Monday, April 21, 2014

Adding Spices and Herbs to Sour Beers

Originally (most of) American Sour Beers Chapter 11 - Adding Spices and Herbs


Hops are included in pretty much every beer recipe these days, but just like pure cultures of brewer's yeast, their dominance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Five hundred years ago, the addition of hops was considered controversial because gruit, secret blends of herbs and spices controlled by church and king, served as both seasoning and taxation for European brewers. Since then, hops have become the near universal herbal counterpoint to malt’s sweetness, but brewers avoid imparting significant hop character to sour beers because of their clashing bitterness (aside from a few dry-hopped examples). Despite the minimal hop flavor contribution nearly all sour beer recipes include hops, either aged (which degrades their bitterness) or in low quantities.

Many of the best sour beers have complex herbal, spice, or floral notes that result from the magical interaction of microbes, oak, and oxygen, that occurs during extended aging. To produce a specific flavor, you are at the mercy of chance, unless you add herbs (flavorful leaves), spices (other part of a plant, usually bark or seed), or flowers that impart the desired flavor. While a few brewers are trying to revive the gruit tradition, most add a combination of botanicals and hops. Examples of the most common brewing herbs and spices are: orange peel, grains of paradise, heather, coriander, cinnamon, and nutmeg, but there are scores of others available from specialty spice retailers, and herbalists. Many botanicals do not impart bitterness so their flavors are more harmonious with sourness.

Well executed spicing of a sour beer demands subtlety. Try to stay around the flavor threshold, leave some mystery. Let people argue over whether the beer is spiced and about what was added. Getting the balance right often demands the art of blending.

Ideas for Spiced and Herbal Beers

Spices can enhance a character that already exists in a batch while other spices can return balance to a beer. Earthy spices, like black cardamom and white pepper, temper a beer that is overly bright. To test if the addition improves the beer, either make a tea with the spice or sprinkle a pinch of the ground spice into a sample of the beer, swirl, and smell. Beers often lose brightness as they age, so time is also a good option if you are looking to mellow a certain aromatic.

There are a few spices that have the ability to conceal less desirable flavors. Vanilla is the archetypal addition to obscure unpleasant or rough flavors. It is a good option for a beer that has an objectionable funky character that refuses to go away. Consider combining spicing with a fruit addition. According to  Jean Guinard in Lambic (Classic Beer Style), at one time Brasserie Cantillon added a touch of vanilla to Rosé de Gambrinus, their raspberry lambic. At the right level this would enhance the oak derived vanillin, without disrupting the delicate balance of fruit and funk. This is the sort of subtle spicing that enhances sour beers.

Avoid pre-mixed spice blends, and instead create your own. The more control you retain, the better your ability to adjust future batches. De Struise Brouwers employs a custom spice blend in several beers, including their sour brown Aardmonnik/Earthmonk, to produce a house flavor in the same way that other brewers have a signature house yeast strain. In their case the blend is cinnamon, coriander, orange peel, and thyme.

If you like the flavors of your beer, but think they need a boost, there is no better flavor enhancer than ordinary sodium chloride (table salt). Salt reduces the perceived bitterness, making it a valuable addition for an over-hopped sour beer, and makes beers taste fuller and richer. I prefer non-iodized varieties, such as those sold as kosher, pickling, and unrefined sea salt. Measure by weight because the salt crystal size has a huge impact on the density. Salt is a traditional addition in the production of the tart gose of Leipzig, Germany. I use.1-.2 oz/gal (.75-1.5 g/L) of salt is the right range to be able to sense the sodium, but not so much that the beer tastes briny.

Cold-side additions are much easier to incorporate if you dissolve the salt in boiling water first. Salts impregnated with other flavors are an interesting option; The Bruery adds truffle salt to their gose, Salt of the Earth, to contribute a delicate loamy flavor. The drawback of adding flavored salts is that they do not allow you to control the salinity and flavor intensity independently. You want to avoid situations where you are forced to compromise by adding more salt than desired.

Patrick Rue, the founder of The Bruery, often takes influences from the food world for his beers. In addition to Salt of the Earth, he includes Thai basil in Trade Winds Tripel, and ginger’s cousin galangal in a 100% Brettanomyces black beer, Gunga Galunga. Even if these particular ideas do not appeal to you it is worth looking to the culinary world for inspiration. The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) is an especially good resource; for each of the hundreds of ingredients, the book lists dozens of suggested flavor combinations identified by a group of respected chefs. To take advantage of it, taste a beer and search for the flavors you detect (e.g., lemons, vinegar, red wine, cherries etc.) and see if any of the suggested combinations spark your imagination.

