Story last updated at 6/4/2014 - 3:06 pm
I like spruce beer. Some drinkers think it sucks, and I understand that.
Drinking a beer that tastes like a pine tree takes some getting accustomed to. At the very least, it's interesting stuff both historically and across the palate. Now is the time of year when many of our craft breweries and quite a few homebrewers start the annual tradition of gathering the spruce tips during prime picking season. This season obviously varies across our vast state, but pickers are in high gear chasing the green stuff down.
My first introduction to spruce tip beer happened years ago when one of my formative annual darlings, Anchor Brewing Company's Our Special Ale, featured the flavor in some of its offerings. I can't say I was smitten because back then, I didn't know what I was drinking or what was contributing to the interesting, swirling flavors. It wasn't until I got to Alaska and got a little more serious about understanding what I was drinking that my appreciation for the stuff budded.
Although original recipes for the style outdate the trees themselves, the style has come along way as beer has matured and local brewers are better able to control their ingredients and batch consistency. This is good news for funky beer lovers like me.
Southeast Alaska is home to massive amounts of spruce trees, and the only thing that holds brewers back from making tons of delicious spruce beer is the ability to get out there and pick the spruce tips in sufficient quantity. The tips have to be picked at just the right time, and getting enough to support year-round production is virtually out of the question. It's a manual process, and the tips are meticulously picked one by one.
Given the different types of spruce tips, spruce beer can range from pine-like through juniper-like and even Juicy Fruit gum-like, which is my favorite interpretation.
My next exposure to the style came when I discovered Alaskan Brewing Company's Winter Ale, another beer spiced with the substance. The contribution is subtle, but defining. The beer debuted in 2000 and has been produced annually ever since.
"The spruce tips harvest for this beer is an annual early summer ritual for the community of Gustavus, Alaska," says Alaskan co-Founder Geoff Larson. "It seems like the whole community turns out, and all of the tips are picked in a period of just a few days so we get them in the peak of their delicate flavor," he said in a product description provided to me when I asked about the beer.
Haines Brewing Company is another forerunner in the style. Brewer Paul Wheeler has been producing his annual Spruce Tip Ale since I can remember, capitalizing on local Sitka Spruce tips. And, like most other breweries, the Haines staff depends on volunteers to harvest the goods. According to the brewery's Jeanne Wheeler Kitayama, "folks gather the tips after coming in for 'training' to be sure they pick what Paul wants," she said.
The bulk of the tips come from the crew out at Glacier Point who live there during the tour season, guiding tourists up to Davidson Glacier," she said. I wonder what the tourists think when they see people moving in and out of the trees plucking the tips. I'm sure they chalk it up to more of the strange rituals Alaska's famous for.
This beer is not regularly distributed, but at least we get a dose of it here in Southcentral when the Wheelers make the 770-mile trek to the January Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival. I'm always one of the first in line. I'm not alone in my love for the brew. "It's our best-selling style," said Kitayama.
Kodiak Island Brewing Company has a slightly different twist. Brewer/owner Ben Millstein's Island Trails Spruce Tip Wheat Wine is a heady concoction that features local Sitka spruce tips to augment a strong wheat-based beer that weighs in at a hefty 12 percent alcohol by volume this year. And, some of the proceeds of the beer go to a good cause.
"It's a fundraiser beer for the Island Trails Network, so some of their supporters bring in the spruce tips," says Millstein. Millstein adds a total of 30 pounds of spruce tips at two different times in the last 10 minutes of brewing process when he makes about eight barrels (240-gallons) of the stuff.
Kodiak Island Brewing Company is another brewery that doesn't distribute very far, and this is another beer I clamor for when it occasionally shows up here at the annual festival. Every year's batch is a little bit different, so I never know what to expect, but that's half the fun of it. "Spruce has a fruity flavor and aroma which becomes fairly prominent in this strong and smooth, but delicate wheat wine," said Millstein.
Millstein is another brewer that wouldn't mind making more of this stuff throughout the year and would even like to expand the use of spruce tips by trying them in other beers. "I'm looking forward to brewing a spruce tip IPA, but we haven't been able to gather enough spruce tips yet," he said.
I was really jazzed when the Baranof Island Brewing Company of Sitka attended the annual beer festival here and brought along their version of a spruce tip beer. Kodiak Island didn't bring one along that year, so it was a mad rush for me back and forth between the Baranof Island and Haines booths trying to figure out which one I liked best. In the end, I decided I liked them both equally, but for different reasons.
"The harvest started last week," said Baranof owner Rick Armstrong about this year's version. Baranof's procurement technique also includes using others to bring the spruce tips to the brewery. "We pay for the tips by the pound, and lots of townfolk bring them in. It's becoming a family-friendly event and the kids that come in with their parents usually buy a root beer with their funds," said Armstrong. Here's another example where the interweaving of a brewery within a small community is apparent.
"We put them in vacuum seal bags and have one of the local fish processors seal them for us then we freeze them," said Armstrong of plans for use beyond the annual batch. "We're up to about 500 pounds as of today and hoping for 2,000 pounds," he says.
Although we get Baranof beers up here in Anchorage, this one's not likely to show up because it's not a beer the brewery regularly packages. Baranof's is one of my favorites because it delivers that mouth-popping, Juicy Fruit gum flavor I'm so fond of.
You're in the thick of it down there in Southeast, so keep your mugs ready for your fill of one of the more unique styles that our Alaska craft breweries have to offer.