Brewing Techniques for Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine

Brewing Techniques for Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine

This is the second part of my guide to brewing with coniferous trees and shrubs. The first part described the evergreen brewing ingredients, such as juniper branches, juniper berries, spruce, fir, eastern red cedar, and pine. Now we delve into brewing techniques and recipes. Whether you are brewing traditional Nordic farmhouse ale or innovating something new, this guide helps you to brew better beer.

I learned to appreciate the juniper flavor when researching Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. I have tasted hundreds of Finnish, Norwegian, and Estonian farmhouses ales where juniper adds outstanding evergreen forest flavor. While tasting the ales, I have talked with the brewers and learned their brewing techniques. In this guide, I’ll show how to apply these brewing techniques to various conifers and beers.

Getting pleasant evergreen flavor requires the right techniques. Boiling juniper branches in the wort for example can lead to a harsh taste of solvents and resins. In this story, I’ll introduce methods that work best with conifers, such as infusing in water, filtering mash through the branches, or adding the evergreen ingredients to the mash.

This guide is all about practical brewing tips. I am leaving out many interesting facts about juniper and farmhouse brewing. For these facts, I recommend My book Viking Age brew and Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques. My stories of Sahti in Pertunmaa, Raw ale in Hornindal, and Heimabryggs of Western Norway are good examples of how farmhouse brewers use juniper. For other applications of farmhouse brewing techniques, see my Guide to Kveik and Other Farmhouse Yeast and Brewing Modern Raw Ales.

I live, brew, and write in Finland and my brewing knowledge about conifers is mainly from the Nordic countries and Estonia. I know little about conifers elsewhere although I have received many tips from North American brewers. For more tips on brewing with North American juniper and eastern red cedar, I recommend Jereme Zimmerman’s blog post Brewing Nordic Farmhouse Raw Ale.

Remember to check out also the first part of this series: Brewing With Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine. It is the foundation for understanding these brewing techniques.

Juniper infusion for brewing Norwegian farmhouse ale in Voss
In farmhouse breweries of Western Norway all brewing liquor is often juniper infusion. This beautiful wood-fired copper kettle full of juniper infusion is from Voss, Norway.

Juniper Infusion

Infusing juniper branches in hot water is a traditional farmhouse brewing technique. It is like making several liters of tea from juniper branches. As with tea, the flavor varies with time and the water temperature. Traditional brewers use the infusion for mashing, sparging, and cleaning wooden brewing gear. When innovating new beers, you can also add it to the wort or a fermenter.

When I want good juniper branch flavor, juniper infusion is my primary method. After lots of brewing experiments and discussions with brewers, I have settled on this procedure:

Add branches to 80ºC (176ºF) water and let infuse for at least two hours, preferably three. Keep the infusion temperature in the range 70–80ºC (158–176ºF). If you use this infusion for mashing, make a second weaker infusion for sparging by pouring more hot water onto the spent branches.

Temperature is crucial here. Low temperatures extract less and may require a much longer time. Close to boiling temperatures leach sharper flavors from the woody parts of branches. If juniper branches have been in boiling water or wort I usually taste solvent, resins, and tannic wood in the ale.

One of my most typical brewing mistakes is forgetting the heating on and letting the infusion temperature rise too high. A short period in the range 80–90ºC (176–194ºC) can be still OK but the risk of leaching harsh flavors increases.

Some farmhouse brewers are not afraid of infusing branches in boiling water, however. They might like the strong taste of juniper wood or their ale is so robust that sharpness is a minor background flavor. Interestingly, traditional sahti brewer Hannu Sirén adds the branches to boiling hot water but he also skims tarry looking crud from the infusion surface before adding it to the mash. His sahti has a pleasant juniper flavor without sharpness. Likely the sharper elements were in that crud. When 80ºC (176ºF) is the maximum, only a small amount of oily stuff rises to the surface has and I don’t see a need for a skim.

When making an infusion for cleaning wooden vessels, boiling temperatures are probably better. I suspect that the resins from the branches create an antibacterial coating for wooden surfaces.

Juniper infusion for brewing
Juniper infusion fills the whole house with fantastic evergreen forest aroma. It is like a kettle full of herbal tea. I like this method also because the quality and intensity of the juniper flavor can be judged by tasting the infusion.

With the lower temperature method described above the amount of branches can be fairly high. A ten-liter bucket of branches (measured without compressing them) for a 20–25 liter batch gives firm flavor. This amount is also recommended for western Norwegian farmhouse ales in Historical Brewing Techniques.

