How to Spice a Beer (Part 1, Philosophy and Approach)


There’s one curiosity about Zundert 8 I didn’t mention in yesterday’s post: it’s spiced. But unless you read the label (“ale brewed with spices”), you might not notice. This contrasts the way many American spiced ales taste, and the difference is instructive: in Belgium (and three miles across the border), spiced beers are generally very subtle. Because I don’t blog enough about the actual brewing process, I’m going to do something rare. Below are excerpts from chapter 17 in The Secrets of Master Brewers about how Belgians spice beers. This information has really not been broadly communicated (thus the overly-spiced American ales), and our guide in this chapter, St. Feuillien’s Alexis Briol, offers incredibly valuable insight. (And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to buy a copy of that book if you found the info useful: there’s tons more where that came from!)

Note: this is the pre-edited version. Please forgive typos.

Belgians spice their beers in a couple of different ways, and both are instructive. In one case, the spicing is so delicate you don’t notice it. Here the spices act as extremely understated flavor notes generally mistaken for fermentation characteristics. In a country where the flavors of fruitiness and spice are expected anyway—because of the yeast—it’s easy enough to sneak in actual spices to achieve similar kinds of flavors. It’s not even easy to discover which of the beers have spices and which don’t, because for Belgian brewers, that’s the point: you’re not supposed to taste the spice. The beer should present itself holistically. The late writer Michael Jackson wrote about a meeting he once had with a spice dealer in Belgium who showed him invoices of breweries not known for spices that were nevertheless buying them, “to demonstrate that he has sold a wide variety of exotica to an equally disparate range of his nation’s brewers.” So lesson one is: don’t let ‘em know you’re spicing your spiced beers.

In the second case, brewers make beers to display spice flavors, and the best examples are the annual Christmas beers that start appearing at the end of November. These are so popular that nearly every brewery makes one—I counted over a hundred of them a few years back, and Belgium had around 150 breweries at the time. Among these, St. Feuillien is one of the best-known and a great example of how to make overt use of spices wonderfully palatable while retaining an essential beeriness. Cuvée is a dark beer, which is a good place to start (many bières de Noël are dark). It has a rich, chocolaty base on which rest a platter of dark fruits—cherry, figs, baked apple, and raisins. The spices are tucked into the spaces between these malt notes, with hints of ginger and cinnamon, as well as flavors that are harder to identify. Clove? Coconut? Or is it vanilla? Even in a spice-forward beer like Cuvée de Noël, the flavors don’t smack you across the face and say, “I am coriander, dammit!” Subtlety is always at play.

Alexis Briol. Photo: Beer Connoisseur

Spiced beers divide people, but done properly, they don’t need to. In beer terms, spices taste like interlopers: they add a sensory dimension that competes with everything else going on in the beer. In order to work—whether the spices are barely-perceptible accents or the stars of the show—they must relate to the other flavors in the beer. Think of them by analogy. In a musical composition, each instrument must communicate with the others in key, rhythm, and harmony. The problem with many spiced beers is that the spices clash with the other flavors like an out-of-key flugelhorn.

On a deeper level, I think everyone who wants to spice a beer should ask the question: am I adding this spice to enhance the flavors of the beer or cover them up? I speak from experience here. I once got enchanted with the idea of lavender, and decided to make a saison. As I created the recipe, I wasn’t thinking about how the lavender would enhance the beer, but how the beer would be a dais for all that lavender-y goodness. The predictable result was a lavender tincture that completely blotted out the flavor of beer. I’ve encountered this same problem in countless examples of commercial beers—I pretty much hide when I see a spiced ale at an American brewpub. The spices must work for the beer, not the other way around. This is absolutely critical when you approach your recipe.

Beyond the platitudes, there are some basic practices to keep in mind. The active ingredient in spice comes from essential oils, and they degrade over time. Buy only fresh spices. There are good online resources, but since you’re going to be buying such small amounts, look for a store that specializes in spice and has a fresh stock on hand. Some sources suggest making an alcohol tincture of spices, but I would caution against this. Spices have dozens of compounds and if you use them fresh, you’ll get a fuller, more complex sense; tinctures intensify but simplify flavors and aromas. The addition of grain alcohol is also detectable in the beer, and to my tongue it reads as hot and often a bit harsh.

Instead, add spices post-boil. Alexis Briol calls it “warm infusion,” and the idea is “simply to avoid the aroma’s evaporation.” Those essential oils will volatilize in the warmth, but they won’t vent off as they would during the full boil. They also won’t extract tannins from the fiber of the plant material, which adds unpleasant harshness to the beer. (If you taste a spiced beer that has a bitter note like black tea and muddy, indistinct spice flavors, you can be sure the brewer boiled the spices good and long.) Whether you’re crushing or grating, prepare the spice immediately before you add it—again, to preserve those volatile essential oils.

Specialty malt at St. Feuillien.

Briol suggests approaching spices with respect. “Spices are very powerful (much more than hops in some cases). As a new-comer, avoid high quantities; go gradually and use simple mixes (two or three maximum) at the same time.” This is good advice; a single spice already contains many compounds, and they react with heat and fermentation to produce flavors you may not anticipate. Once you start adding other spices, they interact with each other, and then you’re dealing with an unpredictable mélange of chemical compounds and organic reactions. Of course, one you find combinations that work, you can begin adding in other spices. There’s no limit to the number you can use, but build up as you go.

(It would be absolutely wonderful if someone spent a decade or two studying the way spices worked in beer, but no one has. While brewers can give general advice, there’s no manual for how to use spice—you have to chart that landscape yourself.)

Finally, and counter-intuitively, Briol says that when using spices, “you need a yeast that produces not a lot of aromas.” This may be a surprise to many brewers, but while I’d add a caveat, it’s a good place to start. When using characterful yeasts and spices, you may have an “uncanny valley” effect—spice flavors that taste close, but not exactly like, fermentation flavors and vice versa. They are near enough to seem like a good idea, but far enough to compete. You see this quite often in spiced saisons, which are very often much less than the sum of their parts. The yeast is already so characterful that the addition of spices only muddies the flavor; too many pieces in the orchestra, to go back to our metaphor. Think of characterful yeasts as additional spicing—you can use them, but make sure you have your base spices down, go cautiously (that is, ferment on the cool side to inhibit ester and phenol formation), and be prepared to find flavors that don’t quite harmonize in the end.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll excerpt specific guidelines and suggestions about how to make a spiced ale, plus the recipe Briol offered for the book.