Every homebrewer knows that hops is the treasured herb of beer, but some may not know that beer was made with many other herbs, spices and additives long before hops became king of the hill. Before the 16th century, beer was often spiced with a combination of mildly narcotic, bitter and preservative plants such as; mugwort, sweet gale, heather, yarrow, Labrador tea, juniper, ginger, caraway, anise, nutmeg, cinnamon and sometimes, hops. The combination of beer seasonings used over the centuries varied from place to place, but the blend of herbs and spices used to flavor ale was often referred to as gruit. So if you think brewing with strange and exotic herbs and spices is new and unusual, it’s not . . . it is actually very old school. Don’t be afraid to experiment with unusual ingredients to flavor your beer as it is a practice as old as beer itself. But before you reach for the kitchen spice rack, let’s take a closer look at how a little spice might complement your favorite brew.
As with any beer you plan to brew, it’s good to have a basic recipe as a starting point. Before you consider brewing with spices have a style and flavor profile in mind to begin your experimentation process. Is your goal a light, fruity, earthy brew similar to a Belgian wit; or a heavy, dark, spicy porter or stout? Take a little time to describe in some detail the flavors you want in your seasoned brew so you have a goal to shoot for. Once you have a flavor profile in mind, ask yourself what spices you’ll need, what form the spices should be in (such as fresh, whole, dried, ground, crushed, steeped, etc.) how much will be needed and when each spice should be added to the brewing process?
When determining what spices you’ll need, you need to be familiar with what different spices taste and smell like and their relative strengths. For example; coriander lends a fresh, earthy, subtle spicy component to beer (think Blue Moon). An ounce (28 g) of crushed coriander added at the end of the boil is typical in a five-gallon (19-L) batch of light ale. However, spices such as cardamom or grains of paradise are much more potent and therefore commonly used in quantities less than a few tenths of an ounce in five gallons (19 L) of beer. Visit http://www.byo.com/images/stories/brewspices.xls for a table of information on the use of herbs and spices in brewing beer.
Sourcing and handling spices
Some of the spices you might consider using in brewing beer may be sitting in your kitchen (such as ground nutmeg) ready to go. However, other flavorings, such as spruce tips, chilies, or ginger may need to be purchased or harvested fresh just before use. So take a look at the spices you plan to brew with and determine where you will get them and the form they need to be in beforehand. Your preferred homebrew supplier is a good place to start when sourcing specialized brewing spices, otherwise you may need to check your local supermarket, a specialty food supplier, or even grow the plants yourself.
Purchase any spices that are not going to be used as their whole parts ground or crushed, or be prepared to process them yourself. You can crush most spices with a rolling pin by putting them in a zip seal plastic bag and rolling the pin over them. This keeps the spice from popping out from under the rolling pin and across the kitchen counter. This method is how I prefer to crush coriander just before adding it at the end of the boil. Grinding spices can be easily accomplished with an electric spice or coffee mill. If you use a coffee mill, it’s a good idea to have one mill for spices and one for coffee to prevent any coffee flavor from getting into your brewing spices. Place the spices to be ground in the mill, secure the cover and run the mill in short increments until the desired grind is achieved. It is best to crush or grind spices as near to when they will be added to your beer as practical to retain the best flavor and aroma from them. This is why it is best to purchase spices whole and crush or grind them yourself to get the best flavor into your beer.
A few herbs and spices used in brewing may require some special handling prior to use. These include extracts of coffee, spruce and vanilla, and the cutting and toasting of oak. Coffee is best extracted as espresso, where finely-ground coffee is subjected to hot, pressurized water in an espresso machine to produce shots of the famous coffee extract. If you have access to an espresso machine and know how to use it, you’re all set . . . if not, you’ll have to get your espresso from a local coffee shop. Lately, some brewers have been using a French press to do a cold extraction of coffee, reducing possible bitterness associated with making coffee with boiling water. Ground coffee is placed into the press and steeped in cold water for a day or more, then the coffee extract is utilized in the recipe. Spruce is extracted by placing fresh branch tips in boiling water for an hour, then straining any solids out. The resulting extract can then be used as all or part of the water for the wort boil. Vanilla is extracted by placing the beans in a small glass jar or bottle and covering them with rum, scotch or other distilled spirit of choice for at least two days before adding the extract to the secondary fermenter or finished beer. The distilled spirits will promote extraction which cannot be attained with water alone. To prepare the wood of oak, it should be cut into 1” x 1” cubes or large chips and toasted. Toasting oak is best accomplished over an open wood or charcoal fire (think roasting marshmallows). A pair of long handled tongs or a metal grill works well to hold the chunks of wood over the heat of the coals until the wood takes on a deep brown color. Some black scorching is acceptable, but avoid excessive charring. If you don’t want to deal with cutting and toasting oak yourself, it can be purchased already toasted from many homebrewing or home winemaking suppliers.
Adding the ingredients
Perhaps the biggest question when brewing with spices is, “How much do I use?” When making the decision on the quantity of spice to use in your recipe, consider the strength of the spice or herb and when in doubt, use less than you think you’ll need. It is much better to have a beer with a too-subtle spice flavor than one with a too-strong spice flavor. Excessive use of a spice can ruin a batch of beer, while not using enough spice means the flavor will be less pronounced than expected. You can always use a little more spice the next time, but can’t take it out of a beer after it is brewed. The table at byo.com shows the maximum amount suggested for each spice for a typical five-gallon (19-L) batch of beer. If you have never used a given spice in brewing before, begin with a small amount and take good notes so you can refine your recipe each time you brew.
Measuring out small amounts of spices can be a tricky business if you do not have a scale capable of weighing down to fractions of an ounce (or gram). A tactic I have used to help in these situations is to prepare an ounce of the spice (which I can accurately weigh on my inexpensive home postage scale) in the form it will be used in my recipe, then measure the volume of that ounce in some small increment such as teaspoons (or milliliters). If one ounce of the spice measures one teaspoon then I know that one teaspoon is an ounce, a half teaspoon is a half ounce, a quarter teaspoon is a quarter of an ounce and so on.
Deciding when to add an herb or spice in your brewing process depends upon whether you wish to have the spice’s flavor, aroma, or both in the finished beer. Typically, the earlier an herb or spice is added in the brewing process the more flavor will be extracted but also the less aroma will be retained. A spice such as cinnamon might be added during the last thirty minutes of the boil to achieve the desired flavor. However, the subtle aroma of sweetgrass would most likely be lost altogether if it were boiled, and therefore would best be added to the secondary fermenter; similar to dry hopping. In some cases, a particular quantity of an herb or spice might be split, with some added earlier in the brewing process and some later in order to achieve the flavor and aroma profile desired. This is where careful tasting and good note-taking is essential while experimenting with various spices in order to develop a spiced-beer recipe that meets your expectations.
Brewing with herbs, spices or other flavorful ingredients can be a fun way to experiment. Begin by choosing a base style of beer and consider the additional flavors you wish to include in it. Locate the proper kind and form of spices you’ll need to pursue those flavors. Go easy on the quantity of each additional herb or spice you decide to add to your brew and carefully consider when each of them will be added during the brewing process. With a little practice you will soon have your own signature spiced beer!
Jon Stika writes “Techniques” in every issue of Brew Your Own.