Tasting Notes: Spruce Ales (Beers #42 & 43)

January 12, 2013 by Jack

The other day I realized that I never reported on the results of my Spruce Tips experiment. About two an a half months ago I brewed two batches of identical red ale that differed only in the type of spruce tips used: one had 11 ounces of Norway Spruce tips, the other got 11 ounces of Blue Spruce tips. (Both were five gallon batches.) On to the tasting notes:

~~~Norway Spruce Ale~~~

Aroma
Soft maltiness – buiscuity with a pronounced caramel note, some raisin-like fruit character. Not much to remind you of spruce or pine, but there’s a pleasant hard-to-describe floral quality that must come from the spruce. No hop character. No diacetyl, et al.

Appearance
Medium amber with a large, fluffy, bone-colored head with infinite retention. Brilliant clarity.

Flavor
Medium-low bitterness. Malt-balanced, but not overly malty and not sweet. Malt profile similar to aroma followed by perfumey christmas-tree-like pine with lemony notes. The spruce character is pronounced in the aftertaste and makes a strong case for taking another sip.

Mouthfeel
Medium-light body with creamy carbonation. No astringency. Some very light alcohol warmth on the finish.

Overall
A pleasant beer well suited for December drinking. The spruce flavor is strong, but not overwhelming of off-putting. The base beer is kind of like a strong bitter with a bit more raisin flavor. I am pleased with how it came out.

~~~Blue Spruce Ale~~~

Aroma
Soft maltiness – buiscuity with a pronounced caramel note, some raisin-like fruit character. Dirty, earthy, musty.

Appearance
Medium amber with a large, fluffy, bone-colored head with infinite retention. Nearly clear. Slight hazy.

Flavor
Medium-low bitterness. Malt-balanced, but not overly malty and not sweet. Malt profile similar to aroma. There is a murky, unpleasant, earthy, dirty character from first taste well into the aftertaste. This flavor is piney, resinous, and sort of mushroom-like.

Mouthfeel
Medium-light body with creamy carbonation. No astringency. Some very light alcohol warmth on the finish.

Overall
The base beer is the same as the Norway Spruce version, but the spruce character in this one is disgusting. If I recieved a glass of this at a bar I might think the lines were dirty. This seems to be what blue spruce tips brought to the beer – the taste of dirty tap lines. I will be dumping the keg whereas the Norway one continues to impress me.

This experiment yielded interesting results. I expected the Norway spruce beer to come across as citrusey, piney, floral and it did. I expected the blue spruce beer to have a strong resinous pine-like flavor. Instead it just tasted dirty and rank. I will brew with spruce again, but only Norway spruce. Blue spruce does not make good beer. It’s Latin name, Picea Pungens, makes sense to me now.

Here is what I’ll change for this year’s spruce beer:

  • Fresh tips. Last year I harvested the tips and froze them in a foodsaver bag to be brewed with later. This year I will pluck them from the trees while the beer is mashing.
  • Lager. The tips are ready for picking in May, but who wants Christmas beer at the end of Spring? I will alter the base beer recipe a bit to make something like a Vienna Lager so the beer can benefit from cold aging until the holiday season.
  • More spruce. The spruce character – especially the aroma – was a little low in this year’s beer. Because of that, and because the beer will be aging for half a year before being tapped, I will up the spruce from 11 ounces to a pound or more.

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