The Beginnings of a Rye-Spruce Christmas Ale

Blue Spruce Bough

Or rather, I should say a spiced rye-spruce pale ale. We may have bitten off a bit too much with this one.

It started out simple enough: we wanted to do a spruce ale. What the hell could be more Christmasey than putting actual Christmas tree in a beer? I’ve had exactly one spruce ale before, Alaskan Winter Ale, from Alaskan Brewing. I was actually pretty ambivalent about it and it didn’t really taste like sinus punch of conifer I was hoping for, but it seemed like a string worth pulling.

Nollaig, a Christmas spruce ale from Scotland

When I was in London this year, I picked up this spruce beast at left, the Nollaig Ale, at or near the Borough market, and it was my only souvenir from the trip. It had a long trip back home to Chicago to my folks’ place, and we are all eager to crack it open.

So this year, when my buddy Drew and brother Peter and I started talking about making another Christmas beer — last year we brewed a basic holiday ale — I successfully planted the spruce seed. They were onboard, but what beer base to put it in? We eventually decided to start simple: buy a standard ale kit and we’ll spruce it up.

We went to a Brew and Grow shop — which is a hilarious experience of its own — and picked up a rye pale ale kit for the job. Now, none of us really have a good idea of what a spruce beer is supposed to taste like. Brewing deity Charlie Pazian says it tastes like Pepsi, which is, well, a world away from what we were shooting for. So we hedged our bets and picked up a pack of whole cinnamon sticks and a rather large hunk of ginger to make sure we got the point across that this was a holiday beer.

Hence the concoction we spent a few hours putting together last week. But how did we get our spruce? You can’t pick it up at the grocery store or a beer supply store — though you can get spruce essence from some places — so we looked in our backyards. Drew made a visit to his parents and walked in the door with two boughs of the stuff and was, unsurprisingly, met with some quizzical looks. Though, after getting the boughs and stripping off all the needles, even my brewing companions were dubious when i insisted that we taste them first. It actually turned out one bough had far stronger flavor than the other.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that what you see above are spruce needles, not tips. Most home and commercial brewers use the tips, the clusters of fresh-growth needles that arrive in the spring. But we didn’t have tips, and there’s really not much agreement at all as to when it’s best to pick spruce or even when to add it during the brewing process. Some brewers use them as a replacement for hops, which is pretty radical. But if we wanted a perfect, tested beer, we’d just buy it! This is homebrewing, where experimenting and sometimes making something non-potable is the point.

Advice on when to add the tips ranges from boiling it alone for an hour beforehand all the way to adding it after the boil. We split the difference, and, when there was 10 minutes left in the boil, we added 4-5 oz. of spruce needles, 1 oz. of grated ginger, and a handful of cinnamon sticks. The spruce was really fragrant for about five minutes, then petered off into the ether.

We really don’t know what to expect with this beer, and, like last year’s beer, it’s more than likely it won’t be great this year because the spices take a while to mellow. And after all that, it might not even be great next year! But it was pretty fun to put together. Speaking of last year’s SantAleĀ beer, we cracked a few open over Thanksgiving, and they were just right.