This guide teaches you how to brew with coniferous trees and shrubs. In this first part of the series, I’ll introduce evergreen brewing ingredients: juniper branches, juniper berries, spruce, fir, eastern red cedar and pine. The second part deals with brewing techniques and recipes.
Juniper branches lend an extraordinary evergreen forest flavor to Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. In these rustic ales, juniper is often a cornerstone brewing ingredient, not a shy spice. That got me started with evergreen brewing.
When I started brewing sahti farmhouse ale in the early 2000s, I had problems with juniper branches. Occasionally the juniper flavor was too weak, sometimes too sharp. After talking with dozens of Finnish, Norwegian, and Estonian farmhouse brewers, I have learned to master this ingredient. Gradually I started to infuse this wonderful evergreen flavor into my modern homebrews as well. Then I noticed that the farmhouse ale flavoring methods are useful also with spruce, fir, and other conifers.
This guide documents my experiences with coniferous trees and shrubs, in brewing both traditional farmhouse ales and modern beers. Because this kind of brewing relies on what grows locally, I will also include tips from my North American friends.
If branches of common juniper that Nordic farmhouse brewers use are not available, you might have other coniferous brewing ingredients growing nearby. For example spruce, fir, and eastern red cedar. A few other Juniperus species and pine might be useful in a brewery too. I will also give tips for brewing with juniper berries that are available everywhere. The flavoring methods described in this guide can be useful with non-coniferous trees as well.
This guide focuses on practical brewing tips for getting the best possible flavor, whatever your aim is. For the background of juniper and its role in traditional ales, I recommend my book Viking Age brew and Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques. My stories of Brewing Sahti in Pertunmaa, Brewing Norwegian Farmhouse Ale in Hornindal, and The Farmhouse Homebrews of western Norway are good examples of how farmhouse brewers use juniper. See also Jereme Zimmerman’s blog post Brewing Nordic Farmhouse Raw Ale for a North American perspective on brewing with juniper.
The featured photo above shows foraging juniper branches for traditional vossaøl in Western Norway. Photo courtesy of Dag Jørgensen of Voss Bryggeri.
Evergreen Forest in Beer
I like to walk in an evergreen forest and sense the wonderful coniferous scent. Coniferous trees or shrubs can bring some of this forest aroma into beer. It is a primal flavor that arouses the hunter-gatherer in me.
Of course, forests and trees different are very different around the world, even if the tree species are the same. American beer writer Jereme Zimmerman did a test batch with Rocky Mountain juniper and he said that the aroma reminds him of the Colorado desert. Conifers bring a sense of place into beer.
In addition to the high variation of plants and locations, the evergreen flavors can vary tremendously depending on how you harvest, handle, and infuse the flavors. The flavor spectrum is so wide that conifers can match with nearly all kinds of beer flavors. This guide provides you the tools for blending all this into your brewing process and the beers you like.
Some brewers seem to think that they need to have the Nordic juniper flavor when replicating traditional Nordic farmhouse ales. After all, you brew British bitter with British ingredients? In my opinion, getting the same juniper flavor is not essential. Besides, that can be very difficult for those living outside of Northern Europe. Farmhouse brewers have used with what is readily available, and so can you. Farmhouse ales need not taste the same everywhere.
If you want to brew a farmhouse ale that traditionally features common juniper, my recommendations are:
- Your local Juniperus species is OK, as long as it is edible and tastes good.
- You can use spruce, fir, and pine in the same way as juniper branches. The taste is different but the spirit is the same, and you’ll get evergreen forest flavor.
- You can brew authentic sahti with only malt and yeast, but western Norwegian Heimabrygg pretty much requires the juniper branch flavor.
Overview of the Evergreen Brewing Techniques
Part II of this guide deals with brewing techniques but below is a quick summary to get you oriented. These methods are the major options when you want evergreen beer:
- Infuse the ingredients in hot water. Use the infusion for mashing and sparging, or add it to the wort or fermenter.
- Filter the mash through branches.
- Add the ingredients to the mash.
