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Using Spices In Your Homebrew

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If there is one thing homebrewing enthusiasts have learned during the decade-long explosion of craft beer we’ve experienced, it’s that the Reinheitsgebot, aka the historic German Beer Purity law, is a respectable piece of the past, but that beer can be so much more than water, malt, hops, and yeast.
Indeed, there is a world of spices out there just begging to be used in your beer. You already know some of them (coriander probably most prominent among them), but others might have you saying, “In my beer? Are you sure?”
We’re sure. Get ready to have some ideas thrown your way, both sane and insane, yet all tested in actual beers that real human beings have enjoyed.
We’re going to focus on spices that are easy to find in your local grocery store, sometimes those you typically don’t use in beer, and sometimes fairly common spice additions. We won’t pretend this article offers an exhaustive list of the possibilities when it comes to uses spices in your beer – that would be an entire book, not an article – but we’re sure it will give you a great start.
Remember, when it comes to brewing with spices, there is one rule so important we’re going to break the rules of politeness and spell out in all caps: A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY.
Seriously, a little goes a long way. Even mild spices can seem big and potent when placed in the context of your usual beer. Many homebrewing enthusiasts (and even pro brewers) have a philosophy of more! more! more! when it comes to ingredients, but trust us, you will regret taking the reckless abandon approach when it comes to these spices. Stick with our recommended amounts, or even a little below them, then scale up as desired. Doubling your hops just gives you a hoppier, potentially unbalanced beer. Double the rosemary and you’ll get an undrinkable mess, best used to marinate some pork chops.
Because of how unique each spice and its usage is, we’re not going to offer full recipes. This piece would be the length of a short book if we did! Instead, we’re going to offer an overview, general impressions, some specific advice, and target measurements for each spice. Basically, think of it as our “how can I get creative with this?” guide to brewing with spices.
This should be enough to get you started. The rest is up to you.

Common Brewing Spices


Allspice


Most homebrewers know allspice for one specific purpose, pumpkin beers. Allspice is the bread and butter of pumpkin beers, so much so that with the right combination of spicing (and allspice leading the pack) you can make a beer that suggests pumpkin pie without using a single bit of pumpkin.
Commercial Examples: Neshaminy Creek Punkless Dunkel, Lost Abbey Avant Gourde, Sly Fox Christmas Ale
Optimal Styles: Stouts/porters, dunkels, dubbels, marzens
Measurements: up to 1 teaspoon
Brewing Notes: An excellent complement to holiday beers, a dash of allspice will conjure up images of autumn and winter holidays in just about any style of beer, though malt-forward styles are best. Tread carefully before using in hop-forward beers, or brews with fruit notes. Add 10 minutes before the end of your boil or at flameout. Often used in conjunction with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.

Anise Seed


Though part of the parsley family, anise seed is nothing like parsley. These dark seeds have a potent licorice flavor that makes then widely used in sweets around the world, as well as in soups in India. It’s an increasingly popular addition to beer, too, used to enhance the existing flavors of many malt-heavy brews and/or to inject a “holiday” feel to a beer.
Commercial Examples: Ommegang Take the Black, Great Waters Yuletide Abbey Ale
Optimal Styles: Stouts/porters, dubbels, Abbey ales
Measurements: No more than 1 teaspoon (1/2 teaspoon recommended)
Brewing Notes: Best used in already potently-flavored beers. Works well in Belgian-style dark ales and imperial stouts. Add 10 minutes before the end of your boil for a strong licorice flavor, at flameout for a softer touch.

Basil


Basil is a leafy green herb usually paired with tomatoes and typically used in Italian cooking and some Thai. This is one of those culinary spices that doesn’t seem particularly tailored to beer but which, when chosen wisely and carefully, can result in some fascinating and unique beers that may not be ideal for everyday drinking, but which can be utterly perfect for a specific setting.
Commercial Examples: The Bruery Trade Winds Tripel, Wicked Weed Coolcumber
Optimal Styles: Saisons, farmhouse ales
Measurements: 1 to 4 ounces
Brewing Notes: Use basil to add a slightly wild kick to a beer. Can accent the hops even in beers with minimal hop presence. Additions can be done at flameout for a spicy aroma or as early as 30 minutes into the boil for a more assertive flavor. Can pair well with other “green” spices.

Bay Leaves


Bay leaves are big, sweet leaves used in a huge array of dishes, often soups, stews, and meat dishes. They are pungent and bitter, so they tend to be used sparingly – but that also makes them an interesting choice for beers that are begging for a big boost of flavor.
Commercial Examples: Dogfish Head Bière de Provence
Optimal Styles: Pale ales, saisons
Measurements: 2-5 leaves
Brewing Notes: Rarely used in beer, bay leaves can be pungent and have a menthol-like quality if used too much. Trying adding a few leaves at flameout to add an aromatic kick to a pale ale or saison. Author Andy Hamilton recommends adding a whopping 20 leaves for his Bay and Rosemary Ale. I suggest starting slower.

