A Dash of Pepper

In the same way a chef can add a touch of cracked peppercorn to open up a dish with added spice and complexity, a brewer can use the same ingredient to achieve the same result.

Eric Reinsvold Jul 27, 2016 - 7 min read

A Dash of Pepper  Primary Image

Peppercorns are perfect for complementing and enhancing the phenols produced by many Belgian yeast strains. Saisons are most commonly associated with peppercorns, given the natural spicy, peppery character of the yeast, but other styles also lend themselves to the use of peppercorns. The broad spectrum of peppercorns expands the number of styles in which this unique ingredient can be used.

To maintain the peppercorns’ more subtle flavors, freshly cracked peppercorns should be added no sooner than 10 minutes at the end of the boil. A post fermentation addition can bring forth an intriguing bright, spiciness to the beer, but avoid a heavy hand when working with this type of an addition. Along with the pungent peppery quality derived from the alkaloid peperine, a number of volatile terpenes can be found in peppercorns. Interestingly, many of these terpenes (caryophyllene, limonene, and pinene) give hops some of their signature aromas.

Regardless of when you add pepper, a little goes a long way, so keep the overall amount to less than 2 teaspoons per 5-gallon batch. Given the potent nature of the peppercorn, it’s worth exploring different varieties and their potential uses. (I’d like to give a shout out to my local spice shop in Fort Collins, Colorado, Savory Spice, for offering a diverse array of peppercorns and pepper berries.)

Black Peppercorns

Black peppercorns are the unripe berries harvested from the Piper nigrum vine that are then dried and cooked. This process amplifies the spicier characters of the berry while maintaining some of the more volatile citrus and floral characters. Black peppercorns are often coupled with green, white, and red peppercorns in brewing applications but can stand alone and add an amazing bright, spicy character to saisons or tripels.


White Peppercorns

Outside the potential varietal origin, the real difference between black and white peppercorns is that the white peppercorns are the actual ripened berries of the P. nigrum plant, and during the drying process, the outer seed coat is removed. White peppercorns have slightly less spice bite and have a more rounded peppery character with some light herbal notes. White peppercorns would add a nice complexity to richer beers, such as Belgian Strongs or even more estery English barleywines.

Green Peppercorns

Green peppercorns are similar to white and black peppercorns, but are just the unripe, uncooked version of the P. nigrum berry. Their spicy heat is a little more restrained than both the black and white versions, but there is an almost jalapeno- or serrano-like quality to them. These flavors, along with some earthy characters, allow the green peppercorn to work nicely in saisons or even to accentuate pepper beers.

Pink Reunion Island “Peppercorns”

Despite being similarly sized and having some of the same flavors, pink peppercorns are not actually fruits from P. nigrum. They’re part of the cashew family, so use caution if you or anyone drinking your beer is allergic to tree nuts. The beautiful color of pink peppercorns is coupled perfectly with a unique citrus sweetness and floral spiciness. This ingredient will work great in almost all lighter-bodied Belgian styles (saisons, wits, Belgian pales) and even tripels and Belgian Golden Strongs. Creative lager brewers may consider using this spice to complement the Saaz characters in Czech pilsners. It could also work wonderfully with certain hops varieties, such as Citra or Amarillo, to make a great IPA or APA.

Black Tasmanian Pepper Berries

The berries of this Australian shrub, Tasmannia lanceolata, provide some flavors perfectly suited for beers. Larger than typical peppercorns, Tasmanian pepper berries are also not related to P. nigrum. There are cinnamon, allspice, black licorice, and even molasses characters to this dried berry, and it would make an excellent addition to any fall or winter seasonal, attaching a diverse flavor profile that will evoke the holiday season.

Sichuan Pepper

Often called Chinese coriander, Sichuan peppers are a member of the Zanthoxylum genus, so they aren’t related to traditional peppercorns, but there is some overlap in their application. The little seeds are packed full of flavorful terpenes that evoke the entire citrus section at a local grocery store. Upon initially tasting Sichuan peppers, you’re punched in the face with lime, orange pith, lemon zest, and even trace grapefruit rind. There’s a distinct floral, peppery mid-note, but this is quickly washed away by an alkaloid numbing buzz that takes over your mouth. To the uninitiated, it can be a little disconcerting to feel your tongue and mouth go numb, but the sensation quickly subsides, and you have an irrational desire to try it again.

Sichuan peppers will work great anywhere coriander is used but can also punch up IPAs or Belgian Strongs. This ingredient can probably be used at a higher concentration than traditional peppercorns, but still use caution—you don’t want to be stuck with five gallons of beer that is better suited for dental procedures than for personal consumption.

Part of the appeal of homebrewing is the freedom to explore. Homebrewers are spoiled with so many options when it comes to malt, hops, and yeast, but by adding other non-traditional ingredients such as peppercorns, the freedom and diversity is increased exponentially.

Learn the ins and outs of adding flavors to your beer. From coffee and spices to chiles and fruit, CB&B’s online class Adding Flavors to Beer shows you how to complement malt and hops with flavors that flagrantly violate the Reinheitsgebot. Sign up today!