Flavoring Beer: Get the most from additions

Despite Denny’s repeated pleas for homebrewers to make beer-flavored beer, a lot of them like to add flavorings to their beers. In a fit of hypocrisy, it turns out even Denny isn’t immune to the call of flavored beer. A couple of his best-known recipes are for a Wee Shroomy (wee heavy flavored with chanterelle mushrooms) and a Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter. And let’s not forget the infamous Clam Chowder Saison collaboration with Drew. Even John Palmer got involved in that one, adding in potato flakes!

But if you’re going to make a flavored beer, there are a few things to consider. To us, one of the most important considerations is to let the flavorings complement the beer. Some don’t agree with this and we’ll go into this more in the next section but even something as radical as the Clam Chowder Saison was in the end recognizable as a saison, not a clam chowder!

Spices are just one way to add flavor to beer, but the process to extract their flavor can differ. Photo by Jason Rich

Next, you need to think about when to add the flavorings. Generally, flavorings are added either to the kettle, the fermenter (usually in a secondary), or at packaging. Which one you choose depends on what flavors you’re adding and how you want them to be perceived.

Selecting Flavors

Flavoring a beer can go in one of two directions . . . you can use flavoring to define the beer, or to complement the underlying beer flavor. Denny prefers the second approach. While chanterelle mushrooms in a beer may sound like they’d take over, in reality their apricot flavor and aroma are a perfect complement to a malty wee heavy.

The other method seems very prevalent these days. Brewers want their hazy IPA to taste/look like orange juice. We’ve even seen sweet versions of sour beers! Whichever way you decide to go, sit down and think it through carefully. Try to taste the beer in your mind, not just the ingredients. Think of the integration of flavors. Do the flavors work together? Are they a natural like peanut butter and jelly or more like peanut butter and squid ink?

The first, and to us most important consideration, is to let the flavorings complement the beer, not define it.

Why do we care? We’ve seen a lot of beers with, as Drew puts it, “one flavor too many.” Too many flavors fighting for your palate’s attention makes for a confusing and unfocused experience. For the love of Gambrinus, think beer with a focus!

Kettle Additions

Kettle flavorings are generally added during the last five minutes of the boil or a hot whirlpool. That helps to preserve their flavor and aroma. The big question with this method is how much to add. Since you can’t taste the effect, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and go a little lighter than you think it should be. If you’re using strongly flavored spices, extra caution is needed — the line between “interesting lavender” and “all I taste is grandma’s soap” is vanishingly thin! That guessing factor is also why this is our least favorite method, but sometimes there’s no way around it.

So, what goes in the kettle? Spices are a prime choice. Spices like cinnamon or peppercorns are a great choice for the kettle. Resinous spices like rosemary work better with heat extraction, so they should be added to the list. Fruit zest, like orange, lemon, or lime, often go into the kettle. But those depend on what kind of fruit character you want in the finished beer. Putting them in the kettle will give you a more integrated but muted flavor and aroma than adding them to the fermenter.

Fermenter Additions

For a more forward/intense flavor or aroma, adding flavorings to a secondary fermenter is the way to go. We seldom use secondary fermenters, but adding flavorings is one place it’s warranted. Yeah, you could put them in the primary, but then they can sink to the bottom and get covered in trub, which will limit the effectiveness. Not to mention that adding anything with sugar will likely kick up a new fermentation, so it’s good to give yourself some fermenter space. The renewed fermentation will also scavenge oxygen that may have been picked up when you transfer to secondary, allaying that fear somewhat.

Secondary is a great place to add fruit (or veggies if you want to go that route!). The flavor and aroma will be brighter and you won’t run the risk of setting the pectin in the fruit like you could if added to the boil. We’re making beer, not beer jelly!

Before adding the fruit, cut it up and vacuum seal it. Put it in the freezer for a while. That will break down cell walls and allow the juice to be released more readily. If you can’t vacuum seal, put it in a Ziploc bag and squeeze as much air out as possible before sealing the bag and freezing the fruit. (You can push your Ziploc bag into a pot of water and use the water pressure to force the air out of the open bag top.)

Now, the big question . . . how do you sanitize the secondary additions? Obviously, sanitizing isn’t an issue if you put things in the kettle. But in the fermenter, it could be an issue. One way is to use some StarSan in a spray bottle and spray them down prior to freezing.

Denny, of course, has other thoughts on the matter. For 20 years he’s been making a yearly batch of Wee Shroomy — a wee heavy with chanterelle mushrooms added to the secondary, based on Randy Mosher’s recipe called Nirvana. Over the years he’s tried a number of techniques for processing the mushrooms. Soaking them in vodka or putting them in a bowl of StarSan were unsuitable. The vodka added alcoholic heat to the beer, which was objectionable. Soaking in sanitizer left the mushrooms too wet and diluted the flavor. Finally one year, he took a deep breath and made a leap of faith and did neither of those. He simply brushed the dirt off of the wild foraged chanterelles, chopped them up, and vacuum sealed and froze them. He counted on the fact that the beer not only had alcohol to protect it, but also low pH post-fermentation. Lo and behold, it’s worked fine for the last 10 years.

