Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Winter Warmer with Spruce, Maple, and Oak - Recipe & Tasting Notes

winter warmer with spruce oak and maple

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed: 8.19.2012
ABV: 7%ish(?)

Appearance: dark brown approaching black, good clarity, nice head
Smell: spicy pine and spruce, sweet malt, maple
spicy, strong spuce, maple sweetness, hint of roasted malt, bitter/astringent finish
Mouthfeel: medium/low carbonation, medium bodied, sharp, bitter finish

For the few of you that may actually be paying attention to the "Homebrew Recipes" tab on the blog, in which I list all my previous recipes and currently-aging homebrews, you may have wondered why "Three Trees" winter warmer was sitting in the "Aging" column for such a long time. It spent longer aging in secondary than any other clean / non-Brett beer I've brewed, and also received an incredible amount of attention and Plan B scenarios as I tried to improve it. So, now that I'm finally drinking it, I would like to first address a few main things right away:

1. Spruce essence is not of this world; no earthly substance could contain so much potency and overbearing flavor in such small doses. Spruce essence is an alien product and should immediately be investigated by the FDA and the FBI.

2. Considering how many "repairs" I performed on this beer, it certainly could have been much worse. So hooray for that. It's heavily flawed (more or less depending your threshold for spruce flavor) but, all things considered, drinkable. I recently had a spruce beer from a local brewery that was possibly worse / more potent than this.

3. I still think "Three Trees" is a good idea — a subtle pairing of oak, maple and spruce in a dark, malty winter warmer sounds great, doesn't it? The trick, besides not overdosing on the spruce in the first place, will be landing a balance between all four elements, being that one of them (maple) is fairly hard to bring out in a beer even on its own.

But let's start from the beginning, where the beer first went wrong: I wanted to brew this beer for the winter, and spruce tips were out of season at the time I started putting this together. If you're going to brew with spruce, I do strongly recommend planning out your beer in the spring, which is apparently the best time to harvest spruce tips. Bag some tips, vacuum-seal them, toss them in the freezer, and hang on to them for a few months before you brew. Do not bother with spruce essence. I had read extension reviews online warning of its potency, but I figured I would just play it safe and add the essence in very small doses, stepping up until I reached my desired flavor threshold. A reasonable plan, you might think. I just wanted a hint of spruce in the background, and the bottle recommends using a whole 4 ounce bottle for 10 gallons. Based on the dire warnings I read online, complaining that even one or two ounces were too much, I went with a quarter teaspoon for my 3 gallon batch, at flameout.

So the beer fermented. I gave it two weeks and took my first gravity reading and tasting. I fermented this (initially) with Conan yeast, to get a feel for its performance in darker beers, and the young beer was remarkably fruity. It tasted pretty much like peaches, which is what I expect of Conan, but I couldn't pick out any spruce character. Like, none. Fermentation must have driven off most of the character, I reasoned. So what would be a safe amount to add, to boost that spruce character? How about another quarter teaspoon of essence, bringing the total up to a half teaspoon? (Half a teaspoon!) And this I did, at the same time adding in the maple syrup.

Took a tasting a few weeks later, and wouldn't you know... my beer tastes like Pine Sol. From an additional quarter teaspoon. What the ****!?

Anyway, to shorten this sad story, the next few months were spent with various Plan B's, C's and D's meant to curb the insane spruce character. I added more maple syrup, aged the beer two or three months longer than I had originally planned to, and finally, brewed a small 1.5 gallon "blending batch," which I racked overtop the winter warmer, pitched a packet of fresh yeast, and let the whole thing "referment." I was pretty sure I hadn't tasted that first quarter teaspoon of essence because the original, active fermentation process scrubbed it off, so I figured adding fresh wort would drive out some of the flavor — besides also, you know, diluting it with extra beer. I was shocked to find how little effect this had, as if the spruce essence were itself a living presence in the beer, and just spread its way into the fresh wort without reducing in concentration.