When brewing raw ales without the wort boil, I use the infusion for mashing and sparging. First I make full mash volume of infusion from all branches intended for the recipe. After mashing in, I add hot water onto the spent branches enough for full sparge volume. You’ll get the idea how this works from the recipes below. In the next section, I’ll describe variations of this technique for boiled-wort beers.

I haven’t yet tried this kind of infusion with other conifers but I’m pretty sure it works well. The optimal temperatures might be different than with juniper, just as with different varieties of tea.

Conifer infusion can be used for meads and sodas as well. Once I made a tasty juniper lemonade from juniper infusion, honey, and lemons. Dissolving honey into conifer infusion sounds like a great way to make mead!

The color of juniper branch infusion
After three hours the juniper infusion color is amber to mahogany. The needles look dark green and a thin oily film floats on the surface.

Infusion for Boiled-Wort Beers

I believe the needles and berries have also more fragrant aromas and flavors that evaporate in the boil. Therefore, I have explored different kinds of infusion methods for boiled-wort beers.

Juniper branches can be also infused in the wort but I recommend avoiding temperatures above 80ºC (176ºF). One option is to use a method similar to the hop stand: after the boil, cool your wort to 80ºC (176ºC) and add juniper branches to the wort. Let them infuse 30–90 minutes before cooling to fermentation temperature.

It seems that juniper branches benefit from fairly long infusion times and the “juniper stand” should be at least 30 minutes. Therefore, I have added this modification: before the wort boil, make a very condensed juniper infusion. After the boil, cool your wort to 80ºC (176ºC) add this infusion to the wort and let infuse awhile. See my recipe Autumn below for how this works.

Nevertheless, plenty of good juniper flavor remains even with the boil. Norwegian vossaøls are mashed and sparged with juniper infusion and the wort is boiled for several hours. Yet the juniper flavor is excellent. Even with the “juniper stand” I like to build the juniper backbone with mash and sparge infusion.

Wort Boil for Spruce Tips

Fresh spruce tips can be infused in boiling water or wort without the fear of sharp flavors. Alaskan homebrewer Pete Devaris recommends boiling the fresh spruce tips in the wort for one hour. “I have found this to be ideal for sugar extraction while minimizing vegetable and chlorophyll extraction”, says Devaris, referring to sugars in the spruce tips. According to Devaris, one quart of uncompressed spruce tips for a five-gallon batch (one liter for 20 liters) gives subtle background flavor, and the amount can be doubled for barley wines. These tips are documented in Gordon Strong’s book Brewing Better Beers (Brewers Publications 2011, pages 214–217).

I have brewed tasty beers with this method, using 1/2–1 liters of branches for a 20-liter batch. Nevertheless, I want to test the no-boil infusion method for spruce tips as well. Perhaps it gives some extra flavors that would be lost in the boil. For raw ales, I have successfully brewed by adding spruce tips to the mash (more about this below).

I don’t know if the wort boil works for fir or pine.

Lautering Through Branches

This is a traditional sahti lauter tun known as kuurna. The most traditional way of using it is to build the mash filter from juniper branches and/or straws. Photo courtesy of Veikko Kivioja.

Among Nordic and Estonian farmhouse brewers, laying juniper branches to the bottom of the lauter tun is the most common way of using juniper. The branches provide an effective mash filter and flavor as well. In the past, straws were often laid along with the branches. Today straws filters are rare but I know several farmhouse brewers who still lauter through juniper branches.

The flavor provided by the juniper filter depends on various things besides the amount of branches. Some Norwegian brewers use branches that have already been in the infusion but sahti brewers usually lauter through untreated branches. Infusion is a less common flavoring method among sahti brewers.

Lautering time and mash temperature affect flavor extraction too. Farmhouse brewers typically lauter slowly which gives plenty of contact time. Some sahti brewers bring the mash to simmering boil before lautering and this can release harsher flavors from the branches.

Seeing a juniper filter makes me smile every time and the method can give excellent evergreen flavor. Nevertheless, when I want best possible juniper flavor I prefer the infusion method. The infusion gives far more control over the flavor intensity and quality.

Nordic farmhouse brewers haven’t used other conifers in the lauter tun, perhaps because juniper is widely available and works very well year-round. But what’s stopping you from lautering through spruce, fir, or pine? Birch twigs could work too. Some sahti brewers have used pea sprigs in the past and one traditional Lithuanian brewer uses raspberry canes.

