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.
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|