But those counter-measures — especially the blending — must have helped some, as the beer is pretty drinkable now that it's been in bottles for about a month. The spuce is still aggressive: it dominates the initial flavor, and leads to a bitter, astringent finish. But once the beer opens up a bit, there's some nice, mellow-sweet malt character in between, with a pleasant but subtle mapleyness. More and more, week to week, it mellows out. While certainly not great, and a long shot from my original goal, I'm not having to choke it down or anything. It probably isn't even in my top five worst batches; actually, it's better than a lot of over-spiced / over-flavored beers from commercial breweries that I've had. In another year, who knows, it might actually be pretty decent.

One other thing that stands out to me as rather puzzling: where did the oak character in this go? Three gallons of this aged on an ounce of oak cubes for over three months, plus an additional month once I "blended" with that extra 1.5 gallon. Four months on oak is pretty long, and at that ratio, I would have expected a fairly strong oak character in the finished product. Maybe oak is reduced more by blending than spruce essence is? Maybe the spruce somehow just absorbed all that character? Dunno; I haven't actually nailed the oak character in any of my brews yet, so it's one thing I'll be trying to perfect over the next year. The creamy vanilla character and woodsy nuances of oak, layered with sweet maple and a hint of spicy spruce, still sounds incredible to me.

While I'm happy to drink a bottle of this every few nights, I'm also finding that it's good for baking and cooking. Adds a nice complexity to stuff like mac 'n cheese and soft pretzels. More on that later.

4.5 Gal., All Grain
Brewhouse Efficiency: 753%
Mashed at 150 degrees for 75 minutes
Fermented at 66 F in fermentation fridge
OG: 1.074 (diluted after blending)
FG: 1.011
ABV: ???%

60.5 % Canada Malting pale ale malt
17.3 % Grade B maple syrup
6.9 % Simpsons Golden Naked Oats
5.8 % brown malt
5.8 % Munich malt
3.8 % chocolate malt

Hop Schedule-
0.75 oz Pacific Gem @FWH
0.25 oz Pacific Gem @15 min
1 oz Pacific Gem @7 min

1 oz medium toast American oak cubes (aged 4 months)
0.5 teaspoon spruce essence (half at flameout, half secondary)

Conan ale yeast


  1. Preciates the in-depth explanation on how you saved the brew. You going to attempt a re-brew this winter with the same profile?

    1. Yeah, I am, it's one recipe I'd really like to perfect for my "roster." I might split it up into two batches to get a better feel for the ingredients, and to "contain" the spruce. One batch with just spruce tips (gotta harvest some this spring), and a separate batch with maple and oak. Each should be pretty good on their own, I think.

  2. Interesting beer. Regarding the oak, that surprises me as well. I brewed the clone recipe of Stone's Vertical Epic 090909 (Belgian Imperial Porter), and added somewhere around an ounce of oak chips to 5 gallons of beer in secondary, and only left it in there for less than 10 days. There's just a slight hint of oak flavor in the beer, but from that short amount of time I'd expect a pretty healthy amount of oak character after 4 months. Maybe the spruce and maple are just masking it more than you'd expect?

    1. Well, oak chips and oak cubes apparently impart their character at much different speeds, due to the difference in surface area or something. Oak chips seem to oak a beer pretty quickly, but the consensus seems to be that you need at least a month on oak cubes to extract their flavor. I probably could have added some oak chips to the brew near the end to bump that profile up, but I didn't want to risk complicating things more.

      I also suspect that an amount of oak cubes/chips will only add so much flavor (within a reasonable amount of time) before tapering off. Like, for example, adding 1.5 ounces of oak chips for 1 month will contribute more flavor than adding 1 ounce of oak chips for 1.5 months would. Something I may have to run an experiment to determine.

    2. Yeah, you're definitely right about chips vs. cubes. I read your post too quick, and didn't notice it was cubes that you used.

      It'll be interesting to see how the beer changes over the months/years, esp. in terms of spruce flavor.

    3. Yeah, I agree. Not sure how much the spruce essence will mellow out... who knows, the rest of the flavors mellowing might even make it more pronounced, or something weird. Definitely going to save a few bottles to see. For science.


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