How to Properly Add Herbs and Spices To Your Homebrew
Nowadays, hops are the primary herb in beer, providing the majority of a beer’s flavor, bitterness, and aroma.
Some purists will turn up their nose at the idea of adding anything besides malt, hops, and yeast to their beer, but making homebrew with herbs and spices is actually a practice as old as brewing itself!
Ancient beermakers used certain herbs and spices to flavor, bitter, and preserve their beer long before hops were introduced. Today, herbs and spices are still used as specialty ingredients, providing unique character to otherwise basic brews.
Choosing Your Herbs and Spices
Sweet Spices – Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves provide warmth and sweetness to beer. Think of a pumpkin ale or a spiced Christmas brew. Cardamom and anise are less common but equally delicious sweet spices which fall into this same category.
Spiced beers are controversial in the homebrew world. Some folks love them, and others roll their eyes at the mention of them. If pumpkin spice lattes makes you want to gag, it might be best to skip these sweet spices and try some of the others listed below.
Vanilla – Throwing a few split vanilla beans into your beer is an excellent way to create or enhance a sweet and creamy flavor.
Vanilla is a common addition to porters, stouts, and cream ales. It goes well with sweet spices as well as citrusy additions like orange peel, and can even balance out spicy flavors like ginger or black pepper.
Garden Herbs – Garden herbs like thai basil, orange balsam thyme, cilantro, and pineapple sage can provide citrusy and/or grassy tones which work wonderfully in refreshing, light brews. Less common herbs like lemon verbena, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass are also great choices.
Coriander – Adding crushed coriander seeds contributes a nutty aroma and enhances the citrus flavors in a beer. It is delicious in witbiers and similar styles.
Floral Additions – Lavender, chamomile, and rosehips have a delicate flavor which do best in lighter beers. Floral additions can be incredibly unique and refreshing, but they can taste soapy if you overdo it.
Piney Additions – Spruce tips, rosemary, and juniper berries add extreme piney flavor to beer. These additions can enhance, complement, or even replace hops all together.
Hot and Spicy Additions – Chilies, jalapeños, black pepper, and ginger can provide a surprising and satisfying zing. If you haven’t had a spicy beer before, just imagine chili chocolate stout or a jalapeño pale ale.
Salt – Salt is almost never used in beer, and is generally not a recommended addition. The exception is when you are brewing a sour-style beer like a Gose. In this case, a pinch of salt, along with spices such as coriander or caraway, can enhance the sour, vegetable-like flavor of the beer.
Complementing Your Hops
Hops tend to be the strongest flavor and aroma in your beer. It is important to adjust your hops according to the herbs and spices you plan to add to your brew. Choose hops which will complement, not overwhelm or clash with the herbs and spices you select.
Beers brewed with herbs and spices tend have lower hop profiles so as to let the speciality ingredients shine through.
How To Homebrew With Herbs And Spices
Ground Vs Whole Spices
Most spices must be crushed or ground to release their flavor. If you can’t understand why, just imagine brewing a cup of coffee with whole beans! And just like with coffee beans, crushing your spices right before you use them will give you the best flavor. Fortunately, it is not too difficult to grind spices at home.
If you don’t have a spice grinder, a coffee grinder will work just as well.
No grinder? No problem. You can crush spices quite easily by placing them into a bag and rolling over them with a rolling pin until you reach the desired coarseness.
The finer you grind your spices, the harder they will be to filter out. Some folks don’t mind this, but if you are looking for a clear brew, keep your spices on the coarser side.
If you can’t find whole spices, substituting ground spices can definitely work. Just keep in mind that the flavor might not be as fresh, and it will be near impossible to filter out the spices when they are ground to a powder.
Dried Vs Fresh Herbs
When it comes to herbs, the fresher, the better. If you don’t have access to fresh herbs, dried herbs work fine too. Just don’t use the dried rosemary that has been in the back of your pantry for 5 years! Even dried herbs go bad over time, losing their flavor and becoming bland.
If you are using dried herbs, you should adjust for the fact that dried herbs have more concentrated flavor than their fresh counterpart.
When To Add Herbs And Spices To Homebrew
Like hops, herbs and spices can contribute aroma, flavor, or both aroma AND flavor. And like hops, when you add your herbs and spices influences how much aroma and/or flavor they impart.
If you are using a recipe, simply add your herbs and spices as instructed. But if you are experimenting without a recipe, the guidelines below can help you determine when to add your flavoring ingredients.
During the Boil
Many homebrewers add spices and herbs during the boil. As with hops, the earlier you add a spice, the more flavor (and less aroma) you will get. If flavor is what you are going for, add your herbs and spices at the half-hour mark. If you want more aroma, add them towards the end.
Some harder spices, like cinnamon and black pepper, require more boiling to extract their flavor, so you will need to add them earlier in the boil. More delicate herbs like basil or cilantro impart their flavors more quickly, and should be added in the last few minutes or at flameout.
Homebrewers also add herbs and spices during secondary fermentation, just as they would add hops for dry hopping. This is an especially good option for delicate herbs like sweetgrass or chamomile, whose aromas can be totally lost by boiling.
In The Bottle
If you forget to add an herb or spice, or if you decide, after tasting your beer in secondary, that the flavors are still too subtle, you can always add more just before bottling.
To do this, make a “tea” by boiling your spice and herbs in water, then add the tea solution to your beer along with the priming sugar.
Quantity: How Much Is Too Much?
It is easy to ruin a beer by adding too many herbs or spices. As a general rule, think about how much spice you want to add, then cut that amount in half.
Use a digital scale to measure exactly how much you add, and keep track of exactly when you add your specialty ingredients. This makes it much easier to replicate and adjust your recipe next time.
If the resulting flavors are subtle, you can always add more in your next batch. This is a much less painful option than dumping out a whole carboy of undrinkable, overly-spiced beer!
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