The days of “a beer is a beer” are long gone. While big beer might not have gotten the message yet that bland, boring beer is out (and who cares if they ever do), craft brewers are definitely on the leading edge of innovation when it comes to taste and flavor for their brews. Increasingly, more and more brewers are choosing to add ingredients to their brews to make them stand out and add unique character. What are some of the more popular options out there? Here’s a quick rundown, and some of these might surprise you.
Used to give a hint of sweetness to beer without actually putting any sugar into the brew, cinnamon is usually used in conjunction with other additives – notably fruit, ginger and allspice. If you decide to add this to your home brew, be careful, as a little bit goes a long way and it’s very easy to overdo it. It’s best to err on the side of caution – you would definitely do better to need more than to have too much (it’s always possible to brew another batch, but you can’t take it out of the brew).
Oats are used for a number of reasons. They help to impart a wonderful smoothness to your beer (which is one reason they’re so heavily used in stouts). They also add flavor, though. There’s a definite hint of sweetness and usually a noticeable oat-flavor (but not so strong that it stands out as obvious).
Pumpkin is usually only used when brewing beers that will debut during the fall season. It’s an amazingly versatile addition to a range of beers, though it does very well in amber ales and lagers, and even in seasonal stouts too. Pumpkin pairs well with cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander and allspice.
Why would a brewer use salt in their beer? Actually, it does a lot for some specific styles. For instance, Gose uses it as a traditional ingredient and you’ll find that it can help other flavors stand out while imparting a bit of tang to any brew.
Cranberries are excellent additions to seasonal beers, especially light spring and summer brews. However, you can also combine them with traditional fall spices to create a great Thanksgiving brew. If you’re going for a fall beer, try adding cinnamon and cloves to the mix as well for some truly outstanding results.
Honey is more prominently used in making mead but it also has a place in the world of brewing. Adding honey certainly ramps up the sweetness of the brew and has a tendency to dry out the finsh, but it can also bring in some very nice aromas as well. Don’t overdo it though – not only can honey be very pricy, but too much sweetness can be cloying.
Elderberries are not used too often in American brewing, though you’ll find it’s pretty common across The Pond. This ingredient is also more frequently used in making wine, but it can be used in beer making for some sweetness and fruit flavors.
If you’re going for a holiday brew, then ginger should be on your list. However, it can also be used to create a mock ginger ale (or a real one if you’re feeling experimental). Ginger adds both sweetness and spice, but be careful that you don’t go overboard with it. While some people are fans of heavy ginger flavor, it can be a bit hard to take for some.
Vanilla gives your beer a smooth, light flavor that is simply unmistakable. It works well in conjunction with many other spices, as well as fruits and is used frequently in fall and holiday brews. It can also be added to stout and porter for some extra flavor too.
If you want to add some bitterness to your brew along with citrus notes, then bitter orange peel will do the trick for you. You’ll need to make sure that you opt for “bitter” orange peel, as there are several orange peel varieties on the market and many are sweet instead of bitter. These are excellent ingredients for Belgian style beers, but can be used in holiday brews and for many other needs.
Woodruff is used for aroma more than for flavor. It offers a combined smell of vanilla and cut hay, which can be an excellent additive to beer, particularly fall brews.
Star anise is used because of its licorice-like flavor. It’s not identical, but it does bring to mind licorice and is usually used in fall and winter brews as well as in Belgian style beers.
These are only a handful of the spices, herbs and other additives that are appearing more and more frequently in US craft beers. In addition to these, you’ll find fruit playing a larger role. Cherry and blueberry are probably the most common flavors, but you’ll find others out there, including banana, apple, strawberry, banana and more.
Spiced beers are traditionally considered fall or winter brews, though that no longer holds entirely true. Many of the light and refreshing summer brews feature orange and coriander and spring beers also benefit from a bit of spice to lighten them up.
Why Does It Matter?
Why should the increasing use of spices and herbs matter to beer drinkers? Obviously, it opens up the door to a world of new and interesting flavors. It also encourages brewers to get even more creative. Some, like Dogfish Head, have ingredient lists that read more like a grocery list than something you’d find in a bottle, but that doesn’t take away from the taste and enjoyment of it.
Undoubtedly, you’ll begin to find many other brews available that combine old and new spices into unique flavor combinations to tantalize your palate. Of course, you might have to range farther afield to find them depending on your location, but in many ways that’s part of the enjoyment of being a true craft beer lover.