The following is a transcript of an actual exchange between my wife and my grandmother:
“Nanny, how do you make your baked macaroni and cheese?”
“Well, first you make macaroni, and then you add the cheese!”
Clearly, Nanny was holding back. We may never know what. When someone is well-practiced at something, the subtle details that a less-experienced practitioner needs to be aware of to have the same kind of success are often left out, not out of malice or to preserve proprietary information but just because we gradually come to regard such things as second nature. “Stir until mixed, but don’t over-stir.” “Cook until done.” “Make macaroni, add cheese.”
So, how do you make a spiced beer? “Brew a beer and add spices.” If only it were that simple! Anyone can throw ingredients into a beer, and yes, you’ll get a “spiced beer” if some of those ingredients are spices, but if we want to make something that highlights the flavors of the spice in a way that meshes seamlessly with the base beer, then we need to approach it a bit more deliberately. The ingredients, process, and recipe all require us to take a beat and think about what we want and how we get it. Spice opens up an enormous range of flavors to us, and it’s worth knowing how to deploy various spices to get something we’re going to love drinking!
Sourcing Your Spices
On the one hand, spices are just about the easiest brewing ingredient to find. While most people don’t keep barley, rye, hops, and yeast on hand in their kitchen (present company being much more likely, but I bet a lot of you don’t!), nearly everyone does have access to a wide range of dried (and maybe fresh) spices and herbs in a convenient cabinet or rack. That’s a terrific place to start, but you’ll also probably want to cast a wider net to get just what you want in your beer.
The best part about using dried spices is that they’re both available and persistent. I’m confident that everyone reading this could pretty rapidly lay their hands on cinnamon, allspice, cumin, and/or cloves, any one of which might come in handy in a brewing application. Even if that’s not true for you (or if you don’t have exactly what you need for your recipe), it’s pretty easy to hit the baking aisle at the nearest grocery store to find a staggering assortment of dried herbs and spices, all neatly arranged in alphabetical order. Then, once you identify what you need and where to get it, dried spices have the added benefit of being exceptionally storable and stable over time: one cabinet + a couple of dozen small containers = a universe of flavors for you to play with.
You’ll still want to consider other options, though. For one thing, although it takes a while, dried spices will go stale and lose their potency. When we’re talking about pre-ground or powdered spices, all of that oxygen-exposed spice will gradually dull in flavor and will be less effective and harder to use because the intensity of its actual flavor contribution will be harder to predict. That cinnamon will still taste like cinnamon, but it might lack some heat or exhibit some stale flavors. Even when fresh, dried spices are often more intense in flavor than their fresh incarnations (moisture removal being a common “concentrator” of flavor), which can also present challenges.
So, for some things, you might consider going with something fresh-harvested. For peppers, ginger, and a wide variety of seeds and roots, work back to the source, and you might find a better and more-usable product. All you’ll need to do then is a bit of research into how best to “open,” process, or otherwise “work” your ingredient to make it usable, and you’re home free!
Whichever source you choose—the spice aisle or the produce aisle, the homebrew shop or the farm—be sure you know the difference in your flavors. Grapes and raisins are effectively variations on the same product but taste quite different! This is important because selecting your spice is just the first step, and your own treatment of the product is going to change up the flavors yet again. If you don’t know where you’re starting, it’s harder to know where you’ll end up.
Timing Is Everything
If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other when it comes to spiced beers, it’s “when do I add the spice(s)?” Luckily, there’s a pretty simple answer here: I need a very, very good reason to add something before or in the boil. Instead, I prefer to add all of my spices on the cold side, post-fermentation.
There’s a very good reason for that: control. Boiling does unpredictable things to spices. That’s not to say you can’t get good things out of boiled spices, of course, but rarely will homebrewers make a spiced beer so regularly that they have the opportunity to work out a predictable method that will hit what they want every time. Instead, I add spices post-fermentation because I remove the uncertainty of that soak/heat treatment in the boil, I eliminate the risk of an odd interaction with the yeast (either having them scrub flavors out or, potentially, create an effect with the spice on the water chemistry that could inhibit fermentation), and I reduce any potential “blowing-off” of my spice flavor through off-gassing during primary.
Instead, I can add the spice to taste post-fermentation and know what I’m getting and how it works with the flavors produced in the fermentor. The only question mark remaining is whether my CO2 level will make a difference (and, if kegging, I can even adjust that in real time).
Things I might consider boiling are peels of various types, cocoa nibs, and maybe some salts or herbs. Conventional wisdom says that the harder a flavor is to extract from a spice, the more you might consider boiling it. I’m not knocking those who do; I’m simply saying that my way gives me nearly all of the flavor with almost none of the uncertainty, and that’s a deal I’ll take any day of the brewing week.