Black Pepper / Peppercorns


Common table pepper has a misleading name, as it’s not actually a pepper. Instead, it’s the dried berries of piper nigrum, a flowering vine. This is probably the second most common spice in the world next to salt … but it does have a use in some beers. This spice can encompass black peppercorn, as well as white and green peppercorn, and our advice applies to all (even though each has slightly different characteristics).
Commercial Examples: Furthermore Knot Stock, Campus Sarawak Black Pepper Beer
Optimal Styles: Tripels, saisons, oat- and wheat-forward beers
Measurements: ½ to 1 teaspoons (crush peppercorns first)
Brewing Notes: A little goes a very long way. Add five minutes before the end of the boil. Feel free to experiment with porters and other styles, especially if mixed with chili peppers, but this spice goes best with grassy, wheat and oat-focused beers. Can also bring out the spiciness in Belgian and French yeast strains.

Cardamom


Related to ginger, these ground up seeds are intensely sweet and pungent. This spice is often used to spice coffee and tea, as well as in curry powders, Scandinavian breads, and more. It’s a spice to use lightly, but its power also means it can transform an ordinary beer into something wildly different.
Commercial Examples: Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin, Ommegang Adoration
Optimal Styles: Belgian-style dark ales, witbiers, pumpkin ales
Measurements: Up to .5 oz, preferably half that. Or 3-5 seeds.
Brewing Notes: This is an intense spice that can quickly overpower a beer, so tread with caution. It’s best to use just a few crushed grains your first time until you dial in your desired flavor. This is a prime “a little goes a long way” spice. Can be used in conjunction with other spices to create a pumpkin spice blend. Can also be used in Chai blends. Add at flameout or, if in a blend, as a “tea” at bottling/kegging.

Cayenne Pepper


The ground up husks of cayenne peppers are what make up cayenne pepper powder, a spice with a little bit of heat kick and a fruity but hot taste. Used in a wide variety of Asian and South American dishes, it can be a surprisingly interesting addition to a beer.
Commercial Examples: Great Divide Yeti, Abita Louisiana Spiced Ale
Optimal Styles: Stouts/porters, fruit ales, lagers
Measurements: 1-5 teaspoons, depending on desired heat level
Brewing Notes: Cayenne pepper powder can add a spicy kick to a wide variety of beers, or simply be used to add balance to potent sweetness. It pairs exceptionally well with chocolate, but can also be paired with fruit-infused beers, or even be used to make a spicy lager. Add five minutes before the end of the boil. Other types of chili powders can be used as well, just be sure to adjust your addition based on heat levels. Mild additions will be barely noticeable but will add an interesting character to beers like imperial stouts, while greater additions are perfect if you want a spicy lager to pair with seafood and Mexi-Cali dishes.

Cinnamon


Often paired with allspice, nutmeg, cloves and others for holiday-themed beers, cinnamon is probably a little more versatile than you realize. In fact, the father of all homebrewers in the United States, Charlie Papazian, uses cinnamon in every single beer he brews. Seriously! Cinnamon will blend well with chocolate and malts, and even works fine in marzens and witbiers.
Commercial Examples: Bell’s Cinnamon Sunrise Stout, Clown Shoes Chocolate Sombrero, Central Waters Headless Heron
Optimal Styles: Pumpkin beers, porters/stouts
Measurements: 2-5 sticks, 2-3 tablespoons
Brewing Notes: Charlie Papazian adds a half teaspoon of cinnamon to the mash of all his brew to minimize hot side aeration and improve the stability of his beers. He says (and this writer can confirm) that you get zero taste from this amount. Otherwise, when you want a cinnamon beer, sticks are best added to secondary (though can be used in the boil as well), ground cinnamon at the end of your boil. On its own it’s best used in chocolate-forward beers, otherwise it’s best used in conjunction with other spices on this list.

Ginger


The bright aroma and flavor of ginger is perhaps most prominent in Eastern-influenced foods, which makes it an interesting addition to beers you hope to pair with seafood and light pasta dishes. There is also a wintery aspect to it with the right combinations, too, which means it can come into play in heady holiday brews. And finally, ginger is itself such a potent spice that it can be the centerpiece of a drink all on its own, especially in ginger beer and ginger ale.
Commercial Examples: Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale, Samuel Adams Merry Maker
Optimal Styles: Marzens, pumpkin ales, saisons, tripels
Measurements: (Fresh chopped), 1/8oz to 1.5oz, or 1/8 cup to 1.5 cups
Brewing Notes: Keep in mind, these brewing notes are for a beer brewed with ginger, not for a ginger beer. Those are two different things. Ginger should be added 15 minutes before the end of your boil to get good ginger zing in the flavor but still retain the bright aroma. Measurements nearing an ounce per five gallons can dominate some beers styles (saisons, tripels, golden ales), so lean towards the lower side of our recommended measurements. Some brewers have “dry-hopped” with ginger. Consider this approach with holiday spice blends, incorporating nutmeg, cinnamon, and others.

