How to Spice a Beer (Part 2, Techniques)

Spicing a beer can be done well or, more commonly, badly. No country has raised this technique to an art in the way Belgium's brewers have done, and in part two of this series, I excerpt the second half of chapter 17 from The Secrets of Master Brewers. (Part one is here.) In it, St. Feuillien’s Alexis Briol acts as our guide. If you like the content, please buy the book; the wisdom of the world's great brewers can be found in it, with excellent advice from the world's most-accomplished brewers.

Spicing is such a prominent feature of St. Feuillien’s approach that they have a display of the varieties they use.

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

Whether you’re making the simplified or more elaborate version, the thing that really leaps out in the following recipe is the spicing: Briol calls for tiny amounts. Looking around at standard homebrew tips offered elsewhere, you’ll find recipes with an order of magnitude more spicing. Briol’s approach is addition by increments. In his recipe, you could safely double the amounts without worrying about overdoing it (or even more than that). But don’t. Start here and pay attention to the results. You learn a lot more about spice when you can barely taste it than you do when it dominates the palate. In these mini-doses, your beer won’t taste spiced—but it will have tastes added by spice. In small amounts, the spices inflect other flavors more than offering their own unmistakable flavors. It’s the reason the “spicy” flavors in St. Feuillien’s beers hint at spice without offering definite evidence of their presence.

Once you discover the power of suggesting spice, then you can begin to use a heavier hand and let them come out of the shadows. In terms of ingredients, spices are the most elusive to work with; you’ll be many batches in before you begin to feel confident you understand spicing amounts and resultant flavors. That’s another reason to start out at the low end and use rich, flavorful styles of beer that stand on their own.

Ingredients and Formulation (5 Gallons)
Alexis Briol

Malt Bill
9 lbs Belgian Vienna malt (52%)
5 lbs Belgian 50 EBC amber malt (29%)
1.5 lbs Belgian 120 EBC caramel malt (9%)
1.5 lbs Belgian Special B (9%)
5.5 tbsp burnt sugar syrup (added in the boil) (2%)

Step Mash
Mash in at 113˚ F
131˚ F for 15 minutes
163˚ F for 30 minutes
172˚ F for 5 minutes

60-minute boil
.5 ounces of Tettnanger at 55 minutes (5.0% AA, contribution of 7 BU)
.33 ounces of German Tradition at 55 minutes (6.0% AA, contribution of 5 BU)
.75 ounces of Spalt Select at 15 minutes (6.0% AA, contribution of 6 BU)
5.5 tbsp burnt sugar syrup at 55 minutes ¼ teaspoon licorice juice

Spice Infusions
Turn off the flame and let steep for five minutes:

1 gram (¼ tsp) cinnamon powder
.5 grams (1/8 tsp) chamomile
1.5 grams (3/8 tsp) Curaçao orange peel
. 5 grams (1/8 tsp) Bourbon vanilla bean (v. planifolia), whole or chopped, either grade A or B. Use about one-quarter of a 7-inch bean

Fermentation and Conditioning
Ferment at 68˚-72˚ F until 4˚ P (1.016) with Wyeast 3787 or White Labs WLP530, then rack and condition for two weeks at around 44˚ F.

Bottle condition only.

Expected OG: 23˚ P / 1.096
Expected TG: 4˚ P/ 1.016
Expected ABV: 10.5%
Expected bitterness:  18 BU

Three of the malts Briol suggests are specific to Dingemans. These choices are not critical, but he is attempting to build color, body, and aromatics into the recipe. Burnt sugar is a specific type of sugar that differs from other dark sugars; if you can’t find it at your homebrew store, look for the product at specialty stores that sell Caribbean ingredients for a substitute. I searched high and low for licorice juice (or liquorice juice) and never found it. Substitute a half teaspoon of dry licorice.

