically blend one year’s hops with another’s for some consistency.”
Alaskan Spruce IPA isn’t Alaskan Brewing Company’s first beer to use the delicate buds to add a uniquely Alaskan twist to beer. “We actually brewed Old Growth Barleywine somewhere back around 1994,” says Kline. He points to co-founder Geoff Larson’s dabbling in the alchemy of spruce infusion and his research into a local ingredient that represents our state so well.
“Geoff made Old Growth because of the inspiration of a local homebrewer. The brewer told him ‘you should use this name. Use some locally harvest components in it.’ Geoff experimented with using spruce extract, but found it to be unlikable because it was piney and harsh. This is where he discovered the local spruce tips with their berry and lemony quality,” says Kline.
Geoff and Marcy Larson have a cabin in nearby Gustavus to the west of Juneau, the home of Alaskan Brewing Company. “They happened to be at the cabin and started picking Sitka spruce tips there,” says Kline.
Next to come along is the incredibly noteworthy and long-standing Alaskan Winter Ale. It first came out in 1998. It’s another all-time favorite of mine. I get at least a case of it every year and drink some and save some to see how it changes a year or so later. I try to pick out the nuances in the spruce harvest and how it influences the beer every year.
Alaskan Winter and Alaskan Spruce IPA are distinctly different beers. Where the spruce complements and accentuates the malt profile in the winter beer, by design, the spruce tips used in the spruce IPA work with the Chinook, Citra and Sultana hops to bring out the best of both worlds.
“The cool thing is that this was inspired by research by our QA lab about the flavor components in the spruce tips. There are a lot of similarities between spruce tips and hops. The results were handed off to our brewers who looked at them and tried to align the hop characteristics with characteristics in the tips. With the winter ale, we’ve always tried to use hops that brought out the sweet berry essence. With the IPA we are accentuating the hops,” says Kline.
But it’s about a lot more than that, too.
“The Spruce IPA also comes from a real directive from Geoff that we need to make sure that when we are brewing beers at Alaskan, we keep in mind local ingredients. We are a place-based brewery and when we can represent Alaska in our beers, it says a lot about us, our brewery and our state,” says Kline. “And, it’s not just that the Sitka spruce tips are a local ingredient. Sitka spruce tips are a natural ingredient, they are wild harvested and they come from our own nearby forests where local community members turn out to participate in the harvest,” he says.
Alaskan Brewing Company doesn’t go over to Gustavus and direct or participate in the harvest. After Geoff and Marcy started a more concentrated harvesting effort to support early small batch spruce beers, it caught on and neighbors and friends came out to help. “The neighbors relayed back that it was awesome and fun. It started out small and families would go out in the spring and do the picking and it sort of morphed on its own,” says Kline. “It’s become somewhat of a community event.”
There’s a fish processor over there called Pep’s Packing and the tips are brought to them where they are packaged in clean fish totes and sent to Alaskan. “We get between five and 10 thousand pounds every year,” says Kline.
The beer’s good in my opinion, but you don’t need to take my word for it. In the three years the seasonal beer has been released, it’s earned six medals, including taking the gold at the prestigious World beer Cut, the Pacific Northwest’s Best of Craft Beer Awards and at the U.S. Open Beer Championship.
Here’s a tip: get it while you can.
“It’s a seasonal beer with a pretty short run. It will be around until March, then it will sell out,” says Kline. This beer is designed to be consumed fresh; unlike the winter ale, it doesn’t have the staying power to be laid down for future consumption, due to the delicacy of the hops. Alaskan Spruce IPA is a true taste of Alaska, get some while it’s still around.