On Brewing: The ultimate local ingredient gives spruce beers a piney punch

By Eric Peterson | Feb 12, 2019

Brewing & Distilling Consumer & Lifestyle Food & Beverage

The scourge of scurvy isn't cured by citrus alone.

Native North Americans were making beverages with evergreen needles when French explorers showed up in modern-day Canada more than 500 years ago.

Spruce and pine are natural sources of Vitamin C, so the British Royal Navy adopted a non-alcoholic beverage made with molasses and spruce needles as part of its rations at sea.

But it's not just about stopping scurvy in its tracks. In colonial America, alcoholic spruce beer emerged, and numerous breweries have experimented with hopped and unhopped varieties in recent years. Alaskan Brewing Company's Winter Ale is a high-profile example that uses Sitka spruce needles for flavoring.

"It's hard to finish a whole one," says Steve Indrehus, president and director of brewing operations at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs, of Alaskan Winter Ale. "The first sip is 'Wow!' but by the time you're halfway through it, you're done."

When it came time for Tommyknocker to experiment with spruce, he set his sights on a more drinkable beer. Indrehus describes a plan to make a special beer for Loveland Ski Area's 75th anniversary party in 2014.

His first plan involved brewing with snowmelt. "We made a contraption to catch the snowfall and it really didn't snow," says Indrehus. "I had to go up there and come up with something."

He subsequently harvested spruce tips from trees at Loveland and added them to Tommyknocker's Pick Axe Pale Ale to make Pine Bough Pale Ale. The brewery delivered seven kegs to the party.

"A couple days later, they said they needed more," says Indrehus. So Tommyknocker obliged, and the resort's bars went through more than 100 kegs that season. Pine Bough is only available at the resort and Tommyknocker in Idaho Springs.

For the first couple of years, Indrehus harvested the spruce tips at Loveland himself, but now it's a Tommyknocker team effort.

A little goes a long way: Pine Bough soaks two grams of needles per gallon for four days for a "drinkable version of the category," says Indrehus. "It just gives it a nice, fragrant flavor without being too resinous or cloying," says Indrehus. "If it's done right, it's pleasant. If it's heavy-handed, it's a novelty."

It's not just Indrehus and company harvesting spruce tips. The brewing industry's largest supplier of spruce tips is based in Pagosa Springs. Randy Schnose started Spruce On Tap with his wife, Eleanor, in 2009 with homebrewers in mind.

"We were homebrewers and we always interested in doing colonial-style beers, gruits, and the funkier things out there," says Schnose. On an online forum, another homebrewer was looking for spruce tips. "We shipped him a box of spruce and he sent us a box of beer. That's when the lightbulb went off."

Recognizing a market void, the Schnoses got a permit from the U.S. Forest Service and harvested about 16 pounds in year one. That number snowballed when commercial brewers started calling. Spruce On Tap shipped more than 1,000 pounds in 2018 harvested all over the West, making it the largest spruce operation in the nation. Customers include Avery, New Belgium, and WeldWerks, as well as Peach Street Distillers and Colorado Cider Company.

Schnose, who works with Eleanor and two other couples during spring harvest season, says timing is key. So is driving around in forests to find the right trees: "We spend an inordinate amount of time driving around in circles in the forest, literally thousands of miles a year," he says. "We've gone as far as the northern coast of Oregon to harvest Sitka spruce to southern New Mexico."

In Oregon, officials were used to permits for loggers. "They asked us, 'How many bulldozers do you have?'" laughs Schnose. "They could not get it through their heads that we weren't logging."

He says Spruce On Tap's methods aren't damaging the trees. "We're working very closely with the U.S. Forest Service to make sure we're harvesting with ethics. The way we harvest now seems to promote growth." That involves breaking the spruce tip rather than plucking it; he says a common result is three new tips growing back the next season.

While the harvest takes place in the spring, fresh spruce is available year-round. "Immediately after harvesting, we vacuum-seal them and put them in a freezer," says Schnose.

The Schnoses also co-founded Riff Raff Brewing Company in Pagosa Springs, but recently sold their share of the business to focus on Spruce On Tap and a new consulting business focused on craft breweries, Craft Trades LLC.

Storm Peak Brewing Company in Steamboat Springs takes a different approach with The Arborist, a spruce-accented saison that is the brewery's winter seasonal. Co-founder Wyatt Patterson says Storm Peak brewed its first batch in late 2016 after learning about Spruce On Tap. "We started thinking, 'What we can we brew with this?'" he says.

The Arborist took root as a interesting counterpoint to spruce pale ales and IPAs. "I tell people it's Christmas in a glass," says Patterson. "It has that piney evergreen flavor that's reminiscent of the holidays." The fruity esters of the saison "go super well with the spruce tips."

He says the recipe calls for about 12 ounces of spruce tips per barrel. Storm Peak brews one batch a year; half goes into cans and the other half gets kegged.

"It's starting to get a following," says Patterson. "People get really excited about it every year."

Eric Peterson is editor of BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Reach him at rambleusa@gmail.com.