Homebrewing Tips

Brewing Beer with Spices

June 6, 2018
beer herbs spices

Long before hops were ever used, many different spices were used in beer brewing for bittering and flavor. In fact, the history of beer produced without hops is approximately 8,000 years older than the history of beer produced with hops. For those 8,000 years, beer was mostly flavored and preserved using a mixture of spices, herbs, and/or fruits. These types of beers are commonly known as “gruits”.

Spiced Beer Styles

Nowadays, hops are recognized as a key ingredient in beer, while spices are instead a supplementary ingredient used in a variety of styles to enhance the beer’s flavor. Beer styles where spices are frequently used to enhance flavor include: Belgian-style beers, particularly witbiers and saisons; holiday ales, such as some winter warmers and pumpkin beers; porters and stouts; Scandinavian ales, such as sahti; and Norwegian farmhouse ales. While these are the more common styles that are spiced, you can add spices to any beer style.

How Much Spice to Add

Regardless of style, spices should be used sparingly so they don’t overwhelm the rest of the beer. You want your beer to still taste otherwise to style. Some spices can easily be overdone if the brewer’s not careful.

Some beers might focus on a single spice, while others might use a blend of spices.

Testing Your Spices

Before adding spices to your beer, it can help to test them by preparing a “tea” with the spices first. You can experiment with different blends in the tea to get the right balance of flavors and aromas for your beer. This can save you from over-spicing your beer, rendering it unpalatable.

When to Add Spices

Spices can be added in different parts of the brewing process depending on what you are using and what results you are trying to achieve. Some spices contribute the most flavor in the boil. This is also the best time to place root-based spices since they are dense and may need the boil for proper flavor extraction. Lighter herbs, such as flowers and leaves, can be added to secondary fermentation 1-2 weeks before bottling/kegging.

Sanitizing Spices

When adding to the boil, sanitizing the spices is not required. But when adding to secondary, they may need to be covered in vodka or another grain alcohol (such as Everclear) to sanitize them. Adding just enough to cover them works. The alcohol will also help extract some flavor from the spices. This works really great with citrus zests, cacao nibs, or seeds, such as coriander.

 

The following table, taken from Beer and Brewing Magazine, is an excellent resource for choosing which spices you would like to experiment with.

Spices and Their Uses in Beer

Common name Scientific name Part used Comment Use (examples)
Allspice Pimenta dioica Seed Bitterness, significant aroma, healthy, beer preservative Christmas beers, medieval medicinal beers
Anise Pimpinella anisum Seed Adds a spicy and anise-like bitterness during the boil Historical beer bittering
Bay leaf Laurus nobilis Leaf Bitterness, significant aroma, healthy, beer preservative Recent experimental brewing
Caraway Carum carvi Seed Adds a spicy and anise-like bitterness during the boil Historical beer bittering
Cardamom Elettaria cardamomum Seed Powerfully aromatic, ginger family Christmas beers, medieval medicinal beers
Chili pepper Capsicum spp. Fruit Both vegetal flavor and capsaicin heat Original porter, experimental brewing
Cinnamon Cinnamomum verum Bark Popular, but often is actually cassia bark Pumpkin ales and Christmas beers, medieval medicinal beers
Citrus Citrus spp. Peel Lemon peel; sweet, canned orange peel; Curaçao Belgian-style ales, particularly witbier
Clove Syzygium aromaticum Flower bud Very powerful, best used sparingly Pumpkin ales and Christmas beers
Coriander Coriandrum sativum Seed Widely used Medieval medicinal beers Belgium wit
Dill Anethum graveolens Seed Adds a spicy and anise-like bitterness during the boil Historical beer bittering
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare Seed Adds a spicy and anise-like bitterness during the boil Historical beer bittering
Ginger Zingiber officinale Root Highly aromatic Original porter, medieval medicinal beers
Grains of paradise Aframomum melegueta Seed Pepper-like spice with notes of citrus and pine; once believed to be an aphrodisiac Old English ales, abandoned in the 17th century by law, experimental brewing
Juniper Juniperus communis Berry Used in the mash or boil Historical Scandinavian brewing, such as Finnish Sahti, for which boughs, too, are used in the mash
Licorice Glycyrrhiza glabra Root Bitter, medicinal Original porter and stout
Mace Myristica fragrans Fruit/aril A sophisticated and delicious alternative to nutmeg Holiday beers
Nutmeg Myristica fragrans Fruit/nut Christmas beers, medieval medicinal beers, experimental brewing
Parsley Petroselinum crispum Seed Adds a spicy and anise- like bitterness during the boil Historical beer bittering
Pepper Piper nigrum Seed Highly fragrant, adds heat if concentrated Experimental brewing, medieval medicinal beers
Quassia Quassia amara Wood Quinine-like Historical beer bittering
Saffron Crocus sativus Style/stigma Very expensive, strong savory flavor Experimental brewing
Star anise Illicium verum Seed Adds a spicy and anise- like bitterness during the boil Experimental brewing, Christmas beers
Vanilla Vanilla planifolia Fruit Widely used Holiday beers, porters

 

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