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Master the Spice: Options and approaches to additions

One of the best things about being a homebrewer is that you get to make the kinds of choices that beer drinkers that only buy their beer never get to make. Homebrewing, generally, gives us control over what styles to brew and subsequently drink. For example, I love altbier, but they can be a tough style to find and/or identify. Also, you get to control when to drink your homebrew — if I want a fresh Oktoberfest in May, I can have one. And finally, homebrewing allows adjustments to a beer’s specs. For example, I love New England IPA, but I can’t find one with five percent ABV . . . but I can brew one. It also includes making beers that a brewery won’t make, doesn’t want to make, or maybe even can’t afford to make. It’s with this in mind that we get into today’s column on spices in beer. Spiced beer isn’t exactly new — in the days before hops became the de facto flavoring agent in beers, any number of flavorful herbs and spices were used in beer. (Most folks know these malt beverages as gruit.) However, homebrewing gives us the chance to spice with whatever we want, not just the usual coriander and orange peels.

With that in mind, this issue’s “Techniques” column will be less about which spices to use — honestly, crack open that spice cabinet and build a recipe based on whatever jumps out at you — and more about the approaches to using spice that should be broadly applicable to any number of recipes and beers. We’ll start with spices in the brew day, and then go on to address getting your hands on good spices, dialing in your recipes, and upping your spice competence and confidence.

Spicing the Beer: When

When it comes to spicing beer (or adding any specialty ingredient, actually), I prefer to work from the back of the process to the front. What’s the absolute latest in the process I can add something? That’s when I want to do it. The reasoning behind that approach is that the earlier in the process an ingredient is added, the more change it can undergo in presentation and the less control I have over it from a flavor perspective. My first pumpkin spice beer was a bit of a mess, in large part thanks to an aggressive cinnamon flavor derived from cinnamon added in the boil. It was too much (I later learned), and not only that but the flavor seemed sharp and unpleasant rather than spicy and redolent. If I had only waited and added it, to taste, post-fermentation, I would have gotten a better result.

As a rule, I add my spices post-fermentation unless I have a compelling reason not to.

As a rule, I add my spices post-fermentation unless I have a compelling reason not to. This means no unpredictable reactions from the boil/heating; many spices react to heat, of course, and often in good ways. However, unless I brew a recipe regularly I’m never going to get enough renditions of it made to really test whether I’m getting a better (or worse) expression of that spice thanks to heating it. I don’t like that level of variability. Then there’s whether the spice flavor (good or bad) survives the fermentation process, and I don’t mean (only) potential interactions/transformations in the presence of yeast — an early-added spice could also blow-off during primary, either through off-gassing of developed/extracted compounds or through literal blowing-off via the kräusen.

A more-controllable approach is to add to taste, post-fermentation. We’ll get to the how in a minute, but that’s the when in most cases. There are some exceptions. If it’s something that is regularly used in brewing and/or boiling adds a known value, then I’ll consider adding it in the mash or boil. This could include lemon or orange peel, some herbs (I find that rosemary benefits from a hot-side addition compared to cold), or salt in my Gose. Adding it post-fermentation, though, means that I can taste what I’m adding, taste the beer I’m adding it to, and balance my flavors directly. At that stage the only step in the process remaining is carbonation and conditioning, and if kegging I can even adjust that to get the most out of my spice additions. When an ingredient isn’t used often enough to develop a reliable recipe, then control, control, control is the name of the game.

Spicing the Beer: How

This section presumes that you’re adding post-fermentation, but parts of it will translate even if you’re going in at another stage of the brewing process. In either case, it’s a question of spice prep and infusion method.

First, prep your spices — this might be as simple as opening up a bottle or package. For example, brewers who use whole coffee beans or cinnamon sticks, need no prep, but many others do require some form of a crush, grind, or splitting. Most of the time you’ll benefit from exposing more of your spice’s surface area and/or getting inside of it. Cracked or crushed peppercorns, split vanilla beans, ground coffee, etc. Of those, I prefer cracked/crushed to ground. That might seem a bit counter-intuitive — don’t we want maximum exposure for maximum flavor? Possibly . . . but then we’re back to control. In many cases we’re only using a small amount of spice anyway, which speaks to the cliché: A little goes a long way. Grinding increases the risk of getting too much flavor out of it. Don’t believe me? Put a whole or cracked black peppercorn on your tongue — not bad. Now chew it — depending on your tolerance for peppery flavors, you might hang in there for a while, but the heavily-crushed spice is going to be more intense. That’s going to matter less if you use the tincture approach I describe below, but even there I tend to use just a cracked/coarsely chopped form. If I get an intensely-flavored tincture, I may overshoot or get gun shy and undershoot. You can always add more. You can’t take it out once it’s in there.

This might sound strange, but don’t lean too heavily on your own spice cabinet unless you’re sure that what you’re using is relatively fresh.

