Working with spices means we get to meet a lot of interesting people. Some of those people are mothers cooking for their families, others are zoologists buying paprika for their flamingos or box turtles. Olive oil and specialty shops call us all the time, looking for specific spices and spice blends to fit in with their shop. Some of the most fascinating customers we have encountered are the brewers. With craft beer increasing in popularity in the United States every year, it is often brewers who are looking for the best new flavors and the highest quality products available.
Beer in the Beginning
Unique flavors have been beer master and beer brewers' ultimate quest for hundreds of years. Adding interesting flavors to their signature mix of hops, barley, wheat, yeast and water helps them produce a signature, classic style that consumers can identify and enjoy over and over again. Hops are the most common spicing agent used by today's signature brews, but it was not always the standard. In places where hops could or did not grow well, other plants like burdock, heather, juniper, or marigold were used instead. Spice usage in beers goes back almost as far as the beginnings of making beer, since brewers wanted something good to drink. In the Middle ages, a blend of herbs and spices used to preserve and flavor beer was called "gruit." This practice of adding spices to beers continued into the Renaissance. One of the most popular spices of the time was the fabulous Grains of Paradise, which is making a comeback in modern day brewing as well. Today, spices are often used to indicate special blends or to act as supporting flavors, not necessarily to preserve beers.
The summer time is perfect for a beer and a barbecue, with craft beers using certain summer spices as the star of the show. Bright flavors are celebrated during this season, so orange peel, lime zest, grapefruit peel, tangerine peel and lemon zest usually make their way to the forefront of things. Vanilla and lavender are common as well. Some winter leaning spices will find their way into summer brews on occasion, with cloves and sage being popular choices.
Fall and Winter Beers
These are the months where beer lovers begin to crave spicier, heavier seasonal lagers and ales. These beers are robust and pair well with heartier dishes that are typical to the cooler months. Some of these full-bodied, darker beers will be infused with chiles, fruits, herbs, spices, and sometimes even chocolate. Belgian brewers in particular have preferred using black pepper, coriander, grains of paradise, and orange peel in their famed winter wheat beers. Americans have their own beer making traditions dating back to colonial times, with common flavors including apples and pumpkin. Pumpkin beers are incredibly popular in the fall, especially around Halloween time. These beers are more reminiscent of pumpkin pie, with spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger being the spices of choice.
New Beer Flavors
Americans have been stepping up their game with beer making and flavoring beers in the last ten or so years. Regional micro-breweries are using rosemary, chipotle chiles, juniper berries, chamomile, basil, and candied ginger among other herbs and spices to create wildly delicious new beer flavors. Some may even taste of raspberries, depending on where you are in the country. America's foodie nation status is only growing every year with more and more people seeking out delicious flavors right in their own neighborhoods. Chefs are reaching out to craft and micro-breweries to find the best specialty beers to pair with their dishes.
Exotic Beer Spice Guide
Our conversations with various brewers have found these to be some of the most popular of the "exotic beer spices":
Allspice is a popular choice in holiday and fall beers. Pumpkin flavored beers are often flavored with this spice.
Cardamom Seed is used in Belgian and holiday style beers. The taste is lemony but the aroma is rugged, making it very multidimensional and a great choice for beer.
Cinnamon is frequently used in Holiday Ales. This spice is good in conjunction with other spices like grains of paradise, orange peel and vanilla.
Coriander Seeds flavor profile is warm and mildly sweet. With a noticeable orange peel taste, it combines well with dried orange peel to result in a final citrusy flavor which is ideal in brewing Belgian style wheat beer and lighter beer styles.
Cumin has a flavor that is spicy-sweet, aromatic and somewhat bitter undertones. It is perfect in darker beers, and it is especially present in winter beers.
Grains of Paradise are used in holiday beers and special Belgian ales. The flavor is reminiscent of a more interesting black pepper. Often described as full and zesty, this flavor is a mix of mild black pepper, cardamom, coriander and ginger. The aroma of the spice is quite citrusy.
Juniper Berries are usually known for flavoring gin, but they have expanded into the universe of beer more recently as well. The aroma of Juniper Berries is bittersweet while the taste is clean, a bit sweet and it also provides a slight burning sensation.
Lime Peel is slightly sweet, with a bitter taste. The aroma is tart and sour, making it a refreshing choice for spring and summer inspired beers.
Orange Peel is used in Belgian Witbiers and can typically be found partnered with coriander seed. The citrus flavor also works well porters and stouts.
Peppercorns provide flavor in the popular farmhouse ale or Saison style. To get a nice, clean pepper flavor choose a single style of peppercorns. Peppercorn options include black, green, white, or red. Pink peppercorns are sometimes used as well, although they are not from the Piper nigrum family like the other pepper varieties are.
Some other popular beer spices and herbs are wormwood, dried elderberries, dried elder flowers, rose hips, vanilla bean, salt and sarsaparilla root. Next time you reach for a specialty beer, see if you can figure out what spices are used in it to give it such extraordinary flavor.