Excuse me, there’s a tree in your beer

Trees at Downer State Forest Donate Tips for Harpoon Beer.

By Josey Hastings

Tom Graham, a brewer at Harpoon’s Windsor brewery, got the idea for his first signature beer from a home brew book that touted the virtues of spruce tips. When the tender buds appeared bright green on the spruce trees in his yard, he couldn’t resist picking some to make beer.

Graham introduced his colleagues at Harpoon to the resulting home brew. They liked it so much they decided to brew it as this fall’s 100 Barrel Series beer. The 100 Barrel Series features limited edition beers that often make use of unique regional ingredients, including oysters from Massachusetts’ Duxbury Bay, hops from upstate New York, and Vermont maple syrup.

Collecting spruce tips from his yard to make a home brew was one thing, but gathering 200 pounds to make a commercial batch of beer posed a new challenge for Graham. He began to investigate how and where he could harvest them.

Tim Morton, a state lands stewardship forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, knew the perfect place—Downer State Forest in Sharon. The park had a large stand of middle-aged, vigorous Norway spruce providing cover for a healthy understory of spruce saplings that would boast new buds, or “tips,” at easy picking height come spring.

In early June 2011, Graham and a group of 40 “Friends of Harpoon” volunteers, including some from Tunbridge and Norwich, made their way into Downer State Forest to pick the newly emerged spruce tips. Morton, who had never before managed this particular kind of land use, had developed a plan for sustainable spruce tip harvesting. Harpoon was permitted to harvest the lower two-thirds of every other sapling, leaving the rest untouched.

Morton commented that, “It’s satisfying to see a stand of trees that were planted 100 years ago providing a use that was completely unexpected by Charles Downer (who donated the land to the state of Vermont in the early 1900’s for its second state forest). It shows that there are many things a healthy, well-managed and diverse forest can provide.”

As one would imagine, harvesting spruce tips is labor intensive. The 40 volunteers, along with Harpoon brewers, spent three days in the forest and harvested over 200 pounds of spruce tips. The atmosphere, according to Graham, was festive, in spite of the black flies.

“People really enjoyed being outside and wandering around in the woods,” Graham said. “There was a great sense of camaraderie.”

There’s roughly a two-week window when spruce tips can be harvested for use in food or beverages. “When they’re small, they’re surprisingly citrusy,” said Graham. “They have a sour lemon-lime flavor with piney notes.” The tips are best when they’re still very tender and bright green, about 1-4 inches long. After that, they develop more resin and become less palatable.

The harvested spruce tips were vacuum-packed at the Vermont Foodbank and were then frozen to await their November brewing. In return, Harpoon donated over $2000 to the Foodbank.

Graham’s signature recipe, Vermont Spruce Tip Ale, was brewed on Nov. 3. The spruce tips were used to replace some of the finishing hops, which add flavor and aroma to a beer and are typically added towards the end of the boiling process. This allowed the spruce tips to imbue the beer with their aromatic notes, without imparting their heavy duty resins. The ale was bottled and kegged on Nov. 17 and is now making its way to retailers.

The festive atmosphere of the harvesting process seems to have carried over into the beer itself. Vermont Spruce Tip Ale is well-suited to the holiday season, according to Graham. “It’s a robust, malty ale with enough character to stand up to hearty meals, so it’s good for feasts and get-togethers.”

Graham, who is also a beekeeper and hops-grower, has been experimenting with other beer recipes incorporating local ingredients. He has made home brews with his own honey and hops, and has been “playing around with spices a good bit.” Graham is particularly interested in making a good beer with black pepper, but is still perfecting the recipe. He has also had good results with fermenting the dregs of his neighbor’s maple sugaring evaporator tray.

If you would like to share news about local food or agriculture, please contact Josey at joseyhastings@gmail.com.

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