Thanks by and large to Easter, spring is the primary season for jelly beans. Among the lemon and piña colada flavors are the black beans, the licorice. There are two—and only two—reactions to black licorice: You either love it, or you hate it. There’s no Switzerland when it comes to the assertive snap that is associated with the candy.
Licorice as we know it is the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, and while it’s common to think of it as being interchangeable with fennel, anise, or star anise, the plants are not actually related. Anise and licorice are often confused because the former is often used as flavoring in the latter, especially with candy.
That’s how I came to call Matt Lincecum, founder and brewer of Fremont Brewing in Seattle, Washington. For this column, we were thinking about anise, and thoughts drifted to Fremont’s The Rusty Nail, an imperial oatmeal stout aged in bourbon barrels with cinnamon and licorice flavors. We just assumed the brewers were using anise. “We actually haven’t played around with [anise],” explains Lincecum. “The flavors don’t always translate.”
So, here we are talking about brewer’s licorice, a potent stick of concentrated flavor that “will burn your mouth unless you greatly dilute it.” Available at homebrewing stores and online, it comes packaged much like a peppermint-stick candy, about an inch in diameter and about eight to ten inches long.
What Lincecum likes about it is that, unlike the other licorice-like ingredients, this one is actually predictable. You know exactly what flavors it will impart. It is particularly well suited for barrel-aged beers where the concentrated flavors can mellow and expand over time.
If you’ve never used brewer’s licorice before, Lincecum offers the usual advice that “less is more.” Start small because with the big flavor that this ingredient packs, even just a tad too much can ruin your beer. Unlike many other ingredients, proper handling is paramount. Wear gloves while handling and don’t touch your eyes afterward. Don’t put it in your mouth: The burn is real.
In terms of where in the brewing process to add the brewer’s licorice, Lincecum favors toward the back end of the whirlpool because you don’t want to burn off a lot of the oils. If you add it during the boil, you’re likely to get a harsh, uncomfortable bitterness.
“Think of it as how folks are using hops in New England–style IPAs. They don’t want to extract the IBUs but [want] a lot of that sweet beta acid instead. Brewer’s licorice has the same concept,” Lincecum says.