Lavender


The fragrant, perfume-like quality of lavender doesn’t inherently lend itself to beer, at least not on the surface, but creative brewers have used it over the years in ways that add unexpected nuance to a beer. It’s also worth noting that lavender may have been used in gruits, i.e. beers brewed with herb mixtures for bittering instead of hops, though it wasn’t common. (Traditional gruit herbs include heather, sweet gale, yarrow, mugwort, and juniper berries.) It’s a spice that isn’t for everyone, but when used right can set your beer apart.
Commercial Examples: Stillwater of Love & Regret, Stone Saison, Carton Decoy
Optimal Styles: Saisons, farmhouse ales, wild ales, wheat ales, gruits
Measurements: ½ to 1 oz
Brewing Notes: A spice to tread carefully with, depending on taste. Too much lavender can be perfume-like and “soapy” to some people, almost like drinking potpourri. Also, be sure to use culinary lavender, not aromatic lavender. There is a difference! Lavender is a delicate flavor easily destroyed. While there are traditional options when it comes to adding it to the boil, the option that will give you the most control is to make a lavender tincture (a tea, essentially) and add it in secondary. Start with a lower amount and adjust upward until your desired taste is reach. Track your additions so you can dial it in the next time around.

Nutmeg


Much like allspice, nutmeg has a place in traditional holiday beers, usually as part of a blend of wintery spices to make a winter beer or pumpkin brew. It also has a long history of being used in gruits, and is an addition to beer that pre-dates hops by hundreds of years (if not longer).
Commercial Examples: Cigar City Good Gourd, Elysian the Great Pumpkin, Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
Optimal Styles: Pumpkin ales, Dark Belgian-style ales, Vanilla-forward beers
Measurements: 1/8 to ¼ teaspoon, ground
Brewing Notes: Despite what some recipes may suggest, don’t just add a whole nutmeg to your boil. It won’t do much when added that way. Instead, get ground nutmeg or grind it yourself. For the best flavor, grind them fresh. Add close to the end of the boil (5-10 minutes) or “dry hop” as part of a spice mix in secondary. Don’t add to the primary if your wort is still fermenting, as you’ll lose essential aroma that way. Though typically used in spice blends, nutmeg pairs nicely with vanilla or vanilla-infused beers (including beers with vanilla notes resulting from oak). Finally, here’s something to try: pair it with wintergreen or other mint-like herbs. Nutmeg is used in some specialty root beers, most notably Virgil’s Bavarian Nutmeg, since root beer is spiced with vanilla and wintergreen …

Offbeat Brewing Spices


The following spices are a little more unusual to find in a beer, though in all cases they have been used successfully by homebrewers and commercial brewers alike. In this section we’re going to eschew measurements and specific brewing advice, and instead give you a brief overview of each spice in the hopes of sparking an idea or inspiration. And make no mistake, even this extended list only scratches the surface. There are many more we could have included but left off in the interest of space. The world of herbs and spices is a big, big one.

Curry


Here’s some something a lot of people in the west don’t realize: curry isn’t a spice, it’s a blend of many spices. That’s why you see so many different varieties. It’s also what makes curry so versatile. From pungent, to spicy hot, to fragrant, it has a lot to offer. You typically find it in Indian and Thai dishes (obviously), but in today’s adventurous atmosphere it has a place in beer, too.

Grains of Paradise


These spicy brown seeds are sometimes used as a replacement for black pepper, but with a zesty, fruity kick you won’t find in traditional black pepper. It can also be used as a hotter, spicier alternative to coriander. It’s an excellent addition to a good beer and has been used successfully in some well known commercial brews.

Mint / Spearmint


The mint family of spices has been increasingly used in beer in recent years, but only sparingly, in part because it’s such a dominant spice, and in part because it’s so hard to get right. Super hard. It has a place in the brew kettle, but this is a spice with which to tread carefully, because few other spices live up to the “a little goes a long way” rule as mint and spearmint.

Oregano


One of the best known spices in the western hemisphere, oregano is a spice in the mint family and one that gives pizza and tomato sauces their signature flavor. Like mint, it can be pungent and very forward, cutting through almost any other flavor, which is why its usage in beer isn’t common. But you can do it.

