By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
Beer is one of those beverages that, historically, people just couldn’t do without. For a host of reasons — impure water supplies being a primary one — a supply of beer was critical to good health. For centuries, brewing was considered to be one of the primary skills that any good wife could deploy to help keep her family healthy and happy.
Still, even the best alewife might have trouble sourcing the proper ingredients for brewing, especially if she were living someplace remote and isolated, like, say, colonial America or the territory of Alaska. In those situations, preferred materials like barley and hops might have to be stretched or even replaced completely by available substitutes.
Some of those “beers” were probably pretty marginal. I don’t know about you, but a beverage made from fermented parsnips doesn’t strike me as particularly enticing.
One of these barley substitutes still used relatively frequently today is the pumpkin. Especially around the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays, many brewers trot out some form of pumpkin ale. But here in Alaska we have a long tradition of using a much more rare beer ingredient — the needles or green tips of spruce trees.
Using spruce as an ingredient for alcoholic drinks has a long and distinguished history. In colonial America, red or black spruce trees were the usual source, with the tips or needles being mixed with molasses to provide enough fermentable sugars to produce a respectable level of alcohol.
The green spruce tips are also an excellent source of vitamin C, which attracted the attention of perhaps the most famous advocate of spruce beer, the famous explorer Capt. James Cook. On several occasions during his exploratory voyages, Cook’s logs describe the brewing of a spruce beer, using molasses and locally gathered spruce tips. That helped ensure none of his crew developed scurvy, the dreaded and deadly disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
These days scurvy isn’t much of a worry, but a few brewers do still make use of spruce tips as an ingredient. Rather than the red or black spruce of colonial days, Sitka spruce is typically used today. Naturally, spruce beers are pretty popular here in Alaska. Both the Haines Brewing Company and the Skagway Brewing Company offer seasonal spruce-tip ales, and Silver Gulch Brewing up north in Fox has offered a Spruce Tip Baltic Porter in the past. However, the best-known and most widely available option is Alaskan Brewing Company’s Winter Ale.
Stylistically, Winter Ale falls into the category of an English old ale. The definition of an old ale can be a little nebulous, but traditionally they are relatively sweet, malty beers, brewed in the fall (when grain supplies are plentiful) and made strong, typically 6 percent to 9 percent alcohol. This extra strength both allows the ale to last through the long winter months and helps keep those imbibing it warm on cold winter nights. This last explains the other name for the style, “winter warmers.”
Alaskan’s take on this classic style is on the low end of the alcohol range, at 6.5 percent, and has a lovely bright copper color. Its aroma has a slight fruitiness, suggesting fresh peaches or pears.
It’s not a heavily hopped beer, with only 27 IBUs of hop bitterness, so the malty sweetness of the barley is definitely front and center. The relatively low hop rate is also important for letting the rather delicate flavor of the spruce tips assert themselves.
To my palate they come across as contributing a hint of earthiness, coupled with a touch of the pungent aroma that we all associated with spruce boughs on a campfire. Importantly, the use of the spruce tips is not overdone, which keeps all the elements of the beer in balance and greatly increases its drinkability. All in all, it’s a uniquely Alaskan take on both the traditional American spruce beer and the traditional English old ale.
If you have found this tale of spruce ales or any of my previous columns interesting, I’d like to invite you to attend the inaugural meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society.
This will be a local club, dedicated to brewing and enjoying good fermented beverages, like beer, cider or mead. While all home brewers are certainly welcome, so is anyone who just wants to learn more about such drinks. That’s the “tasting” part of the name.
We hope to meet monthly, both to share the fruits of our labors and to learn how we can make better beer. If you are interested, please come to our first meeting at 6:30 p.m. today, Nov. 3, at the Kenai River Brewing Company, 241 N. Aspen Drive in Soldotna. Look for the KPB&TS on Facebook and Meetup.com for more information. I hope to see you there.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. Drinking on the Kenai appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Redoubt Reporter.