Working With Spices

The first spice question that leaps to mind is “how much?” and it’s not a terrible one. But a couple other questions should be asked first: “what kind?” and “when?” As a category, “spice” is broad, and it includes flowers, herbs, barks, seeds and pods, roots, fruits, and buds—and each one is more or less susceptible to the effects of heat. As a related corollary, think about whether the spice is fresh or dried. Where a spice may come in either form, you have to decide whether you want the greener, brighter flavors from the fresh version, or the deeper, dried versions. Also keep in mind that fresh herbs contain water and so are heavier than their dried counterparts. Add 1.5 to two times as much of them as you would dried herbs.

The answer to the type question will give you a sense of how to approach the second question, of when to add the spice. Flowers, herbs, and fruits contain delicate volatile oils that will be destroyed by prolonged heat. Barks and seeds, conversely, may require heat to pull flavor out of their woody wrapper (cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns, etc.). Heat puts compounds in solution more quickly (boiling water makes coffee in minutes; cold water takes hours), but also does violence to them. This is intuitive to the homebrewer, because it’s the same process that happens with hops. This is the reason Briol only conducts warm infusions. In most cases, it’s safer to do warm infusions or add the spice in the last 1-5 minutes of active boil. But even this may be too much if what you’re really after are the most delicate, aromatic elements from a spice. You don’t make tea by boiling the herbs. You steep them. There’s a lesson there.

The decision about quantity is tough because the strength of each spice differs. The brewer Doug Odell once gave advice I’ve found indispensible: make a tea and assess the potency of the spice you plan to use. Do it the way you would any tea; bring water to a boil and then do an infusion, steeping for 5 minutes. This will at least give you a sense of the relative strength of the spices and give you a starting place. You can also blend your teas to see how the flavors work together. From there, follow Briol’s advice and use tiny amounts to begin with, steadily increasing them as you go along.

Finally, for fresh spices rich in essential oils, consider “dry-hopping” them. The same principle is at work. Adding hops during conditioning preserves the essential oils and produces the most vivid aromas. The oils in flowers and herbs are so delicate that they are consumed in the heat of the kettle, muting their expressiveness. After primary fermentation has concluded, dose your beer with herbs and flowers for a day or two and taste the beer. If you begin with a small infusion, you can always add more before packaging.

The old mash tun at St. Feuillien.

The Good, the Bad, and the Unusual

All brewers know a few of the go-to spices: coriander, orange peel, cinnamon, vanilla. The past five years or so have been a banner period of experimentation in the US, and the number of spices has metastasized: citrus zest, galangal, hibiscus, lemongrass, and tea are all fairly common ingredients. Perhaps one day, someone will compile a list and write a book about the use of brewing spices that really shine. In the meantime, here is a (very) incomplete tip sheet.

St. Feuillien’s fermenters.

Elderflower, hibiscus, jasmine, orange blossoms, rose petals. Flowers are delicate and subtle, but they can really add a lot to a beer. While floral scents sometimes remind people of soap, hops also sometimes remind people of flowers—so using blossoms can add an interesting, relatively familiar flavor to the mix. Definitely don’t add these to the boil. Steep them briefly 1-3 minutes or add to the conditioning tank.

Cardamom, grains of paradise, pink peppercorn. When people say they don’t like spiced beers, they usually mean over-spiced beers. Using cardamom and grains of paradise (which are in the same family) are a great way to over-spice a beer. They’re both extremely potent and also very specific in their flavor. It’s hard to use them as nuance, and their flavors are so particular, they usually distract. Pink peppercorns, which aren’t related to true pepper, aren’t as strong, but have a very particular flavor that dominates beer. We’re purely in the realm of the subjective here, so your mileage may vary, but be careful when using these spices.

Sagebrush, spruce, juniper. Most of the spices typical in beer come from Europe or Asia (dating to the period of European colonialism). But North America has a few great offerings as well. A program called “Beers Made By Walking” in Oregon and Colorado has uncovered some wonderful foraged ingredients. In particular, western sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), spruce (Picea sitchensis), and juniper (Juniperus communis) have been used to great success. Sagebrush gives beer a tangy, savory flavor, spruce a sweet, tart, honey-like character, and juniper something like culinary (not soapy) lavender. We’ve only scratched the surface, but these hits suggest there may be many more out there.