Juniper branch filter for Estonian koduõlu farmhouse ale
Juniper branch filter for brewing Estonian farmhouse ale, koduõlu. The filter can be massive without an overpowering flavor, provided the temperature in the lauter tun does not exceed 80ºC (176ºF).

Adding Conifers to the Mash

Adding conifers to the mash along with grains is a very simple way to extract evergreen flavors. I have used this approach successfully for various brewing herbs. Interestingly, mash hopping seems to be somewhat ineffective.

Traditional farmhouse brewers don’t add juniper branches to the mash. It simply isn’t a tradition. Yet it mimics lautering through branches and for brewers with a modern brewing setup it is a convenient shortcut.

I have added juniper branches to the mash many times but only when brewing sahti with a delicate juniper character. Around half a liter for 20 liters of sahti has given a subtle flavor that Finnish sahti devotees appreciate. One liter per 20 liters didn’t taste pungent and is closer to my preference but some sahti traditionalists might find it a tad too sharp.

I suspect that the juniper infusion and mash addition produce a different kind of flavor but I haven’t tested this conception properly. For the same amount of branches, the infusion method described above might give a milder flavor. Perhaps mash extracts more wood flavor. I’m planning to test these hypotheses with bigger mash additions.

Nevertheless, adding conifers to the mash workable way to extract flavor from juniper and other conifers. Whatever conifers you use, I recommend a steep time of two hours or more.

0.5–2 liters of juniper branches for 20 liters of beer (0.5-2 quarts for five gallons) should be a good starting point for mash junipering. One Canadian brewer commented that he likes to use two liters for 15 liters of ale (I don’t know what kind of ale).

I have brewed a tasty spruce raw ale with this method. I used a liter of spruce tips in the mash for a 20-liter batch of sahti-like ale. The flavor was subtle and next time I would add two liters.

Adding fir branches to the mash at The Ale Apothecary
When we brewed Oregonian-Nordic sahti at the Ale Apothecary we added fir tips to the mash.

Post-Fermentation Methods

Traditional farmhouse brewers don’t add juniper to the fermenter but there are some interesting options for adding evergreen flavor after fermentation.

I try to extract all or most conifer flavors on the hot side before fermentation. A concentrated infusion could be added after fermentation but I haven’t tested that. The infusions and mash additions on a brew day have worked so well.

Bill Green(Oak Hill Honey Brews on Instagram) has experimented with adding conifer branches into a fermenter when making meads. He said that the flavor wasn’t as good as from an infusion.

The aroma of juniper berries is so fragile that I prefer to add them after fermentation to a fermenter or keg. This brings a nice perfumy gin-like scent but little flavor. If you are worried about wild yeast on berries you can blanch them in hot water. 0.75 g of berries for a liter of beer is a subtle starting point for “dry junipering”.

I have wood-aged my homebrews with birch, alder, and cherry wood. I’m yet to try juniper wood but I think it has great potential. The aroma of juniper wood is fantastic. The method is simple: toast dried and debarked wood cubes or slices to chestnut brown with a gas flame and add them to aging beer. This a local DIY alternative to oak cubes and works well with beers that benefit from aging, such as imperial stouts and barley wines.

Juniper branches and dry juniper wood can be used for smoking food or malt. See my story Takatalo & Tompuri: A Cold Smoking Farm Brewery about a Finnish brewery that smokes their malt with alder and juniper wood.

A traditional Finnish sahti drinking vessel, haarikka. It is usually made from juniper and the wood aroma is so strong that whatever you drink from it tastes as if brewed with juniper. Unfortunately, haarikkas are difficult to find outside of Finland. Check my video Nordic Beer Drinking Vessels. Photo by Mari Varonen.

Evergreen Recipes

The following two recipes are my home homebrew classics that showcase well the evergreen brewing techniques. See my Guide to Kveik and Other Farmhouse Yeast for fermentation tips.

Autumn

In the Nordic countries, food is seasonal and I view beer the same way too. Many of my house beers are only seasonally available and perfect for the season. In the fall season, Autumn is my preferred beer, hence the name. It goes extremely well with hearty autumn or winter foods, such as stews, soups, mushrooms, and game.

Autumn is a modern malty beer with a standard wort boil. Luscious Vienna malt is the primary flavor and juniper provides a soft background note. The juniper flavors can fade fairly steeply and hence I aim for a pronounced evergreen forest flavor when the beer is tapped. After a month or two, the juniper character has become nicely delicate.

