Brewing Spruce Beer

While there aren’t any Canadian beer styles per se, at least according to the BJCP guidelines, we can probably claim spruce beer to be one of ours just by the sheer abundance of spruce trees that can be found all over Canada. Spruce beer has been brewed for a few hundred of years now, initially as a brew to fend off scurvy, but now enjoyed as a craft beverage.

So in a forest of evergreens, does it matter if you use spruce, pine or fir? Generally not, but here’s how to pick out the spruce tree. Spruce needles are pointy on the end, and are attached individually to the branches instead of in clusters. The needles generally have four sides and roll easily between your fingers. When harvesting, try to spread out your pickings, so you don’t over-harvest off of one tree and don’t pick the growth off of the top of small trees as that’ll stunt their growth.

Dean Kelly is a member of the Saskatoon Headhunters, and he knows a little about brewing spruce beers. His Simcoe Spruce Pale Ale took the Best of Show at the 2013 Winnipeg Homebrew Pro/ Am competition, and he has been brewing a version of that award winning recipe almost every year since then.

The Colorado Blue Spruce in Kelly’s backyard.

“I have a pretty huge Colorado Blue Spruce (in my backyard) and I decided to incorporate it into a beer,” reminisces Kelly. While it might be earlier in the warmer parts of Canada, he usually picks his spruce tips around the end of May. “When the fresh tips cast off their brown, papery husk (Editor note: I call them hats) and are nice and green and soft, and are around 5cm long, that’s the best time to pick them. I usually pick them on a brew day during the boil and use them right away, but I’ve picked some and frozen them. The frozen ones were still good in beers and I didn’t really notice much of a difference.”

The tender springtime spruce tips usually used in brewing. Photo from Wikipedia.

On the flavour that spruce tips impart to beer, Kelly says it’s not what one might think. “They don’t taste like licking a spruce tree like you’d expect. They have kind of a unique, citrusy flavour that I really like.” With that unique, citrusy spruce flavour in mind, Simcoe was the choice of hop he picked for his beer to compliment those flavours, and really enjoyed it.

“I was pretty happy with it and entered it in the 2013 Winnipeg Homebrew Pro/Am competition. I was stunned when it won Best of Show. I never expected it and couldn’t believe it! Part of the prize was to brew a batch of the beer at Half Pints in Winnipeg. I think Dave Rudge and I brewed 1000 litres of it and it turned out really well. I actually drove to Winnipeg with several coolers full of spruce tips to use in the beer.

The label for Kelly’s Best of Show beer he got to brew at Half Pints Brewing in 2013.

Kelly looks back at that memory with fondness. “It was felt really cool to drink the beer I brewed at HP on tap in a bar.” Since the big win, Kelly has brewed the beer almost every spring, usually increasing the amount of spruce tips he uses every year. “I read an article with some brewer and he said you can never use too much spruce in a beer and I think that’s pretty true. I’ve used four or five times more spruce in beers than in the original batch and they were all still really good. I’ve subbed in Citra for some of the Simcoe in the recipe and that was really good as well.” One of the things he’s noticed with his spruce beer is their longevity. “I’ve noticed that the beers I’ve brewed with spruce have always aged really well. I think the vitamin C (ascorbic acid) content of the tips acts as a bit of a preservative and keeps the beers from staling. Even old bottles of it are still pretty tasty.” 

While spruce tips do add a lot of flavour to your brews, Kelly does advise one of the hazards of using them. “One thing to note is that the spruce tips can really clog up a brew system. I was doing brew in a bag at the time and would just put the tips in a bag and let them steep at the end of the boil and while chilling. A bag or hop spider or something for the tips is a good idea.”

Dean Kelly’s award winning Simcoe Spruce Pale Ale recipe.

Kathy Yan Li is a director of the Canadian Homebrewers Association, and lives in Shilo, MB with her husband and dog Barkley. She is always looking for Canadian homebrewing and brewing content, so feel free to get in touch with her with ideas and suggestions.

1 thought on “Brewing Spruce Beer

  1. I remember buying two bottles of his beer the year it won the Pro Am. I’d just started drinking craft beer and really wasn’t prepared for how piney it was (a nice way of saying that I REALLY didn’t like it at the time). I let the second bottle sit in my fridge for a year and when I finally got around to opening it, I was blown away by how well it had aged. So much so I was kicking myself for not buying more bottles.

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