In terms of addition, you can do a direct-add or make a tincture. If adding directly to the fermenter (or even the keg), get hold of a fine-mesh bag. You probably already have one or two for use with hops, anyway! Steep, then taste. Some spices will develop flavors quickly, so taste at a reasonable interval (one hour, then a few hours, then a couple of days, etc.) to “track” the changes in flavor. You may also find that your spices are fully-depleted and don’t keep adding flavor, even though you’re not satisfied yet. If so, good. Add more, and continue the process. Remember, under-shooting at first isn’t a problem here, but overshooting is.

I nearly always use a tincture, though. A tincture is simply a liquid extract you create for yourself, and then add it to the beer rather than the spices. Soak your spices in a neutral spirit like vodka (bag any ground spices). Pour just enough liquid to cover the spice, and let it sit for 30 to 60 minutes. At that point, remove the bag/spices (or decant the liquid off of the spices). What remains should be an alcoholic extract of spice that you can add directly to your beer. Don’t worry about not making enough, or making it too weak — just like the steeped spices, you can always add more, though if it’s so weak that you can’t taste the spice, by all means let it rest a while longer. Try, then trust. You can also use this approach to add combinations of spices, but the more control-freakish among you will want to make individual tinctures for each spice and then blend, or add each in sequence to the beer to buildyour flavors.

The question of “how much” spice you’ll need or want is going to be relative and vary from style to style and recipe to recipe. The wide world of beer publishing and the internet has a number of resources that might provide good reference points (including the vast recipe collection found on www.byo.com/recipe), especially if using a common spice (cinnamon, vanilla, etc.). If, however, you don’t trust what you read and/or if you are using an exotic or atypical spice, I can recommend the following approach. This is what I’ve come to term my “Family of Four” guideline: Find a cooking recipe that uses that spice in a meaningful way (not just as a subtle flavoring or as part of a huge collection of spices or in spice heavy rubs or marinades), and scale it to six servings (what you would make for a family of four people). How much of the spice in question is called for? That’s about how much you’ll probably need per 5 gallons (19 L) of beer. It’s simplistic, not based on any firm science, and entirely anecdotal, but I’ll be darned if I need to adjust by more than a few percentage points either way. If it’s an especially strong spice I might aim lower, or if it’s an especially prominent flavor profile in my beer I might aim higher, but this is a great starting point for whatever the spice is. If nothing else it can give you a little bit of confidence to use that smoked paprika even when you can’t find a single brewing recipe that does!

Finding Your Spice

Last, but not least, good sourcing of your spices can be the difference between the satisfied glow caused by a great beer and a tight-lipped smile followed by hearing the most dreaded words in subjective beer evaluation: “That’s interesting!”

This might sound strange, but don’t lean too heavily on your own spice cabinet unless you’re sure that what you’re using is relatively fresh. Dried spices (especially if already cracked, crushed, or ground) can oxidize just like any other ingredient. Would you use an open can of two-year oats from your pantry in your oatmeal stout? Good — then don’t use that had-it-since-you-moved-in jar of ground cloves. Even if the oxidation doesn’t carry through to the flavor in a perceivable way, oxidized spices are simply less-flavorful than fresher spices, on average. If, however, you’re a regular cook and you have good “pull-through” in your spice cabinet, it can be a good place to “shop” for your brewing spices.

Otherwise, go visit your local supermarket. Dried spices are plentiful there, and the baking aisle will have a large selection of what you need (and inspiration for what you might only want). If you know that you’ll be using these spices in the future, you can also take care to store them in vacuum-sealed, CO2-flushed, or even just generally air-absent containers or bags to help preserve them for future batches of beer. Bag, force the air out as best you can, and store in a freezer.

You can also secure fresh herbs and spices from the produce aisle, preserving a lot of secondary flavors that won’t be present in the dried varieties. It can take a bit of effort and research to work out how best to get at the spice/compounds in question, but the results are usually worth it. Black limes, ginger, peppers, and other seeds and roots can be processed at home to get the freshest product available, and they often come with the unexpected benefit of a lot of secondary flavors as well! If, however, you definitely want only a single spice flavor, then maybe stick to the pre-processed options.

Spice Up Your Life

If you’ve read this far then the final recommendation is probably wasted on you, but here it goes, anyway: Experiment. And I don’t mean that in the “throw something in and hope for the best” sense. I mean, keep good records, add spices to only part of a batch (or, even better, split it into five mini-batches and dose each differently), and learn from your results. For more on this topic check out the December 2018 “Tips From the Pros” on spicing concepts.

Brewing with spices can be a remarkably rewarding effort, but it can also be maddeningly variable. Your best defense against that frustration is to know what goes in, when, how, and from where. Be conscientious in your spice beer brewing, and you’ll be spice-confident in no time.