When you think of winter beers several things may come to mind. For me, its the special seasonal releases like the Anchor Steam Christmas Ale (a 41-year tradition this year) or Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome — always a seasonal favorite. Of course there are many others that likely bring back memories or invoke pleasant sensations. And then there are the traditional seasonal ingredients added to many winter beers — fruits, spices, honey. And the ABV often gets a bump, too. Like all beer seasonal releases, it brings a beery anticipation. Now, there are countless reviews available on winter releases—I particularly enjoyed Tom Bedell's 12 Beers of Christmas, where for the last three years he has "taken on the agreeable task of writing about a dozen holiday beers or winter warmers, one a day (or late into the night)". But I want to take you to another place. Let's take an unfamiliar path through the forest and see what is waiting for us there.
I want to discuss just one beer and probably not one you think of as a Winter beer. But wait! What is more Winter-like than the Christmas tree. And for many of us the tree of choice is a spruce tree. See where I'm going with this?
I've read about the American colonists using spruce tips in brewing their beer. As someone within an interest in tree things, this caught my fancy. Then in December 2014, I found a local beer in Madison WI that was a spruce tip beer. I tried it to satisfy my curiosity. Yup, no doubt, it had a tree quality about it. Done! It was interesting but I didn't need another one. Then a few months later I saw the Yards’ Tavern Spruce on the bottle shop shelf. Again, tried it, curiosity was satisfied but I didn't need another.
Then I saw the Dogfish Head Pennsylvania Tuxedo. Anyone that has had more than one of DFH beers knows that they live up to their motto of "Off-Centered-Beers-For-Off-Centered-People". You are use to getting wild and crazy ingredients from the four corners of the world in you beer. Hey, its DFH, sometimes its great and sometimes — well lets say its just not my style. So, another spruce tip beer? Why not?
"It's like biting into a Christmas tree!"
I grabbed a four-pack, got home and poured one. Oooh, this is interesting. It's like biting into a Christmas tree, but without the tinsel. I loved the flash of tree-like quality, but this time it was well balanced and quite enjoyable. One is not enough, I want another. I raved to my beer geek buddies about this and they (mostly) had the same reaction. This was the first beer in some time that my reaction was "one is not enough,"
The DFH Background
Here is what the Dogfish has to say about their beer. "A spruce-infused 8.5% ABV Pale Ale. Brewed in collaboration with Family Run outerwear company in Woolrich, our two like-mined companies came together to make this beer with Pacific Northwest hop varieties to make a sessionable concoction with a grassy citrus kick complimented by the resinous conifer qualities of fresh green Spruce Tips.
"Brewed in collaboration with family-run outdoor clothing company Woolrich, Pennsylvania Tuxedo is a sessionable concoction with a grassy citrus kick complemented by the resinous conifer notes of fresh green spruce tips. We went into the forests of north-central Pennsylvania and Georgetown, Del., to pick these fresh tips ourselves. A dry yet doughy malt backbone lets the hops and spruce shine while still balancing out the bitterness, making this one an easy sipper."
For some reason I expected the beer boards at BeerAdvocate and Untappd to be as crazy about this beer as much as I was. I guess I'm old enough and just wise enough to really know better. If you pay any attention to the beer rating sites, you know reviews can be all over the place and often coming from (frankly) unqualified tasters. If you realize that these are merely someones opinion and thats all, then you can relax and enjoy your beer. Beer reviews are a mixed lot as mentioned in the All About Beer article of July 2015, Beer Reviews All About Beer The Agony and Ecstasy of Beer Reviews.
Someone with an educated opinion will try a beer and ask “does it taste how it’s supposed to” before reviewing. A novice drinker will rate solely based on how they like it. I see a lot of reviews on Untappd where people will give a beer a low rating and in the comment say it’s because they don’t like the style.
The collective gave it 84 pts at BeerAdvocate while The Bros gave it a 90pt rating. I agree with The Bros. Untappd has is posted at 4-Stars, which is higher than when I first posted my review there. I was a bit concerned but it seems this beer has caught on. I attributed the early lower scores to the fact that spruce was not the taste for many of the hop-heads.
The beer rating article mentioned early may explain some of this thinking, "Someone with an educated opinion will try a beer and ask “does it taste how it’s supposed to” before reviewing. A novice drinker will rate solely based on how they like it. I see a lot of reviews on Untappd where people will give a beer a low rating and in the comment say it’s because they don’t like the style."
As for tasting an unusual ingredient such as hops, it says, "we’re seeing more and more brewers color outside of the lines — my feeling is that they should be as free as chefs to do so." Now isn't that the reason we are enjoying so many excellent beers today, brewers are taking some chances and getting excellent responses and kudos from the craft beer community.
Spruce As A Beer Ingredient
If you'd like to learn more about spruce as an ingredient in beer, here are two excellent sources.
The Oxford Companion to Beer is always an great source for information on beer history, styles and ingredients. About spruce in beer from Garrett Oliver's beer compendium...
"The green shoots at the tips of the branches of evergreens, can be harvested in spring and used as a flavoring in beer. To the taste they are far less resinous than the more mature needles and twigs (although these can be used as well, to harsher effect) and even somewhat citrusy. When boiled in water they can provide either simple flavoring to the brewing liquor or, if further concentrated, an essence to be added to the ferment, as appears in recipes for spruce and pine ales dating as far back as the 17th century. It is reported that in 1769 when Captain James Cook landed in New Zealand, it was with beer on board made with a mash of spruce tips, a beverage with an added antiscorbutic element. Like many beers brewed with ingredients alternative to imported British malt and hops, evergreen-flavored beers were common in colonial American brewing, often combining with molasses as the primary fermentable." Oliver, Garrett; Colicchio, Tom (2011-09-09). The Oxford Companion to Beer (Oxford University Press.
The Drunken Botanist is another fun information source on where our the ingredients for all kinds of "spiritual" drinks. If you are the person that likes to get a bit deeper on topics of your passion, then this is a handy reference to keep close. Ben Franklin has been associated with this special beer ingredient and the Yard's Spruce Tavern does have his face on its packaging.
"Recipes for spruce beer were abundant in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century journals. Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with creating a recipe for the beer— but it wasn’t his invention. While he was ambassador to France, he copied several recipes from a cookbook called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, written by a woman named Hannah Glasse in 1747. He never meant to take credit for her recipe; he simply copied it for his personal use. Nonetheless, it was found among his papers, and the story that one of the Founding Fathers created a recipe for spruce beer was too good to resist. Modern re-creations of the recipe credit him alone, not Hannah Glasse." Stewart, Amy (2013-03-19). The Drunken Botanist. Algonquin Books.
While the DFH Pennsylvania Tuxedo may not be the first beer you think of as a winter seasonal beer, its special ingredient of spruce tips does make a compelling connection. I think, and hope, this becomes a regular seasonal release for Dogfish Head. While I still have a couple in my fridge, I know they won't last long.