Winter Sprucer

Spruce has been a plant I have long wanted to explore in herbal brewing. It has a rich history of being a flavoring and preservative in beer for hundreds if not thousands of years throughout the northern temperate regions of the world. In Europe, the young shoots and cones of the Norway spruce (Picea abies) were boiled down into a thick paste, resembling malt syrup. This extract, also known as spruce essence, could be stored throughout the year and used to make beer. In North America, the shoots of black spruce (P. mariana) were favored, even though the apparently foul-tasting white spruce (P. glauca) is relatively more common and widely distributed.


The fresh spring shoots were favored for brewing, and to a lesser degree the young cones that mature throughout the summer. These tender parts of the plant contain the highest concentration of vitamin C, resins and turpentines, which are responsible for the characteristic, pungent scent of spruce and other closely related conifers. Spruce beer was usually brewed for the sole purpose of being a winter tonic. Due to spruce’s high vitamin C content, it was very much needed during the winter months to prevent scurvy from a lack of fresh fruit or vegetables. Although this is not usually much of a problem facing current society, it was a real reality in centuries past. Additionally, spruce beer was also consumed as an astringent, stimulant and restorative that helped keep the body clean and pure during the sometimes monotonous diet of late fall and winter.

I collected the young shoots of a Colorado blue spruce (P. pungens) which is a particularly strong scented species. It is also one of the most common if you live in a city; it’s hard to find a yard on residential block that does not have one of these vividly blue spruces planted. Figured I might as well use the spruciest of the spruces. I also included some chamomile to this recipe; later on in the boil to preserve the delicate aromatics and to mellow out the harsher aroma and bitterness of the spruce and hops with a lighter, calmer astringency. Plus I had quite a bit of chamomile, and wanted this recipe to be loaded with depth and interest.


– 4 gallons water
– 3 liters liquid amber malt extract
– 6 ounces fresh spruce tips
– 1 ounce dried chamomile blossoms
– 30 grams Perle hops
– 7 grams brewers yeast


Bring a half gallon or water or so water to a boil, then pour and stir in liquid amber malt extract until dissolved. Once boiling again, stir in the 30 grams of Perle hops and half (3 ounces) of the spruce tips. Set timer to 30 minutes. After steadily boiling and with the occasional stir for 25 minutes, add a 1/2 ounce of chamomile blossoms and the rest of the spruce tips. After 30 minutes as passed, remove from heat and add the rest of the chamomile, stirring to incorporate. Place in a cool/cold location to cool down, with the lid on, to at least 100 degrees F. Once cooled, strain and pour into sterilized fermenter. Add water until a total of 4 gallons is reached and then mix. Once settled, pitch yeast and insert airlock.

Red Racer IPA

Here we go, a good old-fashioned commercial beer review…

This one is from Canadia, but it’s about as far from local as you can get. It’s from Surrey, BC. I know, shame on me for not buying local craft beers, especially since there is such an outrageous amount of local IPAs being produced right now.

I went to a craft beer tasting/show/thing here in Hamilton on the weekend, and was really shocked at just how many IPAs there are right now. Some are being produced on a large scale, while others are short-runs or even just experiments. The IPA trend right now is ridiculous… but awesome. I really like IPAs, especially in the summer. I find the crisp, citrusy bitterness of a retarded amount of hops to be completely refreshing, yet bold enough to still rank amongst some of my all-time faves.

I know that seems like an excessive amount, but the last time this beer made an appearance was in February. That’s a long time to wait for such a perfect summer-time ale. Thought it would be for the best to stock up.

Anyway, so you’ll have to excuse my indulgence in this not-so-local Canadian brew. It’s just too good to pass up. Out of all the IPAs I’ve had recently, this one REALLY stands out. It’s a strong ale, but not too strong. It is quite clean and easy-drinking, but it’s just strong to remind you to take it easy and make it last. To get an idea of what the real appeal of the flavour is, simply refer to the image below:

Whatever combination of various hops varieties they used for Red, it has an overwhelming citrus flavour. It’s like eating a ridiculously bitter grapefruit, but with just enough sugar to tone down the bitterness so that it isn’t overwhelming. This is a NEAR perfect IPA, in my opinion. Completely delicious.


I can only hope that that IPA we’re working on has a reminiscence of some of the flavour achieved in Red Racer. More on that soon.


Holy Smoke Scotch Ale

So I had a chance to try this brew on tap at West 50, one of 50 beers on tap.  Most of the beers are blah, but they do have Koningshoven Quad.  Go there to check that beer out at least.  They only serve in in half pints though, go figure.

This Holy Smoke Scotch Ale is heavily front loaded with roasted malts to give it a very robust and, well, smokey aroma and flavour.  Its black as midnight, probably because there is black patent malt in there, which mostly is used to give a very dark complexion.  So it drinks well, lots of nice rusty and dark and burnt flavours, but it does have a certain wateriness to it.  Something that keeps bugging me is this wateriness.  Its 5%, but perhaps the yeast used is too neutral.  I feel like its almost lager-like in its finish.  Its definitely worth a try for this Porter type Ale, but don’t make a mission out of it.

Though I do like that the Church-Key Brewing company is “Founded in 2000, Church-Key Brewing is located in an 1878 Methodist Church on the outskirts of the town of Campbellford, Ontario.”  Any Brewery operating out of a Church gets a thumbs up from me.

Since our rating scheme rates amazing beers similar to the so-so beers, I’ll put this one at 3 heads.

