The Finer Things: Brewing with culinary delicacies

Beer has long been the beverage of the working class. It is the default drink for picnics, festivals, and the beach. Who drinks vintage Cabernet while bowling or Cognac at a baseball game? However, this blue-collar reputation has prevented beer from taking its deserved place alongside world-class cuisine. Brewers like Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery and chefs like Daniel Burns from TØRST, among others, have started to correct this injustice, but there is still much work to be done.

In the realm of “culinary” beers, the same classism appears. You are more apt to see an Oreo cookie stout or a sour with bubblegum than beers that mirror fine meals. One of my delights is incorporating exotic foodstuffs into complementary beers. This column catalogs some of the “fanciest” variants that I’ve created over the last couple years at Sapwood Cellars in Columbia, Maryland. Each variant was infused with a special, expensive, or rare ingredient!

Balsamic Vinegar — Balsamico Fantastico

The production of balsamic vinegar and sour beer share many similarities: Both liquids are boiled to concentrate sugars, soured with bacteria, and aged for years in wood barrels. Not surprisingly, the flavors of Flemish reds like Duchesse de Bourgogne are compared to balsamic with their shared acetic, oaky, and sweet flavors.

I generally attempt to minimize the “vinegary” notes of sour reds by CO2-purging the barrel before filling and by topping-up with reserved beer every six months; but a controlled touch of sharpness can be welcome. To create Balsamico Fantastico, I added 0.5 L (2.1 cups) of 15-year-old balsamic vinegar to a 5-gallon (19-L) keg and then filled the keg with a two-year-old sour red that had matured in a Pinot Noir barrel. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of color and flavor enhancement that the 2.5% balsamic vinegar fraction furnished. The incremental sweetness and acidity were not overwhelming, rather the vinegar served to enhance the flavors already present in the base with a more profound vinous-fruit aroma and intensified woodiness.

You are more apt to see an Oreo cookie stout or a sour with bubblegum than beers that mirror fine meals.

As a heads up, you need to allow the sugar from the vinegar to ferment before bottling or account for the added sugar in your priming calculations. There is also a chance that during bottle-conditioning Brettanomyces may convert some of the acetic acid into ethyl acetate (which smells like nail polish in excess). So drinking the beer fresh may be the best option with this beer.

As with most ingredients, it is best to taste a few balsamics to find one that suits your palate, beer, and wallet. This is the sort of experiment that is easy to carry-out in a glass, dosing to taste with a gram scale or pipette. Balsamic could also be a fun pair with vanilla beans considering the popularity of balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream.

Tahitian Vanilla Beans — Double Citrus Sorbet

Vanilla beans have always been expensive, and over the last few years have become even more dear given increased demand and natural disasters. Tahitian vanilla is one of the rarest and most expensive bean varieties in the world. A slightly different species (Vanilla tahitensis) than the more common grown in Mexico and Madagascar (Vanilla planifolia), while not quite as potent pound-for-pound, has a unique cherry-marshmallow aromatic that is a perfect complement to fruit.

We brewed Double Citrus Sorbet, a double IPA with Galaxy™ and Mosaic® hops followed by the zest of one citrus fruit per gallon (1⁄4 per L) and Tahitian vanilla beans after dry hopping. Our vanilla rate ranged from two beans per 5 gallons (19 L) for pale beers to closer to one bean per gallon (1⁄4 of a bean per L) for imperial stouts where we prefer beans from Madagascar. For small batches simply splitting and chopping the beans is adequate while for bigger batches a food processor or Vitamix accelerates the process. One brewer mentioned to me that they had never seen as many spoilage microbes as when plating a swab from vanilla beans. If you plan to age your beer or store it warm, I’d suggest creating your own Tahitian vanilla extract by mixing processed beans with a spirit of your choice.

Black Truffles — Truffle Path

A near-mythical fungus typically seen shaved onto pasta: Black truffle has an earthy-musty aroma that is far more subtle than the synthetic aroma commonly added to truffle oil. Given that the aroma from black truffle can be reminiscent of the earthy-funk of Brettanomyces, my instinct was to combine these two wild ingredients.

A black truffle beer definitely isn’t for everyone, but for those that enjoy the pungent, umami character they provide, you may want to explore. All photos courtesy of Michael Tonsmeire.

To create Truffle Path, I thinly sliced 1 oz. (28 g) of fresh black truffle and placed shavings in a screen canister to infuse into a 5-gallon (19-L) keg of Sun Path, our annual funky dark saison. The infusion added a subtle complexity, but with such an aromatic beer, it served as a complementary note rather than the centerpiece. Use a higher rate if you want the truffle to shine.

There is always give and take in adding adjuncts to a beer. The more assertively flavored the base beer (in terms of malt, hops, and fermentation), the more the base will obscure and compete with additional ingredients. Conversely, a pale lager (as Moody Tongue uses for Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner) will highlight the truffle by staying out of the way.

