Some “beer purists” might eschew the use of spices in beer brewing, but spices have been used much longer than hops. By many accounts, beer was first made more than 9,000 years ago, but using hops in beer has only been traced back about 1,000 years.
Before hopped beer, gruit beer (also grut or gruyt) was the most common beer style in the world. These beers were made with a single spice or a blend of spices, such as bog myrtle (aka sweet gale), yarrow, juniper, rosemary, woodruff, mugwort, ginger, anise, mint, wormwood, sage, and more.
In the Middle Ages, hop usage spread, and some countries even set regulations that declared only barley, hops and water be used in brewing. Of course, regulations in Bavaria in the mid 1400s led to the most famous of these laws, the Reinheitsgebot of 1516.
But some suggest that the hop didn’t become the dominant bittering and flavoring agent in beer until only about 200 years ago.
Today, many beers are still seasoned with spices, though they’re usually made with hops as well. Common spices used in brewing include cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, coriander, thyme, peppercorns, grains of paradise, and even some flowers (though not the poisonous ones).
Technically speaking, herbs come from the leafy parts of the plant, whereas spices come from the seeds, roots, bulbs or stems of the plant. But the term “spices” is often used to include any dried plant product (including herbs, orange peel, etc.) for seasoning purposes.
Even though it may seem like there’s a spice explosion in brewing right now, there are some traditional styles that have been brewed with spices for ages, such as the German gose, which is typically made with coriander and salt. Many saisons are also seasoned with spices such as peppercorns, grains of paradise, orange peel and more. Of course, there are also spiced Christmas/holiday beers and pumpkin beers, which have both surged in popularity in recent times.
Kulshan’s Royal Tannenbaum Christmas Ale is a noteworthy example that takes spicing to a new level, as it was brewed with four different types of Christmas trees. It may sound strange, but it’s delicious, and this year’s version is the best one they’ve ever made, in my opinion. It’s a perfect blend of sweet caramel, snappy pine and warming alcohol.
A few breweries have also recently released their Beers Made By Walking beers, which incorporate spices, found ingredients or inspiration from Nature.
Spicy inspiration can also be found in some unlikely places. On a recent visit to Drizzle in Fairhaven, for example, I noticed some tea blends made of dried fruits and flowers, and I thought they would go great in a saison.
Over the years, I have experimented with spices in my homebrews, though it doesn’t always work out.
While on a trip to Iceland, I discovered Brennivin, the country’s national liquor, which is seasoned with caraway seeds. I found it to be a bit harsh, but it did have a distinctive rye bread flavor that I enjoyed, and it provided me with inspiration for a beer. Caraway seeds are often used in rye bread, so I decided to brew a rye pale ale with caraway seeds. It seemed like the perfect combination of ingredients, but after brewing the beer, I didn’t like how it turned out. It had an odd spearmint-like note, which I suspect was caused from boiling the caraway seeds.
By no means am I a spice expert, but if you plan to brew with spices, here are some suggestions I’d like to offer:
- Generally speaking, spices should contribute an additional layer to a beer, and not overpower it. I like spice notes best when they’re in the background, unless I’m trying to showcase a particular spice.
- Think about the malt and hop flavors in your beer and choose spices to complement those flavors, or vice versa. Fortunately, many spices pair wonderfully with common malt flavors such as bread, toast, caramel and nuts, and many hop flavors such as citrus, flowers and herbs blend with many spices as well.
- Don’t use spices (or adjuncts, for that matter) to cover up flaws, off-flavors or other inadequacies in your beer. Try to master the base beer first, then use spices to take the beer to another level.
- Use caution when adding many different spices or you might end up with a cacophony of clashing aromas that’ll be as harmonious as a fourth-grade band.
- Before using any spice, do lots of research to get a feel for how much brewers typically use, and then adjust that amount based on your personal preference. With some spices, I’ll add up to an ounce or two in a 5-gallon batch. But with others, I’ll add as little as one-eighth of a teaspoon. Also keep in mind that powdered versions are more concentrated than uncrushed or fresh/undried versions.
- Know your palate, and note what you like and dislike. I have learned that I’m OK with black licorice, but I’m not a big fan of anise in beer. Additionally, some palates are more sensitive to certain spices than others.
- Homebrew systems are vastly different, with different efficiencies, volumes, etc., so nothing beats trial and error on your own system.
- There are many ways to introduce spices into your beer. Some add them during the last few minutes of the boil; some add them at flameout; some add them during fermentation; and some make tinctures or teas to add directly to the beer during fermentation or at bottling/kegging. If you plan to boil your spices, keep in mind that boiling them for too long can drive off delicate volatiles and/or add harsh tannins.
All of that said, the hop is still my absolute favorite beer seasoning, and I couldn’t imagine beer without it. I’ll also admit that I haven’t liked the majority of the spiced beers I have tried, but I like to keep an open mind, and it has led to some wonderful discoveries (such as chocolate, chile peppers and cinnamon in stouts).
When it comes to homebrewing with spices, I enjoy the process of experimentation. After all, putting hops into beer was most likely an experiment, and look at what that got us.