Experimentation with exotic sugars, syrups, herbs, and spices is becoming more of the "norm" for home brewers looking to add layered flavors to their brew. Brewers have always tinkered with adding sugars or adding a few spices to their brew, but it seems now, more than any other time in history, beer drinkers are embracing new flavors and flavor combinations in their beers they might have never considered.
Spices from around the world can offer that unique flavor or historical spin you need in your brew.
One adventurous home brewer recently told me, “The first beer I ever made was called the spirit squid amber ale, and it did indeed contain the ink sac from a small squid. It was delicious. Inspired by tales and legends of magical potions from various folk mythologies, I set out with an understanding that brewers are poisoners.” He added, “With awareness that the drinks I created needed to be respected for what they are, entertaining poisons, I imagined myself as a mad alchemist, creating some of the most interesting concoctions ever made.”
Such inspiration has hits and misses, but I have found most of my personal experiments to result in amazing taste sensations the likes of which I usually do not experience in commercial beer. Most commercial breweries aim to make excellent beer, according to an old recipe tradition: water, barley, hops, and yeast.
Browsing through ancient beer brewing recipes, you'll find that the past of beer brewing has encompassed a far richer array of ingredients than this rather limited view (although I have found no historical record of the use of squid ink sacs in ale - yet). Although a few commercial breweries have ventured into the realm of spiced and herbal beers, most of them are content with producing what sells: alcoholic beverages that don’t roam too far out of the box. So, it is my pleasure to encourage home brewers to think outside of the beer box.
To produce exotic tasting beer or wine, you will need the basics: some type of fermentable sugar, the freshest water you can find, and yeast. Other additions can enhance the flavor greatly, and this is where the real art of brewing comes into play. I have compiled a few lists of ingredients to give you some inspiration. Maybe a Mint/Dill Saison or a Bay Leaf IPA?
HERBS & SPICES
SUGARS & SYRUPS
EXTRACTS & FLAVORINGS
Used largely to make mead, honey can also enhance beer, especially barley wines. It usually takes a year for mead to ferment fully, due to the complex nature of the sugars contained within. Among certain sorcerers and Entomologists, honey is referred to as “Bee Puke”. This is an accurate statement. One important aspect of using honey in any brew is to be aware of the affect of temperature on the complex flavors involved. The bees worked hard to collect just the right flower essences and resins that are contained in the honey, and many of these flower essences are delicate – they will be destroyed by heat.
The complex sugars contained in the honey will also be destroyed by overheating, and they will turn into plaque-like sugars that are very unhealthy. I have spoken to some folks who are versed in Ayurvedic Medicine (an ancient form of medicine from India going back many thousands of years), who have explained this to me – that honey is very healthy before being heated, and very unhealthy after it has been