For a floral addition, flowers like lavender, elderflowers, chamomile, hibiscus, and heather can be added. Flowers are especially well suited for giving a freshness to a beer that tastes old or stodgy. It is possible to add flowers either alone or in combination, but smell them first because there are certain ones, lavender especially, that remind many people of soap. Cantillon’s Zwanze 2009 (since released as Mamouche) is two-year-old lambic flavored with freshly handpicked elderflowers—the floral character was potent, reminiscent of fresh green jalapeño peppers. I did not achieve the same flavor from using commercially dried elderflowers. However, the flavors that are extracted by alcohol in a low pH environment are sometimes surprising, so testing extractions in a bottle of beer before committing to an entire batch is advisable.

There are several botanical additions that work well in clean beers that are much more challenging in sour beer. For example the bold coffee and chocolate additions that work so well in big sweet stouts do not succeed when combined with a dry and sour base. Success depends on subtlety and subterfuge, as Jolly Pumpkin Artisinal Ales achieves with cacao, cinnamon, and sweet orange peel in Maracaibo Especial.

Consider flavoring a beer to make it evocative of a certain time and place. For example adding smoked malt, spruce, and elderberry evokes a Scandinavian winter, while roasted squash, cinnamon, and nutmeg recall Thanksgiving at grandma’s house. Remember to consider the base beer in tandem with your concept; a bright pale sour is not a good choice for the base of a Christmas beer (unless you go with something like citrus and spruce tips). But adding .2 oz/gal (1.5 g/L) of dried elderflowers to a pale sour ale for two weeks prior to bottling added the aroma of a summer meadow. Select the proper grist and techniques to create a base beer that marries rather than clashes with the added flavors.

Spicing Saison

In some brewers’ minds spicing is synonymous with saison, but this is not the case. For the most part the spicy flavors you taste are produced by the fermentation. When actual spices are included in a recipe, they should be subtle and build character without trampling on the flavors of the yeast. Spices that complement the peppery yeast character especially well are peppercorns (black, white, or pink), grains of paradise, and long pepper (commonly used in Indian cuisine). Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company adds black pepper (along with coriander and lemon peel) to his Brettanomyces finished Chardonnay-barrel-aged Whiteout Wit. Ginger can add a bit of heat, but be careful when adding dried ginger because it can easily overpower the yeast character.

Spices for St. Somewhere's Saison Athene.Bob Sylvester, the founder of St. Somewhere Brewing Company, says “I like to use mostly local, indigenous ingredients. Cane sugar, saw palmetto, hibiscus, wild local yeast from open fermentation, locally grown rosemary, lemon leaves, elder flowers and so on.” Rather than copy what another brewery is doing, find local ingredients to incorporate into your recipe. Brewing seasonally allows you to incorporate summer flowers such as chamomile, honeysuckle, jasmine, chrysanthemum, lavender, marigolds, and dandelions that can add delicate flavors.

A low finishing gravity can cause spices to taste harsh. Brian Strumke, founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, had this to say “Spicing has loads of variables, not all spices or herbs, flowers, etc. are equal. They are unique ingredients and you must know what you are working with in order to get them to do what you want. I have done both hot and cold infusions on various herbs and spices, it comes down to what and when.” Always experiment with hot and cold extraction teas to gauge the intensity of a new ingredient before adding it to the beer. Alternatively added to taste at packaging, a tea provides control to determine the flavor contribution that works best for the beer.


As important as which botanicals you select, is where you source them. To get the highest quality dried herbs and spices, buy them as whole as possible from a specialty spice supplier. Whole spices retain their flavor longer than ground or powdered versions because of their lower surface area, which slows the loss of volatile compounds. Ethnic markets are full of inexpensive and interesting botanicals (as well as sugars, fruits, and other exotic ingredients). Tea shops are another source; herbal and flavored teas have intense flavors and are designed for extraction in water. The subtle flavors of black/oolong/green/white teas can work as well, for example the Lost Abbey Veritas 008 and Vanberg & DeWulf Lambrucha.

Try to support stores that allow you to smell the product before you buy it; this is mandatory if you are buying pre-ground spices whose aromatics will mute within weeks of grinding. Specialist online retailers have huge selections, and are invaluable if you are looking for obscure ingredients that you cannot find locally. The disadvantage of shopping online is that you cannot inspect before buying.

Unlike hop suppliers, who list the alpha acid content to convey the pungency of the hop’s bitterness, spices and herbs come with no such potency rating. To determine their strength you will have to do a sensory evaluation by smelling them, or steeping in hot water and tasting. This is especially important when adding the botanicals to the boil; if you are unsure, err on the low side, as you can always make another addition later in the process.

Many spices benefit tremendously from toasting before grinding. The heat alters the aromatics, often making them more potent and complex. You can research how your chosen spice is usually treated in cooking, but there is no harm in toasting the spice in a dry pan to smell for yourself how the aroma changes. Again taste tests are crucial, what works for a spice in a barbecue dry rub may not work for a sour beer.

