Spicing Beers: Tips from the Pros

Brewer: Arne Johnson, Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur, CA

My best advice to those of you making spiced beers is to experiment. Spices provide nearly endless opportunities for creativity, which is one of the greatest joys of brewing your own. Our Hoppy Holidaze is a winter seasonal spiced with nutmeg, mace, canela (Mexican cinnamon), orange peel and vanilla. I also make a saison with an Asian twist, spiced with lemongrass, galangal and Szechwan peppercorns. Almost any herb, spice or flower can enhance a beer.

Finding the right balance of spice in a beer merely requires taking chances. I’ve found that most people prefer a subtle contribution from the spice — so that it still tastes like beer. Most malt flavors seem to naturally meld with spices. It’s the yeast and hop choices that make the difference for me. I tend to use noble European hop varieties that complement the spice flavors. Almost any yeast will work well with spices, but some Belgian strains tend to contribute a spicy character of their own, creating really interesting and complex flavors.

The biggest challenge in making spiced beers is figuring out the proper time to add each of the various spices in order to get what you want out of them. They can be added at most any point in the brewing process with quite different effects, depending on when and how they are introduced.

Brewer: Eric Rode, Tommyknocker Brewery and Pub in Idaho Springs, CO

Before using any spice, the brewer should decide what kind of role the spices should play within the beer. Ask yourself: Are you going for novelty or subtlety? I think spices should blend in with the malt and hops, rather than overpower them. For example, even something like a pumpkin beer should taste like more than just pumpkin and pumpkin spices!

For me, these beers are all about balance. I enjoy drinking a spiced beer that makes me think with my senses more than a beer that hits me over the head with its ingredients. I like to let the beer roll over my palate and reveal itself little by little. I get more of a thrill out of a beer’s subtlety than any overt spiciness.

We brew a wheat beer with lemongrass at Tommyknocker, but I’ve also enjoyed experimenting with ginger, cinnamon, whole cloves, coriander and orange peel, among other things.

As far as yeast selection goes, a neutral strain usually works well with most spiced beers, unless you’re brewing a Belgian wit. It pays to take a lesson from the Belgians: they use spices to enhance the other ingredients like yeast, malt & hops, not just for the sake of brewing a spiced beer.

In witbeers, the natural spiciness of wit yeast is the perfect complement to traditional witbeer spices such as coriander and orange peel. I think a good Belgian-style witbeer is a great example of a spiced beer that isn’t overpowering. When done right, the spices are well balanced with a yeasty background, as well as a generous maltiness.

The biggest challenge can often be overcoming the initial excitement involved in trying something new. It’s fun to experiment, but it’s easy to let exuberance lead to excess. Don’t overdo it!

Once you’ve decided what kind of spices you want in your brew, my advice is to err on the side of caution when adding them to the kettle — remember that you can always add more later to the secondary if you feel as though the beer isn’t spicy enough.

You’ll also get very different characteristics from your spices depending on when you add them during the brewing process, for example, hot side in the kettle, room temperature in the secondary fermenter or even a chilled fermenter.


Brewer: Will Meyers, Cambridge Brewing Company in Cambridge, MA

Spices are quite a challenge and I tend to focus on a combination of common culinary herbs and spices, with some odd things here and there. With our very popular Great Pumpkin Ale we use only cinnamon and nutmeg so that we don’t overwhelm the subtle pumpkin flavor we get from our fresh, whole organic sugar pumpkins. In other spiced beers such as our saisons, I enjoy using the traditional coriander but also add things like cumin, star anise, black pepper and Szechwan red peppercorns. With my Executive Chef, Brian Roskow, I’m developing an IPA with fresh wasabi that includes crystallized ginger and black peppercorns. For our gruit ales, such as our Heather Ale, L’amour du Jour, and Weekapaug Gruit, we forage as much as possible for local wild herbs ourselves, then augment as needed.

The key to balance is in using your spices in the subtlest way. My personal preference in most of my beers is to keep everything at just below threshold, so that individual spices are hard to identify. Certainly you’ll want to consider final gravity, residual sugar and hopping character. The lighter the finished beer, the lighter the touch needed with added spices.

I think the key to spicing is to keep subtlety in mind. Think about the fruitiness, the dryness of the finish, and what interesting contributions can be made from your available palette of spices. If you’re using fresh culinary herbs or spices, such as rosemary or cardamom pods, keep in mind that age and freshness and seasonal variability will have an effect on the character imparted. Dried spices usually offer the most consistency, but again, freshness is key. With whole spices, toast them briefly and then grind to open up more complexities of flavor and aroma.

Issue: December 2007