We see the word all the time in beer reviews, especially in those of hop-forward beers: “lemongrass.” It’s a useful descriptor, and it lazily comes to mind when your senses are sending your brain signals that say “lemony” but also “grassy.” It’s easy to mash those words together into one.
And, to be fair, real lemongrass can be both of those things. I have a stalk of it in front of me now—we had a few in the fridge—so I twist and tear it open. This is what I smell: definitely sweet lemon, like pleasant lemon-drop candies; also perfume-like, reminding me of furniture polish or car wax; there’s also a ginger note, but it’s soft and not sharp; finally there’s a wilder, weedier aspect to the aroma, like an unmowed field baking in the summer sun.
It is a grass, after all. Notably, grains come from grasses, too. And this particular grass happens to smell something like hops—or vice versa. It’s no wonder that some brewers use it as an ingredient in beer. What’s a bigger wonder is that more of us haven’t done so.
There are different types of lemongrass—all under the genus Cymbopogon—with different types being more dominant in different regions. Various cultures have hailed it as a folk remedy, without (as usual) much scientific evidence to support that. Some industries use lemongrass to make essential oils and perfumes to scent all sorts of products, including wood polish and air fresheners.
Of course, it’s also used in cooking, especially in Southeast Asia. The bright Thai flavors of tom yum and tom kha gai soup wouldn’t be the same without it. Lately, we’ve seen a few beers that imitate the flavors of tom kha (usually minus the gai which means chicken). In fact, Shades Brewing of South Salt Lake, Utah, won bronze at the World Beer Awards in 2022 for its tart and herbal Kveik Thai Tom Kha ale.
Brewing with Lemongrass
Poking around on Untappd and similar listings reveals more beers that get “lemongrass” as a descriptor than those that actually get it as an ingredient. However, there are some notable exceptions, including a couple of them from Hawaii. Kona Brewing makes a beer called Lemongrass Luau, a blonde wheat beer that includes lemongrass and ginger.
Meanwhile, since 2013, Maui Brewing has occasionally produced its Lemongrass Saison in collaboration with California’s The Lost Abbey.
Maui says the beer gets local lemongrass as well as Cascade and El Dorado hops. Its grist includes a pilsner base plus wheat and oats. In 2017, the brewery said it used 40 pounds (18 kilos) of lemongrass for 100 barrels of beer—that’s a bit more than one ounce per five gallons, or around 30 grams per 20 liters. The beer’s strength is 5.2 percent ABV, with a listed bitterness of 15 IBUs.
Another popular example is pretty far from Hawaii—the saison called Mannenliefde, a core beer for Oedipus Brewing in Amsterdam and relatively easy to find in bars and shops around the city. Brewed since 2012, the beer’s name translates to “man’s love,” and the brewery says it was “born from the idea that beer is for everyone.” Since then, the beer has won two silver medals at the World Beer Cup, most recently in 2022.
Cofounder and head brewer Sander Nederveen says the idea for the recipe started with thinking about what could complement the spicy, peppery, fruity fermentation character of a typical saison yeast.
“Lemongrass, Szechuan pepper, and Sorachi Ace hops seemed like a combination that could work together,” Nederveen says. “The Szechuan pepper brings a little sharpness next to its citrusy flavor and matches with the fresh lemongrass character.” To the Sorachi Ace, they also add a touch of Citra for a tropical push, “to end up with a dry beer with a range of spicy and fruity flavors.”
At Oedipus, they add the lemongrass and pepper at the end of the boil. For the lemongrass, Nederveen says, “we use stalks that we break open by hitting them—not cutting it up completely, but just breaking the stalks so the flavors can be released a bit easier.”
When it comes to the question of how much to use, Nederveen says it depends on the goal of the brewer. “In Mannenliefde, we want the spice character to be subtle and bring a bit of extra complexity to the beer, and to enhance the spicy and citrusy flavors that are already present in the hoppy saison.
“I often describe it as a more Belgian way of using spices in beer, as opposed to the modern craft-beer use of adjuncts, where the adjuncts are often on the forefront. It took quite some time to get the dosing of all the ingredients in this beer right, and it is—apart from personal preference—also dependent on the potency of the lemongrass and the brewhouse design.”
Whether you add the lemongrass (or other spices) to the kettle, the whirlpool, or even a hopback could affect how much you want to use. Dry hopping with it or making a tincture or extract are other options, Nederveen says.
“I would suggest brewers think first about what they want to achieve with the spices in what type of beer,” he says, “and will the spices be used more as support, or will they be at the forefront? Then it can help to do some trials, steeping different doses in some wort or hot water, to see how it turns out.
“With lemongrass, I would try to stay on the safe side, to prevent the beer becoming too perfume-like, or reminiscent of the stuff people clean their bathroom with.”
On the other hand, done well and with a judicious hand, it can also amplify some elusive and genuinely pleasant qualities that come from beer’s other ingredients.