I like to keep fermentation flavors subdued but subtle fruitiness can pair well with juniper. Kveik or ale yeast with clean or mildly fruity profile work well. I have had good results with Omega Espe kveik that produces subtle flavors of raisins and plum.

Juniper beer for autumn season
My homebrew Autumn has the color of autumn leaves and tastes perfect when nature wilts. Photo by Mari Varonen.

Autumn – Recipe for 20 Liters

Original gravity: 1.061 (15ºP)
Final gravity: 1.015 (3.8ºP)
Alcohol by volume: 6 %
IBU: 25

Malts:
4.35 kg Vienna malt (75 % of malt)
1.4 kg Pilsner malt (24 %)
0.06 kg dehusked black malt (1 %)
Bitterness hops for 25 IBU
3 liters of juniper branches (top twigs, blue and green berries are ok)
Kveik or ale yeast (neutral or slightly fruity)

Put one-third of the branches aside for later “aroma junipering”. Choose the most needle-rich and less woody parts of twigs. Use the remaining two-thirds of the branches to make enough juniper infusion for mashing. Let the branches infuse for 2–3 hours at 70–80°C (158–176°F).

Before mashing in, heat the infusion high enough to arrive at a mash temperature of 65°C (151–154°F). Mash in with juniper infusion and keep the mash at this temperature for 45 minutes. Add more hot water onto the spent juniper branches to make an infusion for sparging. Raise the mash to 70–72°C (158–162°F), and hold at this temperature for half an hour. Lauter and sparge with juniper infusion.

While you are waiting for the wort to boil, prepare the second juniper infusion for aroma: pour 80°C (176°F) water over the branches, just enough to immerse them. This infusion needs to be concentrated because you will be pouring it into the wort after the boil. Keep infusion below 80°C (176°F). There’s no need to worry about keeping the temperature above 70°C (158°F) as hot wort will finalize the steep.

Boil the wort for 75 minutes and bittering hops for 60 minutes. Chill the wort to 80°C (176°F) and add the aroma juniper infusion to the wort. Keep a “juniper stand” for 15–30 minutes and then chill to fermentation temperature. Let the yeast do its magic. Bottle or keg with soft to medium carbonation. For bottle conditioning, I recommend 4.5 grams of table sugar per liter of beer.

Trolldryck

This beer has an incredibly robust yet soft evergreen forest flavor. An unusual flavor bomb but also magically drinkable. Therefore I named the beer Trolldryck. In Swedish trolldryck means a magic potion (you know the stuff that Asterix drinks) though the direct translation is troll’s drink. Both meanings describe this beer well. This is one of my homebrew favorites.

This blond raw ale resembles some Norwegian kornøls and sahtis. The brewing process is traditional yet I haven’t tasted a traditional farmhouse ale with this kind of strong juniper kick. Perhaps some farmhouse brewers along the fjords of Norway brew a similar ale. Nevertheless, following a tradition wasn’t my primary goal. I just wanted the best possible flavor. The recipe below is a fine example of an extremely tasty yet simple-to-brew raw ale. Check out my guide Brewing Modern Raw Ales for more information about this kind of no-boil beers.

I haven’t yet brewed this ale with spruce or fir tips but I’m sure it works very well. In the recipe below I describe how I would brew this with spruce or fir. Hopefully, in June 2021 I’ll be able to test brew this with spruce tips as well.

I’m happy with this recipe but you can tune it to your taste in various ways. If you are not a fan of smoked beer just brew with 100 % Pilsner malt. This beer will be excellent without smoked malt but in my mind aromas of evergreen forest and campfire is an outstanding pairing. I like the striking contrast of very pale beer and surprisingly strong taste. If you want a more impressive amber color you can add for example some caramel rye malt. Just keep the malt base mellow and drinkable.

This beer can be brewed with various kinds of yeast. Clean or mildly fruity kveik or ale yeast would be a safe choice but there’s also room for more expressive fermentation flavors. I tested the recipe with Stalljen kveik and citrus fruit flavors from this kveik fitted in perfectly. Surely Voss-type kveiks work well too.

Trolldryck is an unusual beer and also unusually good. One sip and I feel like I’m in a troll forest. Photo by Mari Varonen.

Trolldryck – Recipe for 20 Liters

Original gravity: 1.075 (18.2ºP)
Final gravity: 1.018 (4.6ºP)
Alcohol by volume: 7.5 %
IBU: 10

Malts:
4.9 kg Pilsner malt (75 % of malt)
1.6 kg wood smoked malt (25 %)
10–12 liters of juniper branches, or 2 liters spruce or fir tips
20–40 g of medium-alpha hops for 10 IBU (hop tea)
Kveik or ale yeast

If you are brewing this with spruce or fir, skip the juniper infusion below and add the spruce or fir tips to the mash instead.

