Brewing Spiced Holiday Beers…

Beer, herbs and spices, holiday ale.At some point every home brewer wants to try brewing some kind of spiced holiday ale. ‘Tis the season, and as Yuletide approaches we’ll see more and more spiced offerings on the shelves of our local beer stop. The annual surge of Spiced Pumpkin ales is already upon us, and we can surely look forward to big, dark, winter ales with herbs and spices that hint of oak, smoke, chocolate and coffee as well.

Certain dark malts will impart more smokey, chocolate and coffee notes to beer, and barrel aging will create a rich flavor for some barley wine ales, or bourbon barrel porters and stouts. But what spices can we use to bring some holiday cheer to our home-brewed beer?

The most common herbs and spices used in brewing holiday ales are thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander. They can be used alone to add a specific flavor or aroma to an ale, or in various combinations to create depth of flavor and intense aromas.

Clever blending of malts, herbs and spices can lead to wonderful holiday beers and winter warmers, but use caution when brewing with spices, they go a long way and can be very overpowering.

A Word of Warning
I brewed a spiced ale with nutmeg and cinnamon once and it turned out tasting like a wad of Big Red chewing gum. If you’ve ever had the pleasure, you know how rough it can be, and how bad it can make a beer. Early on the ale was actually pretty good but as the weeks passed it got spicier and spicier, hotter and hotter. Eventually I poured them out because it became completely undrinkable. So don’t over-do the spices! One tablespoon of nutmeg ruined an entire 5 gallon batch of beer, so I would suggest using much less than that. The beer smelled great though; only a few cinnamon sticks were used for aroma.

Notes on the Nose
Another thing to keep in mind when brewing spiced ales is the potential collision of flavors and aromas between herbs, spices, and hops. They don’t all play well together.

For example, hops with a citrus note probably won’t blend well with a spice like cinnamon, although they might work fine with an herb like coriander. While cinnamon has a sweet component, it has one hell of a spice, where coriander has a pleasant sweet quality and minimal spiciness, which will compliment a citrusy hop.

Coriander is a seed of the coriander plant, the leaves of which, also used in cooking, are called cilantro. If you’re familiar with the citrus, lime-like quality of cilantro then it will make sense to you why coriander might play nice along with, or as an interesting substitute for, a citrus aroma hop. Some hops are a bit on the spicy side, so an herb like coriander can help by adding a pleasant citrussy balance to the nose when a spicy hop is used.

When using whole seeds like coriander I use a mortar and pestle to grind up the seeds before using them. The seeds in whole form will not have any noticeable effect on the beer, grinding them up is the key to releasing their full potential.

If you’re using an earthy hop, something a little more pungent and less delicate in aroma, consider using an herb like thyme to spice up the earthy notes and early flavors of the beer.

Another option is to use no hops and rely only on select herbs and spices. Cinnamon and nutmeg are often used together in holiday ales, nutmeg being added for spice and cinnamon more for the nose. Cinnamon plays nicely with a strong malt flavor so having a less bitter finish, with a strong malty component would work well for a spiced holiday ale with cinnamon.

When to Add Herbs and Spices – Experimenting and Testing
I like making small “test batches,” partly because I get the brew bug and break out my ingredients and brew pot almost every time I’m thinking about this stuff, but also because small tests can help you experiment without ruining a whole batch of beer. Make a gallon test to see what works, or brew a larger portion of wort, and break it up into multiple test batches, each with various combinations of spices, herbs and hops in the nose.

I keep one gallon glass jugs on hand and use them to ferment my samples. Once you get a sample you like, expand your ingredient amounts and brew a full batch.

When is it best to add spices or herbs in the boil? Most of the time the intention is to get a hint of the herb or spice in the nose and not really alter too much of the flavor. Because of this, I advise against adding too much, if any, of these additions to the boil. After all, smell and taste go together, so affecting the nose alone will also change how the beer tastes in some ways.

To minimize effects on the flavor and alter only the nose I suggest racking the beer to a secondary fermenter and adding the herbs or spices at that time. Use very little early on, especially with hot spices, until you get a better idea of how much creates the desired change in the beer. Ground spices will blend readily in and wreak havoc on your wort — even after bottling — so use very little!

I hope that gives you some assistance in spicing up your winter ales. Happy experimenting, and brewing!