Saffron — Persian Pilsner

One of the most expensive spices on earth with a typical price of $10–20 (USD) per gram, saffron is prized both for its perfume-like aroma and an intense orange color in Spanish paella and Iranian cooking. Harvested by hand, it is the stamen of the crocus flower.

At Sapwood Cellars, we made a concentrated infusion adding 3 g of Spanish Coupe Saffron to 5 gallons (19 L) of our Sapwood Kellers Pils. This combination dyed the beer and head a vivid orange and provided an intense floral flavor. We then blended 2 gallons (8 L) of the saffron beer into 13 gallons (49 L) of Pilsner infused with black limes. This Persian Pilsner had the equivalent of 0.1 g of saffron per gallon (0.025 g/L) of finished beer. The dried limes provided a bright Sprite®-like counterpoint to the saffron, and the color was more golden than orange.

Dogfish Head Brewing Co. uses saffron in Midas Touch, inspired by the yellow color of the residue found in an ancient alcohol pot in Turkey. Biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern’s book Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created (W. W. Norton & Co., 2017) has more of the story behind that batch and several other ancient ales.

Geisha Coffee — Roasted by Alex

Geisha/Gesha coffee comes from a unique subspecies of Arabica coffee trees originally discovered in Ethiopia. These trees tend to be finicky and low yielding, but also produce some of the world’s most distinctive coffee beans. Usually described as black tea-like with notes of honey, Geisha is also the rare coffee whose aroma improves as it cools. While not the most expensive coffee in the world — check out civet-digested Kopi Luwak — Geisha is one of the most delicious at a “reasonable” $50–100 per pound ($110-220/kg)!

One of my homebrewing buddies, Alex Howe, is also a semi-pro coffee roaster. Alex sourced Geisha green beans from Hacienda Esmeralda in Panama and lightly roasted them for us. We find that for coffee the more recently the beans are roasted, the better. Even coffee roasted a week before adding to beer can sometimes result in unpleasant oxidized flavors (i.e., green pepper). For this beer we split the 12 oz. (340 g) of coffee 50/50 between pour-over and whole beans added directly to 15 gallons (57 L) of our dark Czech-inspired tmavé pivo (Prophecy of the Clock). The resulting beer, Roasted by Alex, was wonderfully tea-like with floral notes totally different from what you usually expect from other coffees.

Prepping the hot-side Geisha coffee for addition to a Czech-style dark lager.

Wineberries — Invasive Species

When it comes to fruit, there are many candidates for fanciest. You could choose rare cultivars like golden raspberries or unique growing locations like Japanese melons, but we decided to make a beer with “free” fruit growing in public land near our brewery . . . wineberries! These cousins of raspberries and blackberries were originally brought to America from Asia as ornamentals. They are now an invasive species. Their tiny sticky berries have an almost jelly-donut quality.

Our little foraging expedition was led by Baltimore foraged eatery’s head chef Chris Amendola, and we got help from local wine bar Fadensonnen and from Old Westminster Winery (who also provided two freshly dumped red wine barrels). It took the 10 of us five hours on a sweltering July day to collect 40 lbs. (18 kg) of berries. We refermented the berries with 100 gallons (378L) of saison that we had brewed with Maryland-grown buckwheat, millet, and corn. Luckily the total effort was worthwhile, with the resulting beer (Invasive Species) successfully integrating the grainy base saison, the juicy red wine notes, along with the strawberry-jam-reminiscent berries.

Depending on where you live, you might be able to forage salmon berries, staghorn sumac, cloudberries, paw paws, or any of dozens of other fruits that can be used in brewing! Foraged beer could be an article on its own, and I’d suggest picking up The Homebrewers Almanac (Countryman Press, 2016) as well as a foraging guide for your region if this topic interests you.


There are many other rare and expensive ingredients that could work spectacularly in beer. Heather honey (in a saison or stout), toasted pine nuts (in a brown ale or dunkel), pu’er tea (in a Belgian dubbel or quad). As a homebrewer you can also dose rare and exotic wines and liquors into your beer; add a splash of Madeira to an English barleywine or vintage Scotch to an imperial stout? Wander around your local specialty food purveyor, sample, and use your imagination!

You may not want to commit the cost and time to create a whole batch using any of these ingredients. Dosing ingredients directly (e.g., balsamic vinegar), small-scale infusions in a growler (e.g., Tahitian vanilla, black truffle), or a water extraction (e.g., coffee, saffron) can create a single serving of a unique beer. Make sure to keep good notes as you never know what might be the perfect combination!

There is a beauty in taking humble ingredients and turning them into a delicious beer through skill and time . . . but there is also fun to be had plumbing the world of haute cuisine! I’m sure this article will spark some derision both from the brewing purists and the foodies who see the use of these ingredients in beer as a waste. As always, the great thing about making your own beer is that you can do it with the ingredients you want!

Issue: May-June 2021