Sprucing Things Up with Spruce Tips

Since we sent our three offspring out into the big wide world and began traveling almost all of the time, we have had to accept a few unique new concerns. Not the least among these being the perilous threat of scurvy.

Like the sailors back in the olden days, we must always remain vigilant in our concern for this dreaded disease brought on by a lack of vitamin C.

Sure, we could just stop in at a grocery store and buy a couple of oranges, but what fun is that? Much better to seek out the old school remedies that those intrepid voyagers used to use.

That is how we stumbled upon the useful possibilities of spruce tips.

While wandering the wilds of Alaska (on a luxury cruise ship with about 5,000 other folks) we discovered that centuries ago people figured out that the fresh little tips of new growth on spruce trees each spring are chocked full of vitamin C.

They also happen to taste quite good, with a hint of citrus to go along with their evergreen flavor.

Think Pine-sol with a squeeze of lime.

No, wait, not Pine-sol, that’s too harsh. Maybe more like one of those pine tree shaped air fresheners that’s still hanging from the rear view mirror of a ’74 Chrysler somewhere.

No, that sounds pretty bad too. It’s like that, except it’s good.

So the story goes that European explorers learned from the North American natives that these tips could save them from scurvy, and being innovative adventurers they decided to try using the spruce buds in brewing beer.

That caught our attention, so we set out to find a pint or two of the evergreen brew.

Our first stop was a success; the Skagway Brewing Company in the gold rush town of Skagway. They make a fine example right on sight. It is fresh and light and the hint of spruce is in no way overpowering.

We were also intrigued to find that we happened to arrive in this part of Alaska right in the heart of the tip harvesting season. Flyers posted around the bar offered five dollars a pound for anyone willing to go out and gather the buds.

A tempting proposal, but we really only had time to try a tankard of the scurvy busting grog and be on our way.

The next day, in Juneau, we discovered that the tips have several uses beyond beer. While walking downtown we first encountered a bakery that was proudly displaying spruce tips shortbread cookies. Of course we had to try one.

Not too sweet and not too spruced up, these little goodies were quite nice. Too bad we gobbled them up before we walked up the way a bit and found an ice cream vendor.  Wouldn’t you know it, he had spruce tip ice cream.

What a scoop! The creamy confection was also somewhat subtle and equally yummy.

After exploring the town we decided to take a ride up Mount Roberts on the tram and sure enough, the tips were quite prevalent up on top of the mountain.  Up here we learned that the preferred type of tree is the Sitka spruce.

First, while we hiked some of the many trails up there, we found the new growth gracing the ends of almost every bough on the trees. Out of curiosity, and just because it is what we do, we picked a couple buds and popped them into our mouths.

They really are quite good, even if a little strong, with a very tangy, citrus flavor and a large dose of evergreen essence. At this point we also realized that five dollars a pound might not be all that lucrative. They are pretty light so it would take quite a few to make a pound.

On our way back down we stopped off at the little pub by the top of the tram and found one last taste o’ the tips, Baranof Island Brewing Sitka Spruce Tip Ale. While this is slightly more widely available than the brew in Skagway, it is still only in this area and only around for a few weeks around tips harvest time.

It was definitely stronger on the spruce flavor than its Skagway cousin, and we deemed it the runner up in our scurvy fighting brew samples. With more time I imagine we could have found others to try, or for the do it yourselfer, there is the option of home brew.

On the internet almost anything is available, so we found a spruce tip beer recipe from 1796 that any adventurous spirit can brew up at home.

Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in one gallon of water, strain the hop water then add sixteen gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissolved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bottle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.

It sounds good to us, , although I doubt that we will be brewing it any time soon. Could be because we don’t have any idea of what emptins are, or just that we happen to be fresh out of spruce tips.

Google solved our emptins issue; they are the yeast left from brewing.

On the other hand, our lack of tips might be a great excuse to head back up to Alaska.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our previous adventures in Alaska!

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