Parsley


One of the most common spices in North America, parsley is used in sauces and as a garnish. It has a fresh, green, minty flavor that goes well with a variety of things. When it comes to beer, however, it’s most likely to be used with a blend of other spices.

Rosemary


Rosemary is a mint-like evergreen that offers hints of tea and pine in its flavor. Often used to spice meats like pork and lamb, it can be a surprisingly excellent accent to a well-crafted homebrew. You just have to tread lightly.

Sage


This astringent relative of mint is widely used to season just about every type of meat out there, along with cheeses and even pickles. Whether on its own or in a blend, this makes it a surprisingly good candidate for adding a subtle something extra to a beer.

Saffron


Saffron is pungent and bitter, with a sharp flavor that makes it popular in rice-based dishes around the world. It’s also one of the world’s most expensive spices, so the chances of it showing up in your beer to any great extent are pretty slim. It does have some uses in homebrewing, however.

Sea Salt


Technically not a spice, we include it here because it’s going to be staring at you from your spice rack. Sea salt is exactly what it sounds like: salt extracted from sea water. With far larger grains than standard table salt, and an aggressive presence in any dish, sea salt actually has a history in beer already, in small doses to accentuate malts, and in larger doses (such as in goses) to add a crisp snap to tart beers.

Thyme


With a subtle aroma and a slightly minty taste, but with a leafy green core, thyme is widely used in seasoning blends for chicken dishes, soups, and more. It’s a bit too subtle and indistinct for use in brewing on its own, but when paired with other spices there are some interesting possibilities to explore with this spice.

Turmeric


An ingredient in curry powders, turmeric is a relative of ginger with some zest and hints of orange. It’s only mildly aromatic and not overly strong, making it a potential candidate for creative brewers.

Some Final Advice


Brewing with spices can be a fun, interesting challenge that can result in beers unlike anything you’ve ever had before. It requires a delicate balance of adventurous brewing and conservative usage to get right, but when you dial one in, the results can be delightful.
If you’re considering brewing with spices, we offer some final words of advice that apply to ALL the spices above and then some:
These are culinary spices, so consider how they’re typically used in the food world and apply that thinking to your beers. If it tends to be used with roasted meats, consider using the spice with a porter. If it goes with salads and greens, think saisons, farmhouse ales, and wits. If it’s got an assertive kick, aim for pale ales and IPAs. And so on.
Be creative. Experiment. Break the rules. And be prepared to dump a batch!
Consider small batches if you’re going to go wild with experimentation.
And finally, A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY!
Happy brewing!
 
Eric San Juan
Nice. I don't think Grains of Paradise are like coriander at all. Grains of Paradise are in the ginger family, seeds of a ginger, and are more similar to cardamom or ginger. They have a black pepper feel to them but you can taste the ginger aromatics pretty easily.
 
Great write up! Nice information. Just in time to start on a pumpkin beer for October. On your cinnamon sticks, what length should one use? I just bought some sticks at the grocery store that were 6" - 8" long. I am thinking 3 on that would be a little overkill.
 
A local microbrewery Haint Blue which is currently having their beers contract brewed has a Saffron Saison in their lineup. Not really my thing but many people here like it.
Nice write-up.
 
While it is not strictly a spice, I would also mention Rose petals. I have added some to a smoked wheat saison before and it gave it a nice roundness (I should have added more rose and smoked malt to be honest). I have a sour on refermented raspberries right now that I added some to as well, but I don't know the outcome yet.
 
That is an interesting idea. I have bottle of Indian Rose water, with a recipe for making a drink. I think you could pair it with saffron and or hibiscus and make a flower power IPA.
 
It differs depending on your desired results, but each primary spice mentions when to add the spice under "Brewing Notes." In most cases you'll be adding at flameout, in some others you might be adding in secondary or at bottling.
 
I had a buddy use Hibiscus in an incredible blonde that was purple in color and was a hit. Widely available on the west coast as it's a popular in spanish drinks called jamaica, or aquas frescas.
 
Be careful when it comes to rose pedals. Coming from someone how has made tinctures from almost every thing imaginable. (being a bar tender whit a love for cocktails). Rose pedals can start giving bad tastes if left to long. So I would say use it in the brew but don't dry hop it. Same goes for mint and tea. Mint spoils after 2days in contact whit alcohol and wil start tasting bad like rot. Roses is a bit longer like 3 to 4 days exposure and start to taste like newspaper. For the rest most definitely try roses. I find that, if uses in the correct amount they have a tendency to round off harsh flavors. And make all your flavors blend better.
Ps. Don't look at my spelling I'm not a native English speaker... Sorry
 
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