Now, we know that the thought of putting unsanitized wild mushrooms into your beer is gonna freak people out. We get it. But sometimes you just have to say “let’s see what happens” and give it a try. Spoilage yeast and bacteria really don’t do too well in beer. Even when inoculating beer with lactic acid bacteria and/or Brett, they often won’t funkify as easily as many believe.

Packaging Additions

Packaging is probably the best time to add flavorings if possible. Not only do you get the most intense flavor and aroma that way, but also you have the advantage of adding them to suit your own taste. No guessing at how much to use, no long online discussions where people tell you a million different methods (or that you shouldn’t do it at all). Just note that if the flavoring contains sugar and you are bottling, the additional sugar should be calculated in with your priming sugar.

Liquid flavorings work best at this stage; additives like coffee, vanilla, or liquor are easy to dose at packaging. But even if your flavoring doesn’t start off as a liquid, you can make it into one. Read on for more about this.

Tinctures and Tisanes

Where kettle and fermentation additions carry a level of risk and indeterminate impact, the use of tinctures and tisanes (herbal/spice teas) can allow you to consistently dial in your flavor. You can buy high-quality flavor extracts, but where’s the fun in that? But seriously, some flavors — looking at you strawberry — are best sourced from reputable extract makers.

The process for making a tincture is about as straightforward as can be, but the easy way does require time and pre-planning.

The process for making a tincture is about as straightforward as can be, but the easy way does require time and pre-planning. Drew’s usual rule of thumb is start with 4 oz. (113 mL) of a clean neutral spirit (say 80-proof vodka), roughly crush an ounce (28 g) of your desired flavoring and mix into the spirit. Allow to steep for at least one week in a sealable vessel like a mason jar. Give it a shake at least once or twice a day to encourage the process and remind yourself that you are a valuable part of the tincture creation process.

Need a tincture faster and are a nerdy cook? Grab your favorite sous vide immersion circulator and heat a water bath to 130–135 °F (54–57 °C). Place your vodka and spice mixture into small mason jars and dunk them in the bath and cook for 4–6 hours. The heat help drives the extraction and in a relatively short time you get an intense extract. (Also, homemade sous vide vanilla extract is a pretty snazzy and easy DIY gift.)

Play around with your boozy bits for different characters as well. Rum and Bourbon, in particular, make some really interesting tinctures. For instance, imagine making a mole-inspired tincture using tequila or rum as the base with chocolate, vanilla, coriander, cinnamon, and dried chilies? (Drew did this once for a riff on the “oh no, the world is ending in 2012!” kerfuffle.)

Don’t forget the tisanes! Alcoholic extracts pull most of the essential oils from the target substance, but it can miss other flavors. Cinnamon is a good example. Make a tincture and then make a tisane — bring 6 oz. (177 mL) of water to a boil and add a few roughly cracked cinnamon sticks. Let cool and filter. Taste the two side by side and you’ll notice an immense difference. The tincture pushes cinnamon heat and burn – that nose searing, taste bud tingling of cinnamaldehyde. The tisane is softer and earthier with more woody notes. Putting the two together actually presents the whole flavor we expect from cinnamon/cassia.

Titration Or Simply Figuring Out How Much To Use

Figuring out how much flavoring to put into a beer post-fermentation is a straightforward process and even kinda fun! Pour yourself four 4 oz. (113 mL) samples of the finished beer. Add a different, measured amount of flavoring to each glass and taste (having a pipette to measure can be especially helpful for these trials). When you decide which you like best, simply scale that amount up to the batch size.

A sample trial might look like this:
Glass 1: 4 oz. (113 mL) of beer, 1 mL of flavoring
Glass 2: 4 oz. (113 mL) of beer, 2 mL of flavoring
Glass 3: 4 oz. (113 mL) of beer, 4 mL of flavoring
Glass 4: 4 oz. (113 mL) of beer, 6 mL of flavoring

Upon tasting, you decide that Glass 2 is the taste you want. So now, you know you need 0.5 mL of flavoring per ounce (113 mL) of beer left. If you had 5 gallons (19 L) remaining (640 oz./19,000 mL), you’d need 320 mL (10.8 fl. oz.) of flavoring to achieve the same flavor as the trial.

You should totally engage your mad scientist side by doing this process. It’ll make you want to shout out “IGOR, bring me the graduated cylinders and pipettes!”

Keep in mind that a lot of flavorings will fade over time. Vanilla is a good example. Denny likes to start with vanilla a little stronger than he thinks it should be because the flavor and aroma will diminish after packaging. Just don’t go crazy or you may have to wait quite a while to drink the beer.

Before leaving, we want to stress again that in this day and age of Werther’s Original Double Butterscotch Marshmallow IPAs, think carefully about the flavors you’re using. Make them make sense and not just “because I can.” Drew often thinks about pairings found in food and replicates those patterns — with the flavors and not the actual Werther’s candy. Our rule is “Recreate the experience, not necessarily the ingredients.” If you want to make a s’mores beer, think about what’s in marshmallows rather than using the marshmallows themselves.

Flavoring your beer can provide a unique experience totally tailored to your tastes. Just be sure to think the process through carefully and you’ll end up with a beer that will be totally yours!

Issue: March-April 2021