Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Transmogrification: Spruce Barleywine, Part 1


At the header of this page, Burning Pasta promotes itself as "a do-it-yourself guide to basic cooking, food pairing, and homebrewing, based out of philadelphia, pa." We even put an Oxford comma in there for you. I know you're impressed, right?

We're not just reminding you of what's on our header for fun, though. Up and until now, with the exception of a fleeting glance at a felicitous glass of Apricot Wheat Ale last year, we’ve largely failed to satisfy the homebrewing end of that proclamation. Well, we’re going to rectify all those broken promises, and we’re going to do so right now.


The truth of the matter is that I’ve been an avid homebrewer for just over five years. A unique mix of cooking and chemistry, homebrewing allows me to experiment with flavors, honing my palate and hands with the use of ingredients and technique alike. The strains of yeast (cultivated and wild alike), the hops (noble and domestic), the mash temperatures (and the enzymatic processes that happen) all effect the final product.

Part art, part science, the final product is entirely enjoyable. There are few more satisfying moments for the home chef than pairing food they have cooked with beer they have brewed.

As I stated before, I’ve been brewing for just over five years. As that 5th anniversary came closer, I looked for a special idea, a unique project to undertake, a flavor combination that hadn’t been achieved before. It was quite the task, believe me. Over the years, I’ve fermented beer filtered through a bed of baked soft pretzels, fragranced floral ales with lavender and rosewater, and infused peanut butter into a deep, chocolate-perfumed imperial stout.

One of the more unusual batches I’ve been involved in brewing was a Smmmorestout, the brainchild of my good friend and fellow 5-year brewer, Nolan. Graham crackers were put in the mash, cocoa powder in the boil, pounds upon pounds of marshmallows whisked in at flameout; the result was a remarkably delicious beer. After all, if it doesn't taste good, what's the point?

Nolan and I brainstormed over multiple phone calls, trying to figure out the perfect ingredients, trying to create something never attempted before. One of us remembered that a traditional 5th Anniversary gift is wood...wood, trees, Spruce Beer! A largely-forgotten Colonial-era style, Spruce beers were a favorite tipple of Benjamin Franklin, beloved Philadelphian. This would be a good idea, but it had been done before -- there are even commercial examples.

We'd have to break the mold with technique, if not ingredients. The last few years have seen a push towards higher ABV% (or Alcohol By Volume percentage) beers made by commercial craft breweries. The traditional British inspiration for all this is known as Barleywine, due to its wine-like strength. Almost every style is now also produced in a "wine" or 'Imperial" version of itself: Rye Beer becomes Ryewine, Wheat Beer becomes Wheatwine, Brown Ales become Imperial Brown Ales. One brewery, Stone, of San Diego, CA, even produces a Imperial Mild Ale -- ironically, a style best known for its mild flavor and low-alcohol percentage. Even with all this development, however, no one has yet produced a Spruce Barleywine.

And so, in this vein, and with Nolan visiting in from California for just a few days, we set out to shatter another style, to place our own mark upon brewing. It was time for the Spruce to get loose -- and to go up to 15% ABV.


We started out early in the morning -- note the early-morning haze still sitting in the neighbor's yard behind me. The small Charlie Brown-like tree I'm taking my scissors to is a Blue Spruce, historically used for these kinds of beers. We used as inspiration for our beer a recipe from the Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum, a guide to the trees and shrubs of Great Britain, published in 1844 by John Claudius London. While our scale, ingredients and technique were going to change, we figured it would be a good idea to look back at what Spruce Beer brewers had been doing back through history. While the modern brewers that have attempted this style have suggested using fresh, green, young fronds for better flavor, we decided to go with John London's suggestion of Spruce twigs and more mature branches. Our reasons were two-fold: 1.) Harder, larger branches would work both as a flavoring and filtering mechanism, and 2.) We were brewing in December, and there were no fresh, green, young, well, anything, anywhere.

Once we had collected a good selection of spruce clippings, Nolan weighed and separated them by size, tenderness, and moisture; that is to say, how much sap they seemed to contain. Here you see him with just a small proportion of the overall harvest.

At this point, it was time to get brewing. For those of you reading who are experienced homebrewers, you may find some of this exhausting. For the rest of you, know that, with the exception of the spruce used (and the amount of grain), all the techniques used here are those that would be used to brew any other batch of grain-extracted homebrew.

We decided to do a two-stage spruce infusion process -- the larger, firmer, "drier" branches were to be used for the mash-in, where hot water is added to grain for the purpose of extracting sugar from them. Here, Nolan places the large branches at the bottom of the mash tun, to serve as flavoring agent and filtering mechanism.

A look inside the tun as Nolan adds the branches.

I add the grain in. We used about 22 pounds of grain for a 5 gallon batch -- this would push our mash tun almost to the limit. Note the dust on my pants; we lost about a half-pound of grain due to one of the several grain bags exploding over my pants. Luckily, almost all of the grain fell in the tun anyway. You can also see a plastic tube coming into the tun from the left side of the frame -- simultaneously, Nolan is pumping water (heated to about 162 F) into the tun to begin the enzymatic conversion of the malted grain's sugars.