- Infuse the ingredients in the wort.
- Add branches, berries, or wood to a fermenter, keg, or cask.
Identifying and Finding Evergreen Ingredients
Depending on where you live, coniferous trees and shrubs can be uncomplicated or challenging brewing ingredients. Many of the conifers I’m going to talk about are normally picked or foraged locally and used fresh. Apart from juniper berries, these ingredients are probably not sold online.
When foraging conifers, identifying the plants is essential. According to the Nature Gate, the genus of Juniperus consists of 70–80 species. Some of these species are useful in brewing but some taste bad, and some are toxic.
The Nordic and Baltic farmhouse brewers normally use the species common juniper (Juniperus communis). As far as I know, other species of juniper don’t even grow Nordic forests. Common juniper is generally considered non-toxic and good for brewing around the world.
For example in North America and Southern Europe, identifying the juniper species requires caution. Eat The Planet mentions (thanks Rush Padgett for this tip!):
“There are Southern European species of significantly toxic junipers including Juniperus sabina and Juniperus oxycedrus. They are very difficult to tell apart from non-toxic Junipers especially since they hybridize with them, so to play it safe there is one rule to follow. All upright tree-form Junipers are non-toxic, that includes Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Southern Red Cedar (Juniperus silicicola), and Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), as well as others. It is worth noting that the vast majority of shrub-form Junipers are non-toxic but they are difficult to distinguish from the toxic ones”
So, according to this source tree-forms of eastern red cedar, southern red cedar, and Rocky Mountain juniper are non-toxic and it is best to avoid shrub-forms. Disclaimer: the information on Eat the Planet sounds professional but I haven’t checked the validity of these claims.
Spruce, fir, and pine are perhaps easier to recognize but in some areas identifying them requires attention too. A reader reminded that in North America toxic yew can be mistaken for spruce or fir.
Note: In the Nordic countries so-called everyman’s right allows people to pick berries and mushrooms from the wild. Branches of trees are not included in this right and require the land owner’s permission.
Once you have obtained fresh conifers you don’t need to brew with them right away. They can be stored in a fridge for several days, perhaps up to a week. You can also freeze the twigs and tips. Freezing works very well with fresh spruce tips that have a short foraging season.
Conifers and Health
Conifers have been hugely popular in traditional folk medicine around the world. Finnish biology professor Sinikka Piippo mentions dozens of internal and external uses for common juniper, spruce, and pine in her book Suomen luonnon lääkekasvit (in Finnish, translates as The medicinal plants of Finnish nature). The book lists juniper for more than a dozen of illnesses. Spruce tips, pine twigs, and pine cones have been used as a medicinal tea to fight cold and scurvy. Eat The Planet mentions that native American tribes have used edible juniper twigs and berries for cough and cold, among other things. I highly recommend reading about conifers in folk medicine. Fascinating stuff!
But as often with medicines, while small amounts can be good for you, large amounts can be unhealthy or even toxic. Folk medicide doesn’t mean that you can consume liberal amounts of plants without any health concerns. Non-toxic plants can contain toxins. This apparent contradiction means that you may see conflicting information when reading about the edibility of conifers. Similar health concerns surround many traditional brewing herbs or even culinary herbs.
With non-toxic conifers, the health concerns are related to large amounts of tar, turpentine, resins, and essential oils. Likely so large amounts render beer undrinkable way before the toxic levels. Besides plant identification, you need caution and common sense.
Measuring the Amounts
Weighing fresh coniferous branches is inexact because their moisture content varies according to season and weather. Farmhouse brewers usually eyeball the branches or measure them roughly by volume.
Measuring juniper branches or spruce tips by volume works reasonably well. A twenty-liter batch may require several liters of branches or around a liter of spruce tips. The volumes should be measured without compressing the branches or tips.
I like to also check the weight of fresh ingredients. My measuring method is a combination of volume, weight, and eyeball judgment. When brewing sahti with juniper branches in the mash the amounts are so small that I trust weighing. With dry ingredients like juniper berries or dry wood, weight measurement is the way to go.
