Brewers will put just about anything in their stouts these days. From the usual suspects—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—to the unexpected additions—spearmint and kaffir lime leaves—any spice can work in a stout as long as it’s not overpowering.
This newer breed of spiced-up stouts belongs to Category 21 of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines: Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer. This category, also home to pumpkin ales and chili beers, is one of the most versatile beer categories when it comes to flavor. The beers in this category, though, have one thing in common: No matter the base style of beer, says the BJCP, the addition of spices should complement a beer and not overwhelm it. When it comes to spiced stouts, balance is key.
“The analogy is if you color with every crayon in the box you just get brown. We’re very careful not to use every crayon in the box,” says Dave Thibodeau, who cofounded Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado. Ska Brewing approaches its stouts the way a lot of brewers approach their saisons in the sense that they use the beer style as a blank canvas to which they add colorful ingredients.
Some of the crayons in Ska’s box are fresh peppermint and spearmint, orange peel, and chile peppers. They use these ingredients to add unexpected nuances to their rotating, seasonal stouts: the springtime Vernal Minthe Stout, the summer Estival Cream Stout, and the Autumnal Mole Stout. All of these spiced stouts begin as milk stout.
“Milk sugar is not as fermentable as sugar or maltose,” Thibodeau explains. “You get a lot of residual sweetness, which of course is why it’s called milk or sweet stout. It doesn’t seem like you’d want a lactose base in a beer that has three different types of chiles,” he says, referring to the Autumnal Mole Stout’s ancho, guajillo, and Hatch green chile additions, “but we wanted the lactose to leave some residual sugar so that the chocolate mole flavor could shine through.”
Thibodeau reiterates the spiced-stout brewers’ cardinal rule: maintain balance. “We wanted some sweetness and some heat. We didn’t want the lactose to completely mask the heat, and we didn’t want to burn anybody’s face off.”
The use of fresh ingredients is another critical element in spiced-stout brewing, says Thibodeau. “Fresh herbs and spices are better than messing around with extracts or dried. If we didn’t use real spearmint in the Vernal Minthe, we might get a beer that tasted like toothpaste.”
The Vernal Minthe Stout is brewed with peppermint, spearmint, cacao nibs, and vanilla beans. “If one of our stouts is a dessert beer, it’s definitely the Minthe. That particular beer tastes like a Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookie,” Thibodeau continues. It’s sweeter than the summer seasonal Estival Cream Stout, he says, which is brewed with orange-blossom honey and aged on sweet orange peels. “That one also has a lactose base, but we toned it back a bit. We serve it in the hottest part of the year, so we didn’t want it to be too sweet.”
Inspired by Ice Cream
Another brewery seamlessly merging heat and sweet in its spiced stout is Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida. The Hunahpu’s Day is infused with ancho chiles, pasilla chiles, guajillo chiles, vanilla, cinnamon, and cacao nibs. “The chiles create dark fruit and smoky notes, sometimes lending tobacco-like notes to the beer. They give a slight amount of Scoville heat to the finish of the beer,” explains Cigar City Brewmaster Wayne Wambles. “The cinnamon works beautifully with the chocolate and the chiles, binding them and the malt bill together nicely. The vanilla helps to round some of the roasted malts and cacao nibs, making for a more mellow experience.”
Hunahpu’s Day was first inspired by two different ice cream flavors. The first, Chilly Chile produced by Edy’s, was a malt ice cream with a mole ripple and red-pepper-covered peanuts. “Such a great combination of heat and sweet,” Wambles says. “It was initially odd due to the spicy character being present in a cold product, but I fell in love with the possibilities.”
Those possibilities became even more endless when Wambles discovered the second flavor, Hagen Daaz’s Mayan Chocolate. With that ice cream in mind, Wambles researched Mayan chocolate and ended naming the beer after the Mayan hero Hun Hunahpu. “I discovered that, besides chocolate and chiles, the spices in Mayan chocolate were open to interpretation,” he says. Those spices reminded him a lot of mole spices, so he added a third pepper variety to the beer to “complete the holy trinity of mole.”
Wambles agrees with Thibodeau that the challenge in creating a spiced stout is achieving balance. “The spices have to dance with the base beer. They should never insult or overwhelm the base beer,” he says, echoing the BJCP guidelines that define Category 21.
Apparent but Not Overwhelming
“I would say the challenge to creating a spiced stout is making the flavors shine through the way you envisioned,” says Morgan Westbrook, the cofounder of Westbrook Brewing in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Her husband and cofounder, Edward Westbrook, first brewed the Mexican Cake—a 10.5 percent ABV imperial stout aged on cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, and fresh habanero peppers—for their wedding. It was such a hit among their friends and family that they decided to make it annually as the brewery’s anniversary beer.
“I try to make the flavors apparent but not overwhelming,” says Edward, further reiterating just how important flavor balance is when creating spiced stouts.
“Brewing spiced stouts is like cooking,” Dave Thibodeau says. “You create something unique enough that somebody with a strong palate and an open mind can easily fall in love with it.”
The Indra Kunindra Curry Export Stout from Ballast Point Brewing in San Diego definitely requires a drinker with a strong palate and an open mind. First brewed as a collaboration with award-winning homebrewer Alex Tweet, the Indra Kunindra is a dry, roasty stout with added Madras curry, cumin, cayenne, coconut, and kaffir lime leaves. It strikes a delicate balance of curry spices that could only be honed in over the course of several small batches.
“Spiced beers are one place in brewing where small batches are a godsend,” says Thibodeau. “There’s a lot of potential to go wrong when using spices, and there’s certainly a danger of overdoing it when you’re talking about adding adjuncts beyond the four core beer ingredients.” Ska tests all of its spiced-stout recipes on a 10-gallon brewing system. “There’s no end to what you can throw in a beer!” Thibodeau exclaims. “That’s the beauty of a pilot system.”