Mill St. Organic Lager

This straw-yellow European style lager is a little on the lighter side, with an alcohol content of 4.2%. The aroma is soft and fresh with a hint of distinctive skunk, and goes down smooth and crisp. A light, malty taste with little bitterness and a dry, astringent finish. A prime example of a beer that you could drink all night because it goes down so easily and is actually quite thirst quenching.

Without a doubt another success story for Mill St. This beer can pretty much be found anywhere, which is a tribute to just how popular it has become. I have never tried this particular beer on draught and I look forward to sampling it in the future, mainly because in the bottle it has been conditioned for 5 weeks before being distributed. So, my deductive reasoning says that without the short aging process this beer could potentially be very different. I wonder if there is a lot that can change in a beer over the course of 5 weeks? Maybe there is. I guess I am going to have to find out.

Plus, it’s organic, and we can’t forget about that little detail, can we? Might not seem like a big deal, but organic beer takes 2-3 times longer to brew and the ingredients are much more expensive because the barley and hops haven’t been blasted with insect neurotoxins. Tastes good, and it’s pretty good for you too. Could be a bit more flavorful, but Mill St. certainly achieved what they were going for. 2.75 heads.

Mill St. Stock Ale

This is pretty much as simple as it gets. The most popular of the Toronto based Mill St. Brewery’s creations based on overall sales, the Stock Ale is a classic and original recipe that is made ‘without fillers and adjuncts’, says the back of the bottle. This pretty much means that the only ingredients in this beer are the ones absolutely necessary to produce a beer (under modern standards). Of course, these ingredients are water, malted barely, hops and yeast, and you won’t find much else inside of a Stock Ale. This is why Mill St. is so proud of this beer.

And it’s good. It represents exactly what beer is supposed to be like. So many distilleries pride themselves on the practice of producing certain robust flavors, and given that this is also very admirable, they skip right over the basics and subtleties of just producing beer. Not beer with coffee in it, or beer with hazelnuts and raisins in it, just the absolute necessities. By only having the bare minimum, it takes real skill to invent a recipe that is still great. Anyhow, I don’t have all that much to say about it, but this one is simple and good. I could drink this all night and never really get bored. It tastes like a lighter beer, but it’s not; another good quality of good beers, I find. The bitterness of the hops is light and complimenting to the malt. Neither too sweet or bitter.

Every single beer store has it, and the LBCO also occasionally caries it. I got this one in the sampler packs that have begun to show up this month. I look forward to drinking them all: some old favorites and 2 that I have never tried before. Be sure to tune in over the next week or so where I will review them all.

Garrison Imperial India Pale Ale

Wow. This is an absolute treat. I don’t think I have ever had a beer that has as much bitter complexity. This one really is quite intense, the name imperial is definitely appropriate. There are so many layers of hops that I am not really sure what to do with myself after each sip. I am very surprised by this ale.

The Garrison brewery is found in Halifax Nova Scotia, and is the only beer that I have ever tried from this province. I am sure that there are other artisan breweries that are amazing, but clearly this facility made a name for itself with this particular beer. It is unfiltered and very cloudy, with a wide red-orange color and long-lasting foamy head. The bitterness of the hops that is used is quite evident in pretty much any beer, but this one takes the cake. The initial hop flavor is sharp and extremely bitter, but fades quickly to a numbing citrus like aftertaste. It is at the level where any more hop flavor would be overwhelming and completely dilute the flavor of the sweet caramel malt.

The alcohol percentage is 7%, so you certainly get quite a bang from this 500ml bad-boy. Good work Nova Scotia, keep up the excellent work. I don’t really have anything bad to say about this beer, except that even after a few sips it makes you violently hungry*. Garrison’s Imperial India Pale Ale is solid, and certainly worth a try. I would get this again, no questions asked. Every once and a while I feel like being overwhelmed with robust flavor. The last sip is also a gritty one… full of all that delicious sediment that is left in there on purpose (I think) after the bottling process for the beer to continue to absorb flavor and gain character over time.

* The bitterness found in Hops, like most bitter plant compounds, stimulates the production of saliva and stomach acid. Thus, it prepares your body for a hearty meal. Drinking or eating something bitter without following with some sort of substantial food leaves your digestive tract at risk of harming itself from it’s own beneficial secretions. So, if you are drinking and feel hungry, eat something! I made home-made sweet potato fries to go along with this beer, and this was a flavor marriage made in heaven.

Hop Head

Hop Head is an incredibly crisp and bitter brew that for me is the hallmark of British Columbian craft brewing. The beer, as you could tell from the name, is loaded with hops, and this gives the beer a real punch and astringency that makes it really refreshing and a pleasure to drink. A quality bottle drinker if there ever was one.

Hop Head is produced by the Tree Brewing company in Kelowna, B.C. This facility also produces several other beers to which I have sampled (Cutthroat, a pale ale, and Thirsty Beaver, their most popular beer, an amber ale) Out of these three beers, Hop Head is far superior in my opinion. It is also 5.6%, while the others are only 5.0% and the beers all cost the same price. Who wouldn’t want a beer that is stronger and has more flavour, aroma and spiciness?

These beers really remind me of the Mill Street Brewing Company back home in Toronto. One major difference is that most of the Mill Street beers are delicious and instant classics. The Tree Brewing Company, like I mentioned, only produces one beer that I would actually buy (and do buy) on a regular basis, and this would put it on a lower ranking than Mill Street. However, I gotta say that I love Hop Head just as much as I do Tankhouse, which is a spectacular Mill Street Creation.

In conclusion, this is a great, local, artisan beer. Bravo, Kelowna.