The first time I had to make a tincture, it was for a spiced Christmas stout. The recipe called for about ten herbs and spices to be added to the secondary, but instead of throwing them in and calling it good, I wanted to make sure I got the most bang for my spice buck. It wasn’t only because the spice bill alone cost more than the rest of the ingredients combined; it was more that I wanted brilliant flavors, making this recipe not just any old stout.
I decided a tincture was the best way to go because it would allow the flavors from the spices to leach into the liquid and also because my poison of choice—spiced rum—would ensure the “go big or go home” result I was going for (it’s not as if I could leave a bottle of just-okay beer on the mantle for Santa, after all).
The result was phenomenal. The richness of the spices was on point, showcasing each one to its fullest potential (and yes, I tasted the heck out of that $11 vanilla bean!). Now, when I need to add some extra somethin’-somethin’ to my brew, I grab some hooch, some flowers or spices, and create a tincture. The result is just what I want, almost every time.
If my experience isn’t compelling enough to convince you, I’ll explain why to do it and walk you through the steps to make a tincture. What you do afterward is all on you.
First, tinctures give you control. Grabbing your spices and tossing or dribbling them into your fermentor is going to leave a lot of the outcome to the beer gods. Some spices and herbs might not “activate” very well at room temperature, while others might do much better, leaving you with an uneven spice flavor. Creating a tincture ensures that your flavors are exploited for all they’re worth, leaving you with an evenly flavored, tasty beer.
Second, it shouldn’t be surprising that sanitation is a big deal on the cold side of brewing. The alcohol you use in a tincture will sanitize the ingredients. In addition, if you’ve picked some lovely flowers from the garden and have a few spider stowaways—and lord knows what else—that’s…pretty gross. Nobody wants to drink that. Make a tincture, watch the spiders float to the top, and you can strain them out. Your beer is still sanitary, and your friends are still talking to you.
And finally, high-octane alcohol leaches the flavors out of your spices exponentially quicker than adding the ingredients straight to the fermentor. While you might want to experiment with various liquors and flavors, do be aware that if the alcohol is a lower proof, it will require more time. Additionally, some lower-proof alcohols might not prevent mold as well as you’d like (especially if you’re using fresh ingredients rather than dried), so keep a good eye for any beasties growing. It’s much less heartbreaking to throw out a tincture than it is an entire batch of beer!
How to make a tincture
2 mason jars with lids
Flowers, herbs, spices, wood, or fruit
High-proof liquor (everclear, vodka, etc.)
Coffee filters (or muslin cloth)
1. Clean and sanitize one mason jar and lid.
2. Add your spice/flavor ingredients to the jar. If you are working with fruit, chop it up to increase the surface area, allowing more of the flavors to leach.
3. Pour the liquor over the ingredients until they’re covered. At the very least I recommend 4 fluid ounces (118 ml) because you’ll want enough that you can fine-tune the flavors. But you don’t want so much that your solution will be dilute or that you’re significantly increasing your ABV.
4. Screw the lid until tight, then store the jar in a cool, dark place. Avoid the refrigerator since it could inhibit leaching and definitely avoid a warm, humid room such as the bathroom.
5. After 2–4 weeks, clean and sanitize the second mason jar.
6. Cover the top of the jar with the coffee filters or muslin cloth, then slowly pour the solution from the first jar over the filter.
7. Once the solution has transferred to the second jar, lift out the filter with all the goodies inside and give it a good squeeze to extract as much liquid as possible. Throw away the filter and goodies.
8. Seal the jar and store the tincture in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to go!
How to use a tincture
I prefer to add the tincture right at bottling, but I’ve also done it when racking to my secondary.
Now’s where the real fun begins.
The reason you should make a tincture with more liquid than you think you’ll need is that you’re going to slowly add it to your batch. If you just dump the whole jar in, you’re missing the point. Add a little, taste, stir, then add a little more if you need to. Repeat until you love it. If you’re doing this during the secondary and have some time to work with, let it rest a few days. If you still love the flavor, leave it be. If you’re not quite feeling it, pour in a little more. The key to this part of the process is patience.
Because you’re adding some high-octane hooch to the mix, you definitely want to do another hydrometer reading to determine your final ABV. Adding just a little bit of tincture probably won’t change things much. When you’re working with a larger amount, however, you could bump up the ABV by a few points. You might have some tincture left over than you can save for another batch, but don’t feel like you have to use every drop.
Learn the ins and outs of adding flavors to your beer. From coffee and spices to chiles and fruit, CB&B’s online class Adding Flavors to Beer shows you how to complement malt and hops with flavors that flagrantly violate the Reinheitsgebot. Sign up today!