Timing Additions

There are numerous opportunities to add spices and herbs, although unlike clean beers you must take into account the long aging period sour beers require before consumption. Age tends to mellow the character of aromatic ingredients, but there are those that are surprisingly long lived (especially the more pungent spices like black cardamom and clove). In addition, certain strains of Brettanomyces can ferment the glycosides (an aromatic aglycone bound to a sugar molecule) contributed by spices like coriander and herbs including hops, changing or enhancing their flavors.

Your first opportunities for these additions come on the hot side of the process, with additions during the last five minutes of the boil being the most common. Boiling spices or herbs, even for a few minutes, tends to mute their aromatic character, but also better integrate their flavor into the beer. Late-boil additions are an ideal time to impart subtle aromatic complexity. The earlier in the boil most spices are added, the less of their flavor will remain after fermentation. However, longer boil times tend to increase the longevity of the flavors that do remain. The major disadvantage with this method is that you have to decide what and how much you will add before tasting the fermented beer. As a result, I do not use this method the first time I brew with an ingredient. Boil or whirlpool additions are a good technique when you have a recipe that you know works with later additions, which you want to be subtler.

The next opportunity to add botanicals is directly to the aging beer. The combination of alcohol and water in beer are able to extract a wider range of compounds than a hot side extraction in wort. It is best to let the beer age until it is ready for packaging before making an addition. Waiting to see where the character lands will give you an idea of how much of a given flavor you want to impart. To ease separating the ingredient from the beer, enclose them in a large mesh bag (packing ingredients tightly into a small bag prevents good contact with the beer). Fermentor additions have the advantage of allowing you to taste the beer as it infuses; when the right balance is reached, remove the botanicals or package the beer.

Adding botanicals directly to the beer requires minimal effort and equipment, and is effective. However, until you gain the experience to judge their quality and impact on the beer it is easy to over- or undershoot the desired character. This is especially true of working with herbs and spices that are not among the handful commonly added to beer.


If you are not confident about the amount of herbal or spice personality you want in a beer, especially when using a new ingredient, the best method is to extract its flavor into another substrate. This flavorful extract should then be dosed into the beer to taste at packaging. This extraction can either be accomplished quickly by a hot water “tea” or slowly in alcohol to produce a tincture. With either method you want the extraction to be highly concentrated so that you do not have to add a large volume to attain the desired profile.

For a tea, soak the ground botanical in chlorine-free water that is barely off the boil; after five minutes, filter the tea through cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove the solids. If this produces a harsh flavor, try a lower temperature, shorter steep, or coarser grind. The more finely ground the ingredients the faster the extraction, and thus the smaller window you will have before over-extraction. It is best to perform this process separately for each ingredient initially, to allow you to optimize the extraction and dosing for each.

One of my most successful uses of this method was a tea of hibiscus (also known as jamaica), providing a vibrant tart-cranberry flavor in addition to a bright red color paired with jasmine that offers a floral character sometimes added to teas. I added the teas directly to a pale unhopped base beer, fermented with a combination of the Scottish Heavy strain from East Coast Yeast and Lactobacillus, at the same time as the priming sugar.

Many aromatic molecules are soluble in alcohol, but not in water; you may want to try both tea and tincture to see which extraction produces the best results for a particular ingredient. To create a tincture, soak the ingredient in neutral vodka, or a more flavorful spirit if you want to add an additional dimension. After a few day or weeks, when the aromatics have been extracted, but before any harsh compounds have, filter the infused spirit to remove the remaining solids. Once you have your concentrated flavoring, add it to a measured sample of beer and taste. You may want to force carbonate the sample blend to gauge how much carbonation will heighten the aroma profile. When you determine the ideal ratio, scale it to the target volume of beer. Hold back 10% of the calculated volume of extract, taste the well-mixed beer, and add the remainder if needed. Remember that the character will gradually mellow with age, so you may wish to aim slightly more assertive than your desired level.

Extractions are a simple and controlled way to split a batch into several variations. Take a six-pack from a batch at bottling and add a different extraction to each one of the bottles before capping to learn what works with the finished beer. Experimentation is invaluable with hundreds of culinary plants available, each with its own unique character to contribute.

Final Thoughts

Even though hops do not usually have much direct impact on the flavor of sour beers, leaving them out entirely may allow excessive Lactobacillus activity. Added with hops rather than to replace them, spices and herbs can add depth, or conceal off-flavors. They can even impart substances that Brettanomyces can combine or break-apart to create new flavor compounds. As gruits age, certain aromatics will peak and fade, allowing for more dramatic changes than those seen in a beer flavored with only a single herb (hops).

Think about flavor combinations that work well in other beers and foods, focusing on finding complementary as opposed to contrasting flavors. Classic combinations can be adapted to brewing, but experiment to determine what does and does not work in your beer

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