When brewing, it’s nearly always better to think in terms of flavors, not ingredients. Deciding on a flavor profile is a useful first step, and whether you’re building from a known style/guideline or just winging it, it’s still productive to begin with where you want to end up. That goal—whatever it is—might require you to think beyond the usual water, grain, hops, and yeast.
Once upon a time, relatively early in my brewing life, my wife wanted to make a maple beer. We added maple syrup at multiple points in the boil, in primary, and in secondary, and then tasted: she had made essentially a really hot, really thin English brown ale with not a hint of maple flavor because apparently yeast cells are really into pancakes and had consumed every last scintilla of maple syrup that we threw at them. I knew that maple syrup was highly fermentable, of course, but I made the mistaken assumption that if we added it throughout the brewing process then at least some maple flavor would survive when it came time to package up the finished beer. I was patently wrong, and although we salvaged the beer (oddly enough with a touch of almond extract—that’s a story for another day), we could have made the very maple beer that Barbara wanted if we’d known there was a particular spice that did the job instead of taking the “obvious” route.
So, in that spirit, this article will take a rapid-fire journey through a range of spices and herbs that enhance, augment, imitate, and/or intensify both traditional beer flavors and beer-adjacent flavors that you might want to work into your recipes. Keep your arms and legs inside the tram at all times.
Hopped Up Hops Substitutes
Since hops are themselves something of an herbal/spice product, many spices and herbs can be used either to replace or reimagine your “hops” profile.
If we’re looking for something in the neighborhood of “floral,” it might be a bit on-the-nose to point out that we have a wide range of flower petals from which to choose. If you want the classic geraniol-driven rosy flavors, why not consider rose petals (not to be confused with rose hips, but we’ll get back to those)? If you want a brighter fruit/floral nose, consider dried hibiscus, which will also add a vivid reddish hue to your beer.
Actual flowers are a bit of a cop-out, though: what about non-floral things that add floral notes, especially when they add more? Dried rosemary is a favorite, and another experiment (this one successful) from my wife’s brewing repertoire: in addition to a light floral note, it adds a bit of pine and even light citrus to the mix, much like American or New Zealand variants on noble hops. I’ve used rosemary as a straight-up hops replacement. If you have the means, saffron is also a great choice, being itself a handpicked part of a flower, and while costly, a little goes a very long way. Cardamom is also a nice alternative and adds some citrus fruit flavors, especially in the cracked (rather than ground) seeds.
What if you want something beyond the meadow and into the woods? Here, again, we have any number of literal and not-so-obvious options. First, there are actual pine products: needles, tips, and even some pinecones. Cascade hops are great, but nothing says pine like pine! It’s even healthy: spruce tips, just as one example, are loaded with vitamin C in addition to adding bright pine flavors to your beer (be careful not to overdo it, though: we don’t want beers that smell like floor polish).
For an intense and evocative pine and citrus flavor, you might also consider juniper berries for a brilliant pine punch with some sharp citrus tang that goes far beyond what hops can offer. (Be very careful here, though! They’re intense, and a little goes a very long way!)
And if you’re looking for that leafy-woods character rather than the evergreen variety, spices such as turmeric and thyme will evoke that deep-woods, barky flavor. Turmeric, a cousin of cinnamon (itself a bark), has a deep sandalwood aroma, while thyme features an herbal (and, depending on its source and breeding, lemony-citrus) character that is backstopped by a touch of wood-and-menthol camphor oil. Fruit Then there are your fruity flavors. Perhaps the king of citrus-spicing for beer is coriander, which, when cracked or ground, adds a lemon-pepper-with-a-hint-of-mint flavor that is common to Belgian witbiers but can be used in a great many more styles. I recently popped open a fresh bag of German Polaris hops, and coriander’s citrus-mint character was almost a perfect match for it! We can also take advantage of a wide range of dried peels, which have the benefit of adding the flavor of the fruit in question—whether it be key lime, Meyer lemon, Seville orange, and more—without adding the sharp acidity of the juices from the same. Account for a bit of tart tannin from the pith (or just stick with zest), and the citrus oils will take it from there!
Last, I promised we’d get back to rose hips: rose hips aren’t even part of the rose flower, but are rather the fruit of rose bushes and trees. They yield a tart berry flavor and are a common addition to beers and meads.
Give Your Microbiota a Helping Hand
Then we have spices that mimic (and maybe even outperform) the output from the fermentation process. Remember, flavors are flavors, and whether we get them naturally or “cheat” and add them directly, your palate won’t care about the difference if they’re done well!
