While some traditionalists scoff at the idea of adding anything other than malt, hops, yeast, and water to their beer, nothing is more traditional than adding spices other than hops to beer. Gruit is much older than the ales and lagers we drink today. And when things go right and a recipe comes together seamlessly, marrying the beer and spice perfectly, it can lead to memorable drinking experiences. But when poorly made, spiced beer can be heartbreaking . . . trust me, I know from experience.
Getting A Game Plan
Executing a well-made spiced beer all starts in the recipe development stage. If attempting something new, it’s nice to have a tested recipe already developed for you. Visit byo.com/recipes to explore a huge array of previously tested recipes. You can find inspiration for a beer or find quantities for spicing that you may want to incorporate into your recipe. There is an endless array of possible combinations, but a common theme is to look to the culinary world for inspiration. Dessert-themed beers have become common style in both the commercial and homebrew scenes, but there are so many other possibilities too.
If you are looking to create a recipe on your own, there are a couple concepts that can help get you on a road to a successful beer. First off, if you are doing a concept beer based on something from the culinary world like a dessert, I would recommend that you forgo directly adding the finished product to the beer but rather deconstruct the ingredients and add those in place. So instead of adding a dozen jelly donuts or two boxes of Thin Mints® to the fermenter, look at the ingredients used and pick out the key flavors and ingredients you may want to incorporate into beer. For that jelly donut beer, maybe you’ll want to get some strawberry puree and/or extract to get the jelly aspect to pop. Maybe you’ll want to add some melanoidin and/or aromatic malt to the mash to get a little toasted character to the beer. For the Thin Mints® beer, you’ll want some peppermint (leaves or extract) along with some chocolate element — chocolate malts, cocoa powder, and cocoa nibs. Both would probably benefit from a little vanilla addition as well, either chopped beans or vanilla extract.
Honing In The Details
Next up, it’s important to match up the base beer with the spicing. It may be pretty easy for certain concept beers but can be more of a challenge when exploring further reaches of the culinary world. A death by chocolate cake concept is most likely to be matched to a big, chewy stout and that winter warmer will probably get a nutty amber or brown ale to go with it. But that candy cap mushroom beer may be a little more difficult to pin down.
When it comes to how much of each element you should add, I like some advice that Josh Weikert gave in a story he wrote for the January-February 2019 issue on the topic. Weikert suggests to start with the quantity of spice you may add to a common 6-serving meal. So let’s say you want to make a mole sauce-inspired beer. When trying to come up with quantities of each spice to add, check out a recipe for making mole sauce for a family. Those are ballpark amounts you should consider to incorporate into your 5-gallon (19-L) beer recipe.
Here is some advice I’ve learned through a few failures of my own. For the most part, stay away from the onion family (garlic, shallots, chives, leeks, etc.). They may go great in that culinary dish, but I’ve never found success using them in beer. One idea that may work is to put them through a caramelization step. It would give them a sweeter and more rounded flavor. Cloves are a spice I tend to stay away from as it is very easy to overdo it. If you want clove flavors, I suggest using a phenolic off-flavor positive (POF+) yeast strain. You also want to stay away from fatty things as it can ruin the head retention on beer. For example, PB2 powder is a great substitute for peanut butter. PB2 contains 1.5 g of fats per 2 Tbsp. compared to 16 g of fats per 2 Tbsp. of peanut butter.
Timing is Everything
Finally, I want to spend some time talking about when spices should be added. Almost all my spice additions are made after fermentation is complete. But what about sanitation issues? I deal with that by giving my spices a long soak in vodka, which technically makes them a tincture. How long of a soak depends upon the spice I’m using. Vanilla and cocoa nibs are two tinctures that I always keep in my kitchen. But generally I’ll start my tinctures 1–2 weeks prior to brew day.
There are some exceptions that may make you adjust the spice addition to the boil. Cinnamon is one spice that will have a different flavor when added to hot liquids versus cold liquids. Cocoa powder is often “bloomed” (added to hot liquids) in order to draw out its rich flavors. Thyme and rosemary are two herbs that may be considered for addition on the hot side. One benefit to any spices added to hot wort above 175 °F (80 °C) is that they will not need to be previously sanitized.