Spruce Beer’s Revival

A centuries-old brewing style finds itself in the midst of an unlikely comeback.

During the holiday season, many beer drinkers opt for spruce beers like Michigan-based Short’s Brewing Co.’s Juicy Tree IPA (pictured), made with with spruce tips, cranberries, and juniper berries.
During the holiday season, many beer drinkers opt for spruce beers like Michigan-based Short’s Brewing Co.’s Juicy Tree IPA (pictured), made with with spruce tips, cranberries, and juniper berries.

What’s old is new again. Many beer drinkers just toasted the holidays with winter seasonals, and spruce beers emerged as a popular option. Seal Rock, Oregon-based Wolf Tree Brewery has seen its Spruce Tip label sell so well that the beer is now considered the flagship. Wolf Tree—whose spruce tip ingredient is harvested on the ranch where the brewery is located—is packaged in 4-packs of 16-ounce cans and on draft, and is distributed year-round in Oregon, Washington, and California. “People are showing increased awareness of spruce beers,” says Wolf Tree owner Joe Hitselberger. “With more brewers producing them, the style is seeing a comeback. They’re a refreshing change from super bitter beers.”

Other brewers, including Boston Beer Co., Dogfish Head Brewery, and Ballast Point Brewing Co., have joined Wolf Tree in producing spruce beers in recent years, but the style dates back to pre-Revolution days. Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Co. resurrected Benjamin Franklin’s spruce beer recipe 14 years ago, tweaked it, and launched Poor Richard’s spruce ale as part of its Revolutionary Series. Poor Richard’s is produced year-round, available in 6-packs of 12-ounce bottles and on draft in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. The beer is a mainstay at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, where it’s offered at $9 a 16-ounce pour.

While spruce beer is a niche category, its popularity peaks during the year-end holidays. “The strong presence of molasses and hints of spruce make it a great beer to warm up with on long winter nights,” says Phil Gajari, events coordinator at City Tavern. “Many guests absolutely love the beer and will travel to Philadelphia just to buy a 6-pack.” Across the country in Portland, Oregon, John’s Marketplace bottle shop sells Wolf Tree’s Spruce Tip for $4 a 16-ounce can. “We stock it year-round, if we can get it,” because of consumers’ loyalty to the brand, says co-owner Paul Petros. John’s also offers other spruce brews seasonally, and Petros expects a wave of new entrants this winter.

But spruce beers aren’t for everyone. Michigan-based Short’s Brewing Co. produces Imperial Spruce India Pilsner, and founder Joe Short says the seasonal beer has been polarizing. “It’s either loved or passionately disliked,” he says. The popularity of hops-laden, bitter IPAs in recent years could be partly to blame. “People assume spruce beers have a resinous taste, because they tend not to have hops” says Wolf Tree’s Hitselberger. “But they’re actually extremely fruity, similar to cherry cola.” Indeed, Hitselberger calls spruce beers a “nice change in the trend toward bitter beers. Rather than having a high IBU, Spruce Tip has zero IBUs. It’s a crisp, easy-drinking beer.”

In an effort to appeal to IPA consumers, some brewers are now producing spruce IPAs. Short’s released its Juicy Tree experimental IPA with spruce tips, cranberries, and juniper berries last month in five Midwestern states, while Yards unveiled its Make the World Better spruce IPA in November as part of its First Draft Series of experimental brews. “Poor Richard’s is our historic adaptation of spruce beers,” Kehoe says. “Make the World Better is our modern adaptation.” Hitselberger notes that because spruce tips grow wild, consistency varies. “Spruce tips lend themselves to diverse beer styles,” he says.

That diversity may bode well. Short sees opportunity for the beers in appealing to experimental beer enthusiasts and gin consumers. “Like juniper to gin or hops to IPA, there are lots of different kinds of spruce to be explored,” he says. Calling spruce beers the “anti-IPA,” City Tavern’s Gajari adds, “With the oversaturation of IPAs, we could see the pendulum swing back to this tasteful beer with very little hops.” Petros of John’s Marketplace also sees opportunity for spruce beers to go back to the future. “Some legacy styles will always have a following,” he says.