Brewing with Nuts: Tips from the Pros

They don’t get the attention that some non-traditional ingredients may receive (like fruit beers), but nuts of all kind make for fun brewing ingredients. Get tips on the types of nuts (and their various forms from chopped to extracts) to use, as well as when and how to use them from three pros who aren’t afraid to go a little nuts.

Brewer: Brett Semenske, Imperial Oak Brewing in Willow Spring, IL

Most of the nut beers we have done are one-off infusions of our base beers. We have done full batches of the most popular ones. Some of our favorites are Billy Dee’s (a coconut pecan porter), Buzz Lite Beer (an almond honey ale), Das Nuts (a pecan, almond Oktoberfest), Udderly Hawaiian (a macadamia nut, coffee, coconut milk Stout), and Udder-Nut Café (a hazelnut, coffee milk stout). We look for nut flavors that complement the base beer flavors like honey and almond, chocolate and pecan, caramel and pecan, etc. Sometimes we get inspiration from another food or beverage like hazelnut coffee or coconut and macadamia nuts. In addition to the above, we’ve also used pistachios and cashews. Any nut that isn’t bitter tends to work — we tried walnuts once and it made the beer too bitter.

Since most of our nut beers are one-offs with existing beers, instead of designing recipes specifically for nuts, we try to match the nut flavor to an existing beer and/or additional ingredients being added to the beer. We have found that nuts work best in malt-forward beers, the nuts do add a bit of bitterness so the sweetness of these beers helps with that.

To prepare the nuts we will toast them in the oven to bring out the flavor and remove a bit of the oil. We toast them in the oven at 350 °F (177 °C) in a single layer on a baking sheet for 10–15 minutes, then stir them up and go another 10–15 minutes until they are nice and brown and you can smell the aromatics. We then break them up into pieces (not too fine) and put them in muslin/nylon bags to add them to the beer.

We always add the nuts after fermentation. Either in the fermenter for a full batch, or in individual kegs for one-offs. We try to avoid adding anything with unwanted potential bitterness (nuts, coffee) to the hot side of the brew because we don’t want to extract that bitterness.

We’ve done a good amount of experimenting with the amount and have settled on 4–6 lbs. per barrel (10–15.5 oz. per 5-gallon/19-L batch). We go with the low side for lighter beers or if we want the nuts to be a complementary flavor, the higher side in stronger flavored beers or if we want the nut flavor to be at the forefront. We leave the nuts in the beer for 1–2 weeks.

We use real nuts but we have used small amounts of extract (1⁄8 fluid oz. in 5 gallons/5 mL in 19 L) in addition to round out the flavor. Our experience with extracts in general is that they can give you a fuller, rounder flavor when used in small amounts with the real product (fruit, vanilla, nuts, etc.) but if you use more than a small amount you can get an artificial taste.

The nuts do affect the head retention. After the first few pours when the particles have cleared out the head seems to be better but still not great. We haven’t really had any complaints because the flavor and uniqueness of the beer outweigh the lack of head.

For homebrewers, I’d just recommend to not be afraid to try new things. Nuts work great by themselves or with other ingredients so you have a lot of possibilities.

Brewer: Jamil Zainasheff, Heretic Brewing in Fairfield, CA

When I developed chocolate hazelnut porter (CHP) it was a hazelnut addition from the start, but I did try other nuts. Those other nuts just didn’t seem to work as well as hazelnut, which has a sort of warm character in my mind. The balance of hazelnut in beer, along with many kinds of nuts, is very difficult. You’ll find that some people have very high perception of nut character while others will be on the other end of the spectrum. I know I have the right balance of nut character when half the people tell me they can’t taste it and half the people tell me it is overwhelming.

I’ve tried many different forms and techniques, but the best for hazelnut seems to be extract. I’ve tried grinding up nuts, nut paste, nuts with the oil removed, and any other nut format you can think of. Ignore trying to grind up the nuts — it might work for some nuts, but for the oily types of nuts it isn’t the way to go. The oil-removed nut powder is pretty good to work with and will give a good flavor, but I think it depends a lot on how it is processed and how fresh it is. Of course, extracts vary widely too. I tried every one available and some of them just don’t have a rich character; they seem fake. If you’re looking for an extract, try several and ignore any that aren’t made from actual hazelnuts. When it comes to actual nuts versus extracts, I think it depends on the type of nut and if there is a great extract available or not. In some cases all you have are the nuts, and in that case, if it is a high-oil nut, I would use the pressed nut after oil extraction. You can find them online as nut powder, but try to buy it fresh and if you don’t get good results try another supplier. If you must use something oily, then do it while there is still yeast present. Yeast have an amazing ability to use up a lot of oil and they should resolve the oil issue.

You can try adding these flavors anywhere from the mash to the finished beer. In most cases I like to put everything in after fermentation. Fermentation itself strips away a lot of delicate flavors with CO2 stripping and yeast surface area. The boil does the same. So, for the most delicate of flavors carrying through, I recommend post-fermentation additions.

Brewer: Brad Clark, Jackie O’s in Athens, OH

We have done a number of one-off beers with nuts being added into finished, carbonated products. Many different styles have worked very well including barleywine, wheatwine, stout, imperial stout, brown ale, and porters. We have used walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, coconut, almonds, cashews, and macadamia nuts in these one-offs. When adding post carbonation we let the beer and the nuts marry for 3–5 days, then transfer into another keg to remove the beer from the nuts.

We have also designed recipes that include nuts. The thought process isn’t completely different, just confidence that we want a whole batch to have a nut element as opposed to just a fun riff on a regular beer. When we brew a beer with nuts we add them to the kettle towards the end of the boil.

We use rough chopped nuts and prepare them by spreading them thin on a baking sheet and roasting for 20–25 minutes at 325 °F (163 °C). This helps pull the oils out of the nuts (which can have a negative impact on head formation) and also intensifies the flavors and aromas that the nuts possess. The caramelization of the nuts’ natural sugars line up with our darker ales that showcase caramel malts and rich malty notes. When adding nuts to finished beer we blanch the roasted nuts in 190 °F (88 °C) water to sanitize them.

The addition rates are definitely trial and error. We do roughly a 1.5 lbs./barrel (3.9 oz./5 gallons) nut addition when adding them in the boil. When conditioning for a more dramatic impact, we use 10 lbs. per barrel (26 oz. per 5 gallons). To make things easier, be sure to always bag up your nuts in muslin sacks.

Issue: March-April 2017