Spices have a long history of use in beer. In fact, since the beginning of beer making some 8,000 years ago until the introduction of hops roughly in the High Middle Ages in Europe, spices both local and exotic, along with herbs, had been the dominant beer flavoring. In many Belgian beer styles, they are still popular to this day, and they are once again being used by many modern craft brewers, often for seasonal specialty beers, including Christmas and other holiday beers. During the Age of Discovery, spices became increasingly available to Europeans, who used them in both their food and their beer. Brewers in medieval times often used spices not just for their own flavor but also to cover up acidic, rancid, or medicinal off-flavors in their beer. Medieval physicians often attributed healthful qualities to spices—many of which, of course, have not stood up in the light of modern science— leading to such fanciful prescription as drinking a mug of hot spiced beer, similar to a toddy, mulled wine, or glögg, as an antidote to the plague.

Spices mainly used for bittering in beer and for balancing its malt aroma were bay leaf, juniper, and such seeds of the umbel family (Apiaceae) as anise, caraway, coriander, dill, and fennel. Carrot and parsley belong to this group as well. These seeds not only taste bitter but also impart significant aromas and anise/coriander/licorice flavors. Other spices add a chili-like sharpness to the brew. These include chili peppers, black and green peppers, ginger, quassia, and grains of paradise. Next is the group of “true” spices, each with its own unique flavor. There is allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, licorice, mace/nutmeg, and star anise, as well as the zest of different citrus fruits. Many of these spices have been and still are particular favorites for Christmas cooking, baking, and beer making. Finally, a few nontraditional beer flavorings have been used by many brewers. Vanilla, for example, has become common, whereas saffron is perhaps considered more experimental.

There is some controversy among brewers about the proper techniques for using spices in beer. Some hold that spices should be added only sparingly and must not overpower the flavors put into the beer by malt, hops, and yeast. Others, however, prefer a less nuanced approach and prefer to challenge traditional notions of beer flavor. This often means that a spice that is traditional for a particular kind of beer, such as Curaçao orange peel in Belgian wit, may migrate to a beer style where it has never been used before. In the United States, the most prevalent spiced beers are seasonal pumpkin ales, which are popular in the autumn and winter months. Although most of these beers do contain pumpkin, the flavors are often driven by combinations of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, and other spices. The goal is to mimic the aroma and flavor of the traditional American pumpkin pie, which is consumed almost exclusively during the winter holiday season. Aside from Belgium, where spices are used less than is often supposed, brewing with spices is currently seen most frequently among craft brewers in the United States, Denmark, and the UK, with Italian craft brewers swiftly following.

See also coriander, curaçao oranges, juniper, and nutmeg.