Before diesel-fueled cargo ships sloshed their way across the world's oceans, beer dictated the distance the Western world could travel by sea. Enough ale, and you'd make it where you wanted to go. Too little, and you might settle for an inauspicious site like Plymouth Rock. And when you ran out? Well, you stopped and made more.
In 1792, red-coated Capt. George Vancouver was mapping the rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest when his crew found itself depleted of barrel-aged stock. The shipmates dropped anchor, brought their brewing kits ashore, and set about replenishing their supply.
Unfortunately, they were out of hops. And so the first beers brewed in the New World's greatest hop-growing region were made with something else. They improvised, using an ingredient recommended by famed British explorer Capt. James Cook: spruce.
"Any brewer knows, you've got to make beer with what you've got," says Jack Harris of Fort George Brewery in Astoria. "Spruce buds were one of the things they knew they could use instead of hops."
Spruce tips are the small, soft chutes that emerge from Northwest-native Sitka spruce in late spring. These buds are citrusy and candy-sweet—a perfect substitute for hops. By the late 1700s, sailors worldwide were singing the praises of spruce ales, and recipes containing spruce can be found dating to well before America's first cry for independence.
Modern historians theorize that spruce ales have certain benefits. Their high vitamin C content may have warded off scurvy, and the preservative qualities of spruce may have helped the beer keep well despite constantly rolling decks. But explorers had a more important reason to brew the stuff: Spruce beer, especially the kind brewed with fresh tips in spring, tastes bloody awesome.
In fact, it might just be the best style of beer you're not drinking.
"It's hard to put into words just how amazingly refreshing a good spruce beer is," says Harris, whose brewery has been boiling up a fresh batch of Spruce Budd Ale each year since it opened in 2007. "It wasn't like they were really out looking for scurvy prevention."
Like many classic beer styles that have seen a resurgence in the American consciousness, spruce beer was fairly well forgotten in the Northwest for a long time after Vancouver and his men brewed their last batch. Today, there's an ever-growing number of farmhouse breweries and sour-beer apothecaries, but Fort George is among the few breweries in the Northwest that actually makes a beer with spruce tips.
"I don't want [people] to think that I just pulled this out of my ass," Harris says, laughing. "I make sure that they know it's an old recipe."
Harris rediscovered the style by accident. When he was "dragged" to a naturopathy conference by his wife years ago, he heard a speaker named Stephen Buhner, who talked about various historic herbal brews. It sparked an idea in Harris, who at the time was brewing at Bill's Tavern and Brew House in Cannon Beach.
"I was just really blown away by his whole thing [with herbal beers], but the spruce seemed really doable," he says. "Sitka spruce is native to here, and that inspired me to brew a locally sourced, locally wild-harvested beer."
For the rest of his tenure at Bill's, Harris offered patrons a free pitcher of brew for every pound of spruce tips they brought him in spring. Then he'd gather the tips and boil up a fresh nine-barrel batch of the stuff.
For those who knew about it, the beer was a seasonal delight that was well worth some foraging. But that spruce beer largely went unnoticed until Harris moved up the coast and opened Fort George. He brought his recipe, and has brewed it every spring.
The contemporary Spruce Budd Ale is a deliciously pale brew with a clingy white head and fruitcake nose. It's a single-malt ale made with English-style yeast and no hops. That helps showcase the spruce's fruity taste, and is a gentle nod to the beer's roots. It has slowly developed a cult following.
"There are people who plan an annual trip to the brewery to get their spruce beer," Harris says. "It has really gotten onto people's radars now."
Fort George needs 500 pounds of spruce tips to make a 60-barrel batch that lasts about a month. There's no commodity market for such a thing, so the brew crew takes a case of cans to the woods and harvests the tips by hand, just like Vancouver's men did. The beer is on tap now, though the season is fleeting.
"I love when I get the brewers out to pick raw ingredients and bring them back the brewery, and kind of nurture it and put them in the beer," Harris says. "It really brings the whole thing home."