Ask Mr. Wizard

Using Allspice


Lalo Severo — Montevideo, Uruguay asks,

I tried a beer in which allspice pepper had been used and I want to experience this spice in my beer. What style do you recommend for your use? Should I use the allspice berries whole or grind them before use, and at what point in the process should I add it; boil or fermentation?


One of the easiest ways to work a spice into beer recipes is to consider how the spice is used in cooking and then create a beer that mimics the food concept. More advanced uses of spices include using spices to substitute and/or complement hops, add depth and complexity to fruit, augment yeast characters, and to round out complex beers that may seem a bit disjointed. Whatever the purpose, it is important to maintain balance when brewing with spices because it is very easy to overdo any one spice addition.

Allspice, also known as myrtle pepper and Jamaican pimento, is a berry harvested from the Piementa dioica tree that is native to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. So named because it seems like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, allspice is used in a variety of dishes including Jamaican jerk chicken, aromatic breads and baked goods, pickles, desserts, and savory stews. Allspice lends itself to beer styles that play well with aromatic phenols, such as pumpkin ale, rich dark beers like porter, dunkel lager, imperial stout, and maibock. I am thinking beers with some residual malt character that can support the intensity of allspice. Judicious additions of allspice may also work well as accents to saison, hefeweizen, and beers with other aromatics such as vanilla, basil, rosemary, and chocolate. And any discussion of spices and styles these days is incomplete without mentioning pastry stout, the catch-all style for just about any and all ingredients.

Spices, like hops, can be used ground or whole, and can be added in the boil, during fermentation, or after fermentation. One of the challenges to using spices is usage rate. Whereas hops are labeled with alpha acid content and brewers can calculate how much to add based on this value, spices come with no similar indicator. This means that spice additions are approximate, even when using a recipe. For these reasons, I prefer to add spices to beer after fermentation is complete.

If you like precision and knowing what is going to happen in advance, begin by making an allspice tincture using vodka and freshly ground berries. A day of contact time is about all that is required for most spice tinctures, especially when ground spices are used. Tinctures allow for blending trials using small samples of beer to determine the preferred dosing rate. I like to take about 100 mL of beer and pipette small volumes of whatever it is I am trialing into the beer while swirling and smelling with each addition to determine approximately how much ingredient is required for the desired intensity. I then set up 3-5 glasses with 100 mL of beer per glass and add my test ingredient at a range that brackets the concentration in the first trial. This method is a great way to take the guesswork out of spicing.

Some brewers and cooks feel this food science approach to brewing and cooking lacks romance and prefer more rustic methods. If you want control without the pipette and graduated cylinder, consider containing your allspice berries in a spice bag and adding the bag to a keg or fermenter before filling with beer. Periodically sample your beer and rack it to another keg or bottle when the intensity is to your liking. I have used this approach to add oak flavor to beer when I was not sure how much oak was needed to produce the right amount of oakiness.
Spices can always be added to the kettle, but this method allows for the least amount of control unless you have previously gone through a recipe development process. Adding spices to the kettle is easier than adding during or after fermentation, and also adds a heat sterilization step that offers a level of surety to the process.

Response by Ashton Lewis.