Brewing With Juniper Branches (Common Juniper)
The northern farmhouse brewers use the branches of the common juniper, not just its berries. This is an excerpt from my book Viking Age Brew:
Juniper branches have three flavor sources: needles, berries, and wood. So it is only natural that the flavor imparted by branches differs clearly from that provided by berries alone. The branches have a more coniferous taste. Both the needles and the berries are rich in essential oils, especially in alpha-pinene, which imparts piney and herbal flavors. Some brewers like the flavor effect of the wood as well and prefer to include thicker, woodier branches for this reason.
The way you select branches and infuse their flavors determines the proportions of these three elements.
Nordic farmhouse brewers have plenty of rules when selecting the branches. These rules vary a lot from brewer to brewer, depending on personal taste and the way branches are used. I have discussed these preferences in Viking Age Brew and my story on western Norwegian farmhouse ales. My preferences are:
- Juniper branches can be harvested any time of the year and they can go straight from the tree to brew. Some sahti brewers say that early summer branches are stronger in flavor. Seasonal variation exists but in my experience the variation is not tremendous. I use branches the same way regardless of the season, as most farmhouse brewers do.
- Some traditional brewers avoid branches with green berries but I don’t mind having them. The branches with green berries can provide a stronger flavor.
- Many farmhouse brewers prefer branches no thicker than a finger. I follow this rule when making a juniper infusion. Thicker branches emphasize the flavor of wood.
- Larger chunks of juniper wood can be dried and used in various ways, for example to wood aging.
The amount of branches needed depends a lot on the infusion methods, varying from one small branch to a bucket of branches for a twenty-liter batch. For this reason, I’ll discuss the amounts in detail with the infusion methods.
Brewing With Juniper Berries
Juniper berries usually mean dried berries of common juniper. They are sold online and an important part of gin flavor. I like the aroma of juniper berries, although they lack much of the forest character of branches. The perfumy gin-like flavor of juniper berries works best as a spice complementing malt, hops, and yeast.
In my mind, berries are an acceptable substitute to branches in sahti that need not have a strong juniper character. Remember though that Nordic farmhouse brewers usually don’t brew with dried juniper berries and in the Nordic countries it would seem a modern shortcut. For 20 liters of sahti, add around 6–15 grams of crushed berries (0.2–0.5 ounces for five gallons) to the hot wort during lautering. This gives a delicate aroma and flavor, see my sahti recipe for details.
My favorite way of using juniper berries is to add them “dry” to a fermenter or keg. This brings a nice perfumy scent but little flavor. The oily and spicy aroma marry well with the malt and many kinds of hops. A few times I have added berries to a keg to invigorate a too bland or tired ale. Start dry junipering experiments with 0.75 g of berries for a liter of beer.
Juniper berries are often sold as a commodity of unknown origin. That’s a pity because surely the flavor of berries varies locally. Just because I can, I use self-foraged berries from Finnish forests. I use plenty of berries in the kitchen too, where they add a touch of Nordic forest to various foods.
Other Juniperus Species
Common juniper is not the only Juniperus species fit for brewing. I have talked with North American brewers and mead makers who use eastern red cedar (Juniperus Virginiana) and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) for traditional farmhouse ales, modern beers, and meads. There are probably other useful species too. I am documenting here only the plants with known brewing experiences.
Beer writer Jereme Zimmerman brews Nordic brews raw and boiled-wort ales from his local conifers in Kentucky. He has yet to come across common juniper, but Eastern Red Cedar is readily available to him. Jereme has gradually learned to extract refreshing and pleasant flavors from Eastern Red Cedar branches. In some of his earlier brews, the flavor was occasionally too subtle or sharp. Sound very much like my earliest experiments with common juniper branches. I suspect the sharpness comes from too hot infusion temperatures (more about this in part II of this story). While visiting Colorado, Jereme picked Rocky Mountain Juniper and said that it made even better ale than Eastern Red Cedar. See Jereme’s post Brewing Nordic Farmhouse Ales for more information on North American junipers.
