Alaskan Winter Ale is once again in stores in all 17 states where Alaskan Brewing Co. distributes and will be available through the rest of 2015. Alaskan co-Founder Geoff Larson recently talked about the inspiration behind the beer he first brewed nearly 20 years ago.
“The historical inspiration behind Winter Ale came from Captain Cook,” Larson said. “He had 14 separate references in his logs about spruce and beer. Not all the references were positive – at first he added full boughs of spruce, bark and all, and then wrote of a ‘mutinous crew’— so that batch was not appreciated! Then he wrote about adding only the new growth of the spruce, new shoots, and said this was an especially fine brew and this seemed to go over well with his crew.”
Larson explained that there was an awareness of spruce as an ingredient; homebrewers had been using spruce essence for years.
“But to me those always tasted piney and tarry. Things like jellies and spruce syrup, which are pretty unique to this area of the world, caught the character of the spruce I was after – that berry-like quality with tartness and a high aromatic character – very different from the spruce essence beers I had tried,” he said.
A big beer hurdle was picking the tips and getting enough at the right time. “To make beer in the volumes we need – that’s a lot of tips. Marcy [co-Founder and Geoff’s wife] hit on the idea of using Pep’s Packing out in Gustavus because they do food packing and processing out there and can handle that end of it,” Larson recounted. “And they end up coordinating getting essentially the whole town of Gustavus out picking spruce tips right when they first bud out in early spring, which here in Alaska is the beginning of June. Pep’s perfected the packing. There are a number of steps, including a process of aerating the tips once they’re packed. We found out that freezing and vacuum packing needs to be done in the right order or the tips can spoil.”
As with many things craft beer, locally sourced spruce tips had a dramatic impact on the beer.
“Because the people in Gustavus get excited by the prospect every year of picking this ‘cash crop,’ they end up picking them quickly when they first bud during the ‘first flush,’ when the buds are being infused with that first flow of sugar-rich sap to promote the new growth,” Larson said. “As a result, our tips benefit from being particularly tart and packed with flavor.”
Today’s English Ale wasn’t the first style of choice for Alaskan Winter Ale. The brewery first used spruce tips in its Old Growth Barleywine.
“I thought it was potentially how Capt. Cook might have brewed beer, in the method of creating ‘threads’ on one brew, so the higher gravity first part of the mash was used for barleywines, and then an old English ale, and then perhaps something with even less alcohol,” Larson said. “After we did that barleywine, I thought a nice cold-weather beer would be something fairly warming, but also mellow enough to have a couple with dinner. The old English ale fit the flavor I was hoping to get and seemed like a likely style that Captain Cook would have been brewing.”