EVERY SPRING, VENISE CUNNINGHAM keeps her eyes trained on a massive blue spruce in her yard, waiting for the tender, bright-green tips to emerge. Spruce tips have a light, citrus taste that lasts only a week or two before the new growth gets too large, the taste turning to resin. Cunningham has to act fast.
The spruce-tip picking is all in the name of Huckleberry Spruce Tip syrup, made and bottled from hundreds of pounds of locally foraged huckleberries and the spruce tips, plucked by Cunningham and whirled into syrup just a day after picking by her and her sister and business partner, Belinda Kelly, for their business, Simple Goodness Sisters.
“It has a cult following. We have people who wait all year [for it],” Cunningham says about the syrup during a recent phone call that included Kelly.
The Simple Goodness Sisters business is a happy marriage of the two sisters’ strengths. Cunningham has a 10-acre farm in Buckley — nearby residents might know her for her goats or heirloom garlic — while Kelly is a cocktail specialist and the former owner of Happy Camper Cocktail Company. The ball started rolling when Kelly convinced Cunningham to grow some herbs and edible flowers for the cocktail business.
The plants took off, and the yield led them to brainstorm how to use it. Kelly was already creating her own simple syrups, and began expanding flavors, experimenting with what was in season and what sounded good. By early September 2018, they were bottling and starting to sell product to family and friends, launching it fully at the PROOF Washington Distillers Festival. In 2020, the Simple Goodness Sisters Soda Shop opened in Wilkeson, Pierce County, selling cocktails, specialty sodas and a full cafe menu.
The cornerstones of the soda shop and what they call the Cocktail Farm Club — a CSA-type membership that sends two syrups to members on a bimonthly basis — are the syrups. The flavors are deeply personal to the sisters, each utilizing an ingredient from Cunningham’s farm as well as something from a farmer or producer they’ve partnered with.
There are classic flavors available year-round, like Rhubarb Vanilla Bean, Marionberry Mint, Blueberry Lavender and Berry Sage, plus seasonal special releases, like a cucumber jalapeño that was created after Cunningham harvested a bumper crop of cucumbers.
“That’s our opportunity to really get creative and try things, and sometimes a new flavor comes out of that,” Cunningham says.
Huckleberry Spruce Tip is a nod to their Pacific Northwest upbringing. They spent early fall days harvesting huckleberries with their mom’s side of the family and, while trying to find a flavor that would complement the sweet flavor of their youth, they were talking with some cousins from Alaska on their dad’s side.
“Spruce tips were a really big foraging thing for them. They grew up making spruce tip jelly,” Cunningham says.
They weren’t sure whether it would work — all the cousins knew was the spruce tips tasted “like lemon” — but that was enough for the sisters to try it out.
“We realized it added this really great tartness to the huckleberries that we loved. It’s really versatile. I think it’s one that’s so special on its own, you don’t need to do a lot with it. All the excitement is coming from that one ingredient,” Kelly says.
The syrup is so popular, they’ve decided to double production this year, buying 250 pounds of the precious berries — which grow in clusters at high elevation (Cunningham calls them high-maintenance and super-tedious to pick) — from Adam’s Mushrooms.
“They are a small fortune. They cost more per pound than steak,” Kelly says.
The berries are frozen and kept in freezers through the winter until the spruce tips are ready. However, working with a frozen berry has its advantages.
“Frozen berries release the most juice, which is always a challenge with huckleberries because they’re so small. We’re trying to get as much juice out as possible,” Kelly says.
With 250 pounds of berries, they’re hoping to have 400 to 500 bottles of the syrup, ready for mixing with soda water, lemonade or your favorite spirit.
“The flavor is incredible on ice cream. We had one really lovely gentleman who buys a case at a time to put on his oatmeal in the morning,” Kelly says.
Cocktail Farm Club members have first dibs on the syrup, which releases in late May. The remaining bottles will be sold via the Simple Goodness Sisters website and the soda shop in Wilkeson.
And while Cunningham and Kelly are constantly dreaming up new flavors, they’ll always have a place for Huckleberry Spruce Tip — no matter the cost of those pricey little berries.
“It’s very familiar and traditional. Something that’s embedded in Northwest families,” Cunningham says.