While you're adding the grain, it's important to stir the mash constantly -- this helps prevent clumps of grain from forming. For those of you who have never brewed before, you should think of the mashing process as being very similar to what you'd imagine making 5 gallons of oatmeal would be like. It's about the same consistency, and, as anyone who's had lumpy oatmeal before knows, it reacts to the infusion of hot water in much the same way. Stirring, and being vigorous about it, is very important at this stage.

As we "mashed-in," the Spruce branches rose up into the solution. While this would limit their ability to help filter the grain later on, there was a state-of-the art metal mesh screen installed at the bottom of the tun, so we weren't too worried.

Here's a close-up of the malt and Spruce branches, mixed together.

Now, some of you may be wondering why we're doing all this in a big sports-drink cooler. Well, the key to successful mashing is consistency in temperature -- what extracts the sugars from the grain is a series of enzymatic processes, each triggered by exposure to different water temperatures. Some influence the amount of protein in solution, some aid in saccrification (that's the big one), and others effect the "body" and mouthfeel of the beer. It sounds complicated, but it's really not. After we were satisfied the malt, water, and Spruce were well mixed, and the temperature had happily settled in at 150 degrees F, we tightly screwed the cooler's lid on and let the entire thing steep for 45 minutes.

After the time had elapsed, the contents of the cooler looked like this:

Why did the color get so dark? Along with the extraction of sugars, the unfermented beer (or "wort') takes on flavor characteristics from the malt it's been soaking in. Brewers can influence what these flavors are by using malt that's been toasted, caramelized, roasted, or by adding in additions of grain other than the traditional barley. Nolan and I used a "tiered" method of malt addition, adding to our base grain several different preparations of "caramel malt," at 40, 60, 80, and 120 lovibond each (the higher the number, the darker the beer and deeper the caramelized flavors).

At this point, we needed to separate the sweet and extracted liquid from the now spent grains, and we wanted to ensure that as much of the sugar contained within would be transfered to the next stage of the brewing session. This is a two-stage process, known as "sparging."

Here are the basics: The mesh screen at the bottom of the mash tun separates the sugars from the grain bed above them. At first, this runoff is recirculated, as early drainage is often cloudy and filled with flecks of grain and grit. Once the brewer is satisfied with the clarity of the run-off, it is drained into a metal brewing kettle, which will be where the sweet wort is boiled. During this drainage process, hot water is added to the top of the mash tun from an above tank. This water is heated to 170 degrees F, which will stop the enzymatic conversion going on within the mash tun.

Confused? How about a video, which shows the process in action. You'll see the hot tank, with the 170 F water, then the mash tun, then the brewing kettle. Follow the process, and turn up your volume to hear Nolan remark on the passing of a giant from the world of English theatre:

Pretty neat, huh? Here's a close-up of that spinning device you saw about halfway through; the metal bar is filled with dozens of little pinholes, which, combined with the twirling motion, guarantees equal distribution of the hot water, and, therefore, more even washing of the grain bed. Every bit of sugar counts!

Here, we see where all those tubes were headed, and, as you can see, it was towards more Spruce! These are the smaller, tender, more sap-filled clippings -- the boiling process, we hoped would extract as much flavor from them as possible. We ended up draining 6 gallons of wort from the hot water tank/mash tun combination, as we expected to lose about one gallon of volume to the boil.

Here's a close-up of the wort pouring over the clippings. Note the clarity -- considering this stuff looked like oatmeal about an hour before, you can appreciate how rigorous and thorough the filtering process is.

This stage provides the brewer with an early chance to check out the aromas and flavors that are emerging from the brewpot -- here, yours truly gets his nose close to the action. Both Nolan and I remarked about the noticeable, bracing jolt of fresh pine that pervaded the air.

Following the tradition of John London, we began the boil with a healthy addition of molasses, the better to add additional layers of richness and flavor.

From here, the brewing process was very simple -- a 60 minute boil, and, ever the traditionalists, even when breaking the mold, healthy additions of Challenger and Kent Golding hops. A couple of decoctions later, we gave the batch a last, final addition of roughly-chopped Spruce clippings right before ending the boil, a "flame-out" addition designed to boost the pine aromas. Right now, the beer is slowly fermenting at a cool 55 degrees, buried deep in the root cellar of a Pennsylvanian house. I had a chance to check it the other day, and...well, you'll just have to wait and see. Part 2 should should show up on this page in a few more months, so, until then, how about a little music?

Music: Sibelius, performer unknown -- "Opus 75, no. 5, Le Sapin (The Spruce)"


  1. Awesome! Personally, my palate despises beer, but I respect the craft of brewing. Good job! Someone (maybe Dogfish Head?)did a historical spruce beer a while back. All I remember, is tasting one a few years ago. I know, the helpful info is plentiful!

  2. Great post! I'm still a extract-mixed grain brewer myself, so I dug seeing your rig in action. I can't wait to see how your batch turns out.

    Let me know if you need help drinking it! 8)


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