Belgian One class of these we can safely refer to as the “Belgian” flavors: spicy phenols, dark fruit, banana, and the like. Luckily, our spice rack has a number of excellent options for us. Fennel seed is one such option, and it will impart a lovely lavender-licorice flavor that takes the best of star anise and softens it to the point where even those of us who hate the flavor of unadulterated licorice (pointing at myself) will enjoy it! We also have the ever-popular grains of paradise (also known, incidentally, as “alligator spice,” which should increase your desire to brew with it by a factor of ten), a pepper-like spice that kicks off not just the peppery phenols common to Belgian yeast fermentations but also a dizzying blend of additional flavors including passion fruit, jasmine, and even grapefruit and lime.
Finally, let’s not make this too complicated: if what you want out of your Belgian (or German weizen) yeast is clove and banana, then think about adding cracked clove and diced dried banana. Even if you get the performance you’re hoping for from your yeast, the additional help probably won’t hurt!
Sour The other class of flavors might best be described as the “souring agent” contributions. Many brewers are a bit gun-shy when it comes to using souring agents in their beer, for fear that they’ll end up with contamination problems in beers that shouldn’t have been exposed to all-too-persistent bugs, despite careful cleaning and sanitation. To get around this, we can add tartness and sourness directly, but naked additions of lactic or citric acid can be a bit too stark on the palate, leaving you with the same impression you get when seeing an obviously-Photoshopped-in face in a photograph. Instead, you might consider a spice option that can add a more well-rounded but still cleanly tart flavor, often with some good secondary flavors.
Options abound, but there are two in particular that I’ve seen used with great success. First is tamarind, a common ingredient in Indian cooking and a shockingly good brewing ingredient! Young tamarind is brightly—some might say aggressively—sour and has an underlying flavor of pear and mango that makes for the most interesting Berliner weisse you could possibly hope for. It also pairs very well with the Flanders sours, with the fruitier Red and even the darker and maltier Brown. Don’t believe me? Fun fact: tamarind extract is a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, so it’s more than up to a savory application that’s heavy on dark malt flavors.
Another exotic ingredient (this one is harder to find, but worth the effort) is loomi, or black lime. These are limes that have been deliberately dehydrated and aged, and the result is a fruit that has a slightly “fermented” flavor, bright acidity, rich aromatic citrus oils, and a drying tannic flavor from the rind. Sliced and added post-fermentation, loomi creates wonderful and exotic sours out of almost any beer style, but especially American pales and IPAs.
And the Rest
Last, we have a smorgasbord of spices and products that can add flavors that augment and punch-up things we might find in beer anyway, just in differing amounts or from differing sources (we’re finally getting back to that maple!). I’ve either personally used or tasted homebrews with these ingredients, and I feel confident recommending them. In no particular order:
- Cocoa nibs and coffee beans: sure, we’ve all seen these used before, but see if you can hunt down less-common varieties from specialty markets and independent coffee shops or beaneries to add unexpected variations on your classic porter and stout recipes!
- Want a maple beer, but can’t keep the maple in the beer? Fenugreek is the answer: a ground seed that adds some light bitterness but also an unmistakable touch of maple.
- Sumac might call to mind itchy ankles for some, but that’s the poison variety: dried and ground sumac berries add tart citrus and brilliant red to your beer in much the same way the cranberries do, but without the massive tannin attack that accompanies them.
- We’ve all heard of basil, but what about cinnamon basil? It’s just what it sounds like. It’s a variety of basil that also happens to have flowing in its leaves the same compound that makes cinnamon taste like cinnamon. It’s a wild and fun ingredient that I first experienced added to an Oktoberfest beer, of all things—the rich bready malt and warming cinnamon and cool basil were a perfect match.
Finally, there’s what we might call the “kitchen sink” spices: blends of multiple spices and herbs. These can serve as “catch-all” spice additions that take a shotgun approach to spiced-beer brewing. Mulling spices (usually a combination of cinnamon, dried berries and peels, and clove) make every beer a wintry spiced beer but also work well with sweeter stouts. Allspice (not actually a blend, but acts like one!) and Chinese five-spice add a clove-heavy and somewhat “hot” spice flavor that pairs well with Dunkelweizen and some of the Belgian strong styles. Ras el Hanout, a staple of Moroccan cuisine, adds a similar clove-and-cinnamon flavor but also includes a healthy dose of cumin, bringing in an earthier flavor. And, of course, there is a wide range of smoked salts and spices that double-up the flavor impact by providing a smoky background flavor in addition to whatever their spices are bringing!
Want It? Add It.
Brewing can be hard enough without the uncertainty of trying to yield every flavor from the same four ingredients. Fermentation can be unpredictable, especially from a flavor perspective. Hops oils interact strangely and in ways we don’t yet completely understand. Why not take the guesswork out and add the flavors directly? This isn’t just popping the cap on an extract, which too often can result in a beer that tastes artificial; instead, you’re leaning on the culinary traditions of millennia and building flavors that fit hand-in-glove with our existing “beer” flavors. There’s a world of spice out there: we’d be crazy to ignore it.