Bill Green (see Oak Hill Honey Brews on Instagram) lives in Connecticut and brews meads and ales from common juniper, eastern red cedar, fir, and pine. He has been able to find common juniper although Eastern Red Cedar is much more typical in his neighborhoods. Bill likes both of them but prefers common juniper over the more gin-like Eastern Red Cedar. Usually, he makes a herbal tea (I call that an infusion) from 1.5 ounces for a gallon of mead or ale. He uses the same amounts for juniper, fir, and pine. Bill has also tried other flavoring methods (see Part II of this guide).
When I visited The Ale Apothecary in Bend, Oregon, the founder Paul Arney noted that his local juniper has a sharp flavor. Hence he prefers to brew with fir or spruce. While walking in Bend, I sampled a few berries – they had a resiny paint thinner (turpentine) aroma.
I am sure many other Juniperus species turn out to be useful in brewing. In 2021, brewing with juniper branches is still a little-discussed topic, apart from Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales.
Brewing With Spruce Tips
When brewing with spruce, I use only fresh new growth of spruce tips. The light green new tips appear in late spring or early summer. They can be easily recognized by the look, taste, and feel. At their peak, fresh spruce tips taste citrusy and tart, but not resiny at all. When the tips are turning too old for brewing, a rough resiny taste becomes obvious. The spruce tip season is short, only one to two weeks. Trees in shadier locations mature later and that can extend the harvesting season.
In the Nordic countries, spruce is hardly a traditional brewing ingredient, perhaps because juniper is so incredibly convenient. Instead, Nordic people use fresh spruce tips for food. For example, a spruce tip syrup made by boiling spruce tips, water, and sugar is a Nordic classic that goes extremely well with game or ice cream.
I have used fresh spruce tips in modern boiled-wort beers and occasionally in raw ales. In my mind, fresh spruce tips should make their presence obvious in beer. The flavor is not offensive and imprecise measurements won’t ruin the beer. For boiled-wort beers, I have added around half-liter of spruce tips for a twenty-liter batch. For raw ales, I have added one liter of spruce tips to the mash. These are good starting points for experimentation.
Practical tips for brewing with spruce tips are rare, but Gordon Strong’s book Brewing Better Beer (pages 214–216, Brewers Publications, 2011) offers useful information from Alaskan brewer Pete Devaris.
Brewing With Fir
I have brewed with fir only once when we brewed sahti at The Ale Apothecary in Oregon. We used branches in July and the flavor was similar to fresh spruce tips. Fir branches don’t seem to turn resiny as they age. The Ale Apothecary brews regularly excellent fir-flavored ale Ralph.
In my neighborhoods, fir grows only in gardens and proper amounts are unclear to me. I suspect that the usage is similar to fresh spruce tips.
Brewing With Pine
Pine is a less common brewing ingredient than juniper or spruce but it has been brewed with. Pine means a member of the Pinus genus and there are more than a hundred of them. In Finland we have mostly Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) but for example North America boasts tens of pine species.
Bill Green of Oak Hill Honey Brews has made meads and ales with pine tips. He extracts the flavor by infusing the tips in hot water. I asked if he has had problems with an overly pungent pine resin flavor. He replied that he likes a delicate pine resin character and his latest pine-flavored mead didn’t have enough of it.
Scottish brewery Williams Bros. brews Alba Scots Pine ale with fresh pine and spruce tips. It is a tasty ale with an intriguing evergreen forest flavor and a delicate taste of pine resin. The Hidden Mother brewery in the Washington State USA makes Pink Peppercorn Pine Tree Saison by using both pine log and pine tips (see this outstanding video!). Pascal Baudar makes a forest concoction (fermented soda, not a beer) including pine cones in his book Wild Crafting Brewer. He also mentions that pine cones are a good source of wild yeast.
I haven’t yet brewed with pine but perhaps I should!
This finishes part I of this guide. The part II deals with brewing techniques and recipes: Brewing Techniques for Juniper, Spruce, Fir and Pine.