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Food and Drink

In Southeast Alaska, spring means spruce tips — on the plates of local diners

Millie and Phin Patrick, 10 and 8 years old, show off their harvest of Sitka spruce tips Thursday in Gustavu. The tips are harvested by the community and processed by Pep’s Packing, which sell the spruce tips to breweries and restaurants in Southeast Alaska. (Pep Scott)

Across Southeast Alaska, a regional ingredient is moving out of the kitchens of seasonal foragers and onto restaurants' menus, in the form of everything from cocktails and pasta to ice cream and pickles.

And the ingredient, Sitka spruce tips, is literally one that grows on trees.

While home cooks have made up batches of spruce-tip jelly and tea for decades, the tips, which emerge each spring on the abundant spruce trees that loom over the region, have slowly been moving toward broader commercial applications. Nearly every brewery in the region offers some variation of a spruce-tip ale and local restaurants are adding more spruce-tip dishes to their menus.

Midgi Moore, a food blogger and owner of Juneau Food Tours, said she's seen more chefs in the region embrace spruce tips in recent years. She said part of that is a growing national interest in local foods, but chefs also want to share a sense of place with visitors.

"(Spruce tips) are such an intrinsic part of Southeast Alaska and being able to use something like that in our food really speaks to our surroundings and where they are," Moore said.

The small, bright green buds that protrude from the ends of the tree branches are perfect for harvesting right now, according to Sarah Lewis, the family and community development agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension office in Juneau. Lewis said the tips should be harvested while they're small and tightly bunched. It's a season that goes quickly, lasting only about a week.

For chefs in the region, the key to using spruce tips is maximizing the range of their flavor, which varies depending on where they are harvested and when. Some describe it as slightly sweet and citrus-like, others more of a bitter pine with floral notes. The taste can even vary from tree to tree, said Beau Schooler, James Beard Award-nominated chef and co-owner of Juneau's The Rookery, Panhandle Provisions and In Bocca al Lupo. He said they're versatile as an ingredient with applications in both sweet and savory dishes.

Schooler said the tips are easy to work with but the texture can be a challenge. They don't break down much when you cook them, he said, so they must be finely chopped if added directly to a dish.

"Otherwise you have a bunch of little green needles in your food," he said.

Sitka spruce tips cool in a freezer at Pep’s Packing in Gustavus on Thursday. The tips are cleaned, frozen, and vacuum sealed before being shipped to restaurants and breweries in Southeast Alaska. (Pep Scott)

Instead, many infuse the tips with whatever they're making. Spruce-tip ice cream at Coppa, a handmade ice cream shop in downtown Juneau, is made with a mix of spruce-tip syrup along with just a few flecks of bright green tips mixed into the sweet cream.

Coppa co-owner Marc Wheeler said Outside visitors are sometimes skeptical of the flavor but overall it's been well received. He said spruce gives ice cream a refreshing, piney flavor. It pairs well with fruit, he said, especially a swirl of blueberries.

"Children say it tastes like Christmas," Wheeler said.

Many restaurants and breweries use spruce tips collected from a Gustavus fish-packing company. Since 2003, Pep's Processing has taken a small break from the fish processing that makes up the bulk of its operation and switched over to harvesting spruce tips.

About 40 people help out each year, said co-owner Pep Scott. She said they range in age from 3 to 80 and are paid by the pound for their efforts. She said some kids save up for new school clothes, while one old-timer earned enough last season for a new pair of dentures.

Each year they collect about 3,000 pounds of spruce tips during the weeklong harvest. After that, when the tips start to open and the needles start to harden, the season is over.

She said teenage boys will take ladders and climb higher up the trees to pick tips. Younger kids will take day packs and turn them to face in front so they can easily drop the buds into the packs.

"It's a buzz around the town when people are picking," Scott said. "There's always a little competition to see who picks the most each day."

Pep's only takes orders on tips before the season starts. None are sold at the processing plant through the rest of the year.

On Monday, the first day of picking, Gustavus residents harvested 70 pounds of tips. She said orders for the tips have gone up steadily over the years, but she said the Gustavus trees — and pickers — would always be able to fill the orders.

"I don't think it's an unmanageable resource," Scott said. "The resource surpasses the demand."

But Geoff Larson said he thinks demand could still rise. Larson, the co-founder of Alaskan Brewing Co., uses Sitka spruce tips for winter ale and other smaller batches of beer. His brewery has even done a chemical analysis looking at the essential oils in the spruce tips compared to noble hops — a group of hop varieties known for their low bitterness and high aromatic qualities. It turns out the two types of plants are very similar.

He's even tried spruce tips from all over looking for different flavors. He believes that Sitka spruce is the best.

"I've gotten into this habit of going through different regions to taste the new growth of any sort of conifer," Larson said. "And quite literally I've not ever tasted anything as wonderful and beautiful as a Sitka spruce."

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