Herbs & Spices in Beer – How to Use Them Properly

This article was contributed by: Dan Bentley from BrewConductor.com

When people think of spices in beer, most of the time their minds jump straight to hops. And that makes sense; hops are the main “spice” of beer, right? Well yes, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options which can enhance, or even replace hops, in terms of adding a kick to your brew.
In fact, the use of herbs and spices in beer predates the use of hops by many centuries. It’s highly likely that the earliest beers of Sumeria and Egypt were brewed using some kind of early spice or flavouring material such as dates and herbs. In 1985, Neolithic pottery was uncovered on the island of Rhum, this pottery contained remnants of a fermented beverage which was created using heather, meadowsweet, and royal fern.
While it is true that modern day beers are almost exclusively brewed with hops, there are some still out there which use heather, or which have their primary flavour derived from herbs and spices. As a home brewer it’s definitely something which, when done well, can really enhance your beer.
Before you jump in and start throwing coriander into all your brews, it’s worth taking a step back, and with any brew, looking at your recipe. Consider brewing with spices which have particular a style and flavour profile which matches the beer you’re trying to create. If you’re brewing a light, fruity beer such as a Belgian witbier, then coriander is a good choice. In beer, it doesn’t provide the fresh salsa taste that you might imagine; instead, it contributes a fresh, citrusy flavour. Whereas, if you’re brewing a dark, spicy porter or stout then cinnamon is a good option, particularly around Christmas time!
Once you have the right spice in mind, there are a number of important questions which you need to answer. How much spice? What form of spice should I use? When should I add it? Just to name a few.
When considering how much to add, it’s vital to keep in mind that a beer with a too-subtle spice flavour is far better than an overpowering one. By using excessive amounts you can easily ruin an entire batch of beer, and it’s far easier and less heartbreaking to just use slightly more next time, rather than throw away an entire batch of beer, no one wants to see that happen. Different spices have different suggested amounts for a typical five-gallon batch, you can find resources online which list every spice & the recommended amount, I recommend using these tools.
Deciding when to add your herbs or spices depends if you want the aroma, or flavour (or both) of the spice in the final beer, it’s very pleasant to simply have the aroma of cinnamon in a stout, rather than a full frontal assault from a cinnamon stick. Generally, the earlier you add your chosen herb/spice, the more flavour will be captured, but less aroma. To use our example of a light cinnamon aroma, you would need to add your cinnamon in the last 30 minutes of the boil in order to capture the aroma.
With more delicate flavours, such as sweetgrass, the aroma would likely be lost entirely if added during the boil, therefore it would be best to add subtle flavours such as this to the secondary fermenter. Another good idea is to split the quantity of your spice up, in order to capture both the flavour and aroma, by adding the portions at different points of the brewing process. If you’re going to go down this line, careful tasting and excellent note-taking are imperative.
Your local homebrew store is a great place to start looking for herbs and spices to add to your brew, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, try a supermarket or specialty food store. Some spices may require you to prepare them yourself; it is common practice to grind them yourself. A great way to do so is to use a rolling pin with the spice in a zip sealed plastic bag. Alternatively, you can use a coffee mill.
Using herbs, spices or any other flavourful ingredient is a fun way to experiment with your brews, remember to match your ingredient to the brew you’re attempting to subtle spice flavour is far better than an overpowering one. By using excessive amounts you can easily ruin an entire batch of beer, and it’s far easier and less heartbreaking to just use slightly more next time, rather than throw away an entire batch of beer, no one wants to see that happen. Different spices have different suggested amounts for a typical five-gallon batch, you can find resources online which list every spice & the recommended amount, I recommend using these tools.
Deciding when to add your herbs or spices depends if you want the aroma, or flavour (or both) of the spice in the final beer, it’s very pleasant to simply have the aroma of cinnamon in a stout, rather than a full frontal assault from a cinnamon stick. Generally, the earlier you add your chosen herb/spice, the more flavour will be captured, but less aroma. To use our example of a light cinnamon aroma, you would need to add your cinnamon in the last 30 minutes of the boil in order to capture the aroma.
With more delicate flavours, such as sweetgrass, the aroma would likely be lost entirely if added during the boil, therefore it would be best to add subtle flavours such as this to the secondary fermenter. Another good idea is to split the quantity of your spice up, in order to capture both the flavour and aroma, by adding the portions at different points of the brewing process. If you’re going to go down this line, careful tasting and excellent note-taking are imperative.
Your local homebrew store is a great place to start looking for herbs and spices to add to your brew, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, try a supermarket or specialty food store. Some spices may require you to prepare them yourself; it is common practice to grind them yourself. A great way to do so is to use a rolling pin with the spice in a zip sealed plastic bag. Alternatively, you can use a coffee mill.
Using herbs, spices or any other flavourful ingredient is a fun way to experiment with your brews, remember to match your ingredient to the brew you’re attempting to create, go easy on the quantities and try out different times to add them, and you’ll be brewing perfectly spiced beers in no time.

 

Dan Bentley is the owner and writer over at BrewConductor.com,
to find various recipes, along with a great extract brewing guide,
check out the site!

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