Piney ales are on the rise, but brewers' use of spruce is evergreen.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated October 05, 2018
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Courtesy of Dogfish Head

Even in a craft industry ruled by IPAs, Sculpin IPA from San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing Company is a legendary beer, often cited as one of the best mainstream IPAs and the brew that helped catapult Ballast Point into a billion-dollar, nationwide brand. Adding to that legend has been the brewery’s willingness to create a wide range of Sculpin varieties: About five years ago, Grapefruit Sculpin practically created more buzz than the original. Iterations like Habanero, Pineapple, and “Aloha” have followed. But last week, Ballast Point announced maybe its most unexpected twist on Sculpin to date… Spruce Tip Sculpin IPA. Even more surprising, I sampled the beer at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, and it was one of the more standout offerings I tried.

Could 2018 finally be the year spruce breaks loose? If so, it would be a trend literally centuries in the making. “Tree parts have been used in recipes for thousands of years, going back to the great philosophers,” explains Tom Kehoe, founder of Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing. In 2005, the brewery introduced Poor Richard’s Spruce Ale as part of its “Ales of the Revolution” series that recreates historical recipes from the Founding Fathers. Spruce Ale, likely the only year-round spruce beer produced in the U.S., is based on a recipe from none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Milton, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Ales also cites a historical precedent for its pale ale brewed with Pennsylvania spruce tips called Pennsylvania Tuxedo. The beer is a collaboration with the state’s outdoor clothing company Woolrich, which was established in 1830. “I read the diary of the founder and learned he brewed a spruce beer over a century ago,” Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, tells me, “so I contacted the current generation of Woolrich family leaders, and our companies collaborated on the annual beer and clothing release. The employees of Woolrich get to work in the woods around the mill in the forest plucking the fresh spruce tips to send them to Dogfish to make this beer.”

“You will not find any spruce beers done in a warm climate,” Kehoe says, explaining the Pennsylvania connection. But the tips are added for more than just local flare. “Spruce was introduced for the same reason hops were introduced to English ales—you need to balance the sweet malt flavors with a spice. Spruce, much like hops, can be that spice…. It serves to balance the flavor profile.”

That balancing act might explain why spruce has a chance to once again make a name for itself in the present day. In the past decade, a major shift has occurred in the world of IPAs: The once-trendy West Coast IPA has given way to a new wave of New England IPAs. In a nutshell, the West Coast take tended to focus on hops’ pithy, foresty bitterness; but after a bitterness arms race blew out drinkers’ palates, brewers swung the opposite direction towards fruitier, juicer IPAs. However, as often is the case, the pendulum may have swung a bit too far.

By offering softer foresty notes without adding any abrasive bitterness, spruce does an excellent job of finding a hoppy beer’s middle ground. “The fresh spruce tips really allow Sculpin’s complexity to shine, accentuating aromas and flavors already found in the original Sculpin IPA,” says James Murray, Vice President of Brewing at Ballast Point, explaining why, after three years of experimentation, Sculpin is finally going the spruce route nationwide. “The addition of spruce tips brings flavors of pine, red berry, lemon and wine grapes, which complement Sculpin’s citrusy hop profile. On the nose, you enjoy a unique piney, citrusy and woody character. The result is the perfect seasonal addition to the Sculpin family.”

Calagione seeks a similar harmony in his use of spruce. “We did our first spruce beer at Dogfish Head about a decade ago—it was called 'Spruce Willis,' I shit you not—and I fell in love with how nicely certain earthy hop varieties play with freshly harvested spruce tips,” he tells me. “Both ingredients walk the line gracefully between citrusy and piney notes.”

A decade ago, I tasted my way through Yards Ales of the Revolution series and distinctly remember Poor Richard’s Spruce Ale, despite being aggressively herbaceous, as the standout beer of the night, making for lovely food pairings as well. In 2014, I sipped Pennsylvania Tuxedo at Dogfish Head’s launch event and still remember how delightfully the subtle boost of evergreen notes perfectly matched that cold fall evening. Then, just two weeks ago, even the sight of the word “spruce” at the Great American Beer Festival piqued my interest. Spruce Tip Sculpin IPA delivered on the promise of its name but used its spruce to create a refreshing quality that awoke my battered tongue. Apparently, every time I have encountered a spruce beer, I’ve found them thoroughly enjoyable; clearly, it’s time to openly admit that I’m a spruce beer fan.

Could the addition of spruce to one of America’s most popular IPAs be the breakout moment spruce has been waiting for? With Spruce Tip Sculpin IPA only hitting store shelves now, that’s yet to be seen. But at the very least, if you come across a spruce beer of any kind—and there are plenty more to discover—don’t be afraid to try it. Spruce has actually been spicing up beer for a long, long time.