Make an infusion from the juniper branches with enough water for the mash. Let the branches infuse for 2–3 hours. Before mashing in, heat the infusion high enough to arrive at a mash temperature of 66–68°C (151–154°F). Keep the mash at this temperature for 45 minutes. 

Once you have mashed in, add more hot water onto the spent juniper branches to make an infusion for sparging. At this point, prepare the hop tea: Boil the hops in a small amount of water for one hour, and then dump the whole tea into the mash. Use around one liter of water per 30 grams of hops (quart per ounce). Note: this method gives roughly half of the bitterness of a typical wort boil.

Raise the mash to 70–72°C (158–162°F), and hold at this temperature for half an hour. Then raise to 75–78°C (167–172°F) for the final 30 minutes. Begin lautering, and recirculate until the wort runs clear. Sparge with 75–78°C (167–172°F) juniper infusion until 20 liters is collected. 

Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and pitch yeast. Let ferment completely and bottle or keg when most yeast has flocculated. Smooth carbonation similar to cask-conditioned ale is perfect for this beer. If bottle-conditioning, I recommend 3–3.5 grams of table sugar per liter of ale.

This completes my two-part series of brewing with conifers. As you have seen this is a multi-branched topic and a lot remains to be tested. I will continue researching and collecting information. I will update this guide whenever something new comes up. The same applies also to Part I on evergreen ingredients: Brewing with Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine.

8 thoughts on “Brewing Techniques for Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine

  • February 28, 2021 at 9:25 pm
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    Excellent, thank you for providing this information. Living in New England I don’t have access to Juniper, but there is plenty of pine and spruce. I’m looking into using spruce tips and maple water to see what happens

    Reply
    • March 1, 2021 at 5:35 am
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      You’re welcome Mike! I’m interested to hear what maple water brings. Here in Finland brewers have experimented with birch sap but it haven’t always added a detectable flavor to a beer.

      Reply
  • March 2, 2021 at 7:51 pm
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    Great article! I’m trying Trolldryck recipe this weekend. However, I’ve been trying to brew with juniper branches few times before and couldn’t get evergreen forest aroma or even similar. I prepared infusion below 80*C, the color was ok but it smelled and tasted more like black tea or earth than forest. Is it possible that juniperus communis in Poland gives different kind of aroma than Finland or Norway?

    Reply
    • March 3, 2021 at 3:50 pm
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      Juniperus communis may taste different in Poland than in the Nordic countries. In my opinion, the infusion method at 70–80°C gives plenty of needle flavor and that’s what I associate with aromas of evergreen forest. You can chew some juniper needles or make a herbal tea from them to check the flavor. If that gives you a good evergreen flavor then you should be able to brew good juniper beer.

      Reply
      • March 3, 2021 at 5:11 pm
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        The needles itself smells and tastes really nice, just like forest should be, but almost none of this aroma and tastes goes to infusion. I already tried juniper branches from different locations and time of year. Gonna check one more time and strictly keep up with your instructions. Maybe I made a mistake somewhere…

        Reply
        • March 4, 2021 at 3:30 pm
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          Sounds like you should be able to get good evergreen flavor from that kind of branches with right amounts and techniques. One possibility is that the flavor of the juniper wood is so strong that it masks the flavor of needles.

          Reply
  • April 28, 2021 at 8:50 pm
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    Thanks very much for the articles, they are very useful. I have been making “eesti olut ” for decades in honour of my mother who was from Tallinn, but with wildly variable results, some great, some bland and some with off-tastes. Your site has made me realize that I have been using every juniper except common juniper, which is not commonly planted here in Ottawa. Fortunately, there are lots of wild stands of common juniper around, so I just made a batch of your Autumn ale following the infusion instructions, and am looking forward the results. I will make a spruce beer as soon as the buds are out, as I have made several batches in the past with good results, but I prefer the taste of juniper when it works.
    Cheers,
    Ian Campbell, Ottawa, Canada.

    Reply
    • April 29, 2021 at 3:49 pm
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      Thanks Ian! According to my Northern American friends common juniper is clearly different in flavor from other juniperuses. Estonians certainly respect juniper flavor and I have tasted great juniper beers from Estonia, both traditional koduõlu and modern beer.

      Reply

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