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Special Ingredient: Pretzels

You munch on a pretzel, you take a gulp. It’s obvious: Pretzels have always made beer taste better. So why not just add them directly?

Joe Stange Feb 9, 2021 - 5 min read

Special Ingredient: Pretzels Primary Image

PHOTO: MOVING MOMENT/SHUTTERSTOCK

Confession time: I keep a secret stash of snack-size Reese’s Take 5 bars in my desk drawer. I’m a sucker for sweet-salty combinations, especially pretty much anything involving both pretzels and chocolate.

It’s a combination I wouldn’t mind trying more often in beer.

Salt as an ingredient is mainstream now, thanks to the popularity of gose. Beyond that, there is nothing about the iconic flour-based twists that is especially out of place in beer. Pretzels are already a popular snack (and occasional fashion accessory) among beer enthusiasts. Why shouldn’t they be a popular ingredient, too?

No surprise: There are some pretzel beers out there—though many simulate pretzel flavor via salt and malt selection. A couple of convincing examples are Weyerbacher’s Chocolate Pretzel Sunday Morning Stout and O’Fallon’s Knotty amber ale.

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Inevitably, there are a few with actual pretzels in them. One with a following is the Pretzel Stout from Martin House in Fort Worth, Texas. There, they add six pounds per barrel (almost one pound for five gallons, or 450 g per 19 liters) directly to the mash.

“So, we have always used Utz Original Sourdough Specials,” says Chris Cain, quality manager at Martin House, “and we add them to the mash after a gentle crush. It’s not necessary to pulverize them. You just want to break the twists enough so that they mix well in the mash tun.”

Martin House also brews a variation with peanut butter—which is getting us a bit closer to that Take 5 bar.

But if that’s what we’re (I’m) really hankering for, there may be no more impressive example than the Take 10 imperial stout from Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis. The brewery first made that beer in 2019 to celebrate the 10th birthday of the world-class ChurchKey beer bar in Washington, D.C.—although it didn’t have actual pretzels in it until the most recent batch.

To be clear, Take 10 is no mere pretzel beer. It gets chocolate and caramel sauces in the fermentor, then it spends a week chilling on a load of unsalted peanuts. However, it does get about 50 pounds of Snyder’s Pretzel Rods in a mash that produces about 15 barrels of strong wort—before that is boiled down for hours to less than eight barrels, thickening it up, further adding to the beer’s chocolatey impression. Lactose and maltodextrin also add body.

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Chris Kinast, Perennial’s cellar manager and head brewer at their new Lockwood brewpub, is the one who cranked up the pretzel. “I just got a bunch of them in during mash-in, kind of toward the tail end when I was throwing in the oats,” he says. “Just put them in whole and let them do their thing. I would say it definitely imparted more of a salty characteristic than anything else, which is kind of what we were going for. But definitely, you get a little bit of a crispy, chocolate-covered pretzel on the finish of the beer, too.”

Kinast also added caramel sauce, besides the chocolate that was in the original recipe, and increased the volume of peanuts that steep while the beer conditions. “I was kind of striving for balance as much as I could with all the adjuncts, across the board,” he says.

Going by the gravity numbers, Kinast says he doesn’t think he got any conversion from the pretzels themselves. He also might increase the pretzel amount next time, to bring out more of that flavor in the finished beer. The sea salt also helps to enhance the pretzel impression.

Any advice for brewers who want to drop their favorite necklace into the mash tun?

“Have fun with it,” Kinast says. “Make something that you think is really going to coax the pretzel flavor out of it—as with this beer—kind of trying to mimic the flavor of a certain candy bar or something like that. Or, do something that no one would really think of—like adding some depth to a festbier.

“I would say if you’re going to do it, just go for it. And if you put too much in there, then you make another beer.”

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