Spruce Up: How Trees Inspired The Latest Craft Brewing Trend

Photo: Natali_Mis (Getty Images)

Even a decade ago, craft brewing wasn’t as prevalent in the U.S. as it is today. In 1998, there were only 1,540 craft breweries in the country. By comparison, there are over 6,000 today. That means when seasonal brews come out, there’s a lot to try. This time of year is the perfect time for fans of all kinds of stouts, porters, Christmas ales, winter ales, strong ales, and spruce tip-centric beers. This is the point of the article where you’re probably saying, “Wait. Hold up. Spruce tips? I’m aware of all the other styles, but like from a Spruce tree?” Yes, spruce tips.

The hottest trend this holiday season in the craft brewing world is spruce tips. Brands like Rogue, Upslope, Ballast Point, Second Self, Dogfish Head, and others are getting in on the pine-scented action. But, what exactly do spruce tips bring to a beer? “Fresh lemon, pinewood, and surprisingly quite a bit of mint and menthol-like notes,” says Sam Scruby, head brewer at Upslope Brewing Co. “Initially, we were expecting a Christmas tree bomb, but the cooling mint added a refreshing note to the hop bouquet.”

Rogue Innovation Brewer Michael King says the addition of spruce tips adds a subtle, bubblegum-like sweetness to the beer. “Interesting story about that — it’s not that spruce tastes like bubble gum, it’s that bubblegum used to be flavored with spruce tips and that affiliation lives on.”

Spruce Tips Become A Go-To Ingredient

Adding spruce tips to beer has really caught on in the last few years. The explosion of breweries across the globe has also made for a more adventurous craft beer consumer and producer. “Finding unique ingredients and flavors is a way to set yourself apart and get consumers excited about your beer,” says Scruby. “Using locally sourced spruce tips showcases a flavor profile unique to Colorado.”

Everybody’s doing it: Even Convenience Store Wawa Has Its Own Beer

Rogue had a spruce tip beer before — Yellow Snow IPA — in 2002 in celebration of the Olympics in Utah. “Last year, I decided to change up the beer and make Yellow Snow Pilsner because I thought the spruce tips would add a nice subtle sweetness to an otherwise crisp and dry style of beer,” says King.

Dogfish Head first brewed a spruce-based beer more than a decade ago. They called it Spruce Willis and founder and CEO Sam Calagione loved it and planned to make it again one day. “And then I read the diary of the founder of the Woolrich company and learned he brewed a spruce beer over a century ago, and he farmed wheat and rye, so I contacted the current generation of Woolrich family leaders and our companies collaborated on the annual beer and clothing collab we call Pennsylvania Tuxedo,” he says.

How Spruce Tips Are Used

Spruce tips work best in hoppier styles, or darker, more robust beers. “Spruce tips are pretty assertive, I would want to back them up with an equally assertive malt and/or hop presence,” says Scruby. “That being said, I would love to see what other brewers come up with utilizing this ingredient.”

Craft Brewing 101: If You Can’t Decide What Craft Beer To Buy, Brew Your Own

Spruce is an ancient, traditional beer ingredient. “Our forefathers used spruce before they could get hops as easily as we can now,” says Second Self co-founder Jason Santamaria. “I think brewers are working with all sorts of new ingredients, and some are looking to the past for new inspiration.” That is one of the many things Santamaria loves about making beer: there is no real limit to what you can do and use, and you can draw inspiration from many places. “I used spruce tips for the first time years ago in beer, but we work with more herbs and spices than most breweries.”

Christmas in a Pint Glass

Upslope’s newest seasonal offering is brewed with premium American malt, Cascade and Simcoe hops, and hand-picked Colorado spruce tips. They called it Upslope’s new winter Spruce Tip IPA and it’s highlighted by notes of candied orange peel and fresh pine needles supported by a sturdy malt backbone. “This style is a perfect pairing for crisp, snow-filled winter weather,” says Scruby.

Atlanta’s Second Self makes a spruce tip beer called Junipa that was inspired by the flavors usually associated with gin. “Available through February, the cold weather seasonal is brewed with citrusy Amarillo and Cascade hops, spruce tips, juniper, and rosemary, and then dry-hopped with aromatics mirroring the classic flavors of gin,” says Santamaria.

Bartender approved: Spike Your Hot Toddy With These Spirits

Junipa is a beer Second Self has made for a few years, but this year they added spruce to further enhance the flavors. “Our initial inspiration came from an article that shared Benjamin Franklin’s spruce beer recipe; we followed his recipe and served the beer in our tasting room, and really liked the how the spruce worked in the beer.” Since Junipa already had complementary flavors, they wanted to boost them with the addition of spruce.

King believes that drinking the cheekily-named Yellow Snow Pilsner is akin to taking a long walk through a frozen forest on a winter morning. “The beer is like a deep breath of fresh Northwest winter air,” says King. “Yellow Snow is crisp and clean with a refreshing hint of spruce that imparts subtle, yet complex aromas and flavors of sweet bubblegum, citrus, and resin.”

This year, instead of grabbing for that usual Christmas ale, try a spruce tip beer instead. “It just smells like winter; it has the scent of Christmas trees and spices from holiday meals,” says Santamaria.” It also is a spot-on pairing for turkey and stuffing (or pork and morros, if you’re like my family).”