Flavor Out, Flavor In
So, let’s assume you’re adding your spice post-fermentation. How do you go about it? First, decide on the form of spice. It’s unlikely that you’re adding the whole item—you might toss in a whole cinnamon stick, but probably not. Most are broken up in some fashion prior to use, to expose the flavor-producing compounds to the wort. So in general, you’re usually talking ground, cracked, or crushed (maybe also cut, depending on what you’re using—black limes, for example, might be sliced). Of those, I prefer cracked/crushed to ground. Ground spices tend to be the most intense in flavor and, therefore, the hardest to use without risking an overload of whatever that flavor is. On the other hand, ground spices diffuse more evenly throughout the fluid and, therefore, create a more consistent product.
Which form you use is up to you, but if given an option of ground pepper or cracked pepper, I take the cracked pepper, just like I take red pepper flakes over cayenne and a coarse crush of cinnamon stick over a fine-ground cinnamon powder. I’ve only occasionally run into bottle-to-bottle variation when using coarser forms, but I’ve often screwed up a beer by overpowering it with spice. I can always add more spice, but I can’t take it out once it’s in there!
Once you’ve decided on the form of spice, then consider the method. There’s nothing stopping you from doing a direct-add and tossing spices into your beer. If you do, I’d recommend using a fine-mesh bag (hops bags, if you have them, work well), and if boiling I would never add the spice for any longer than ten minutes. “Free-added” spices might be fine, but you have to consider any mouthfeel additions: if there’s sufficient ground spice or if you have a sensitive consumer, you might get complaints about a grittiness in the mouthfeel. The advantage of bagging and infusing the spice is that you can add, sample, and remove the bag when you have the flavor level you want. Free-added spices are, on the other hand, like the famous tomato sauce slogan, “in there,” and there’s no going back.
My preferred method is to use a tincture. Take your spice (in just about any form, but bag it up if you’re using ground) and soak it in a neutral spirit such as vodka. Pour in just enough liquid to cover the spice and let it sit for about half an hour. At that point, remove the spice (or decant the liquid off of the spice) and add the tincture to taste to your beer. If you add it all, make up a fresh tincture and go again! You can easily adjust your soaking/extraction time, vodka-to-spice ratio, and more as you refine your recipe, and this still leaves you the option to adjust to the particular flavors of each batch, since you control exactly how much flavor is going in. One note: don’t worry about any alcohol or flavor contributions from the vodka, or its quality, as you’re adding such a small relative volume.
The “Family of Four” Guideline
Then there’s the question of just how much of a spice to add. There’s a rich and growing body of resources online and in fine publications such as Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® to help you out based on whichever spice or herb you happen to be using, so by all means, consult some sources. You’ll also want to make sure to adjust your recipe—hops, yeast, and even grain—to account for the flavor you’ll be adding. “How much?” is often the easiest part of spicing a beer, and if you use the method outlined in the previous section, you can also add to taste for yourself, once you’re in the ballpark!
But what if you’re a trendsetter and using a spice that doesn’t have a generally known rate of addition? I mean, I can probably spin up a dozen solid sources telling me about how much clove or cinnamon to add to my beer, but what if I’m making a Moroccan Amber Ale and want to add some Ras el Hanout? In such circumstances, I recommend something I’ve come to call the “family of four” guideline: Find a food recipe that uses your selected spice and scale it (if it isn’t already) to what you’d make for a family of four, or about six servings. However much of your desired spice is in that scaled recipe is likely within spitting distance (hopefully not prophetically) of the amount you’ll need for a 5-gallon batch of beer. For my Moroccan Amber Ale, off I’d go to a Chicken Tagine recipe, and voilà. Factor in how big a component the spice is in the recipe—curries and tagines are spice-heavy—and dial in your starting amount from there and also consider the intensity of the beer into which the spice is being added. But the family-of-four rule should put you in the right church, if not the right pew.
Spice Is the Spice of Life
People say that variety is the spice of life. They’re wrong. Spice is the spice of life, and while there’s nothing wrong with variety, we want to make sure we’re not getting variability. The approach I’ve laid out here should help you get consistent results in your spiced beers, whatever their style and whatever the spice. To reduce your batch-to-batch variability, use the same methods for most spices, source your spices from the same vendor, and always leave yourself with an “out” by adding the spice to taste. Doing so will drastically reduce the amount you’ll have to “trust” the spices and keep you in the driver’s seat.
Before you know it, you’ll be spicing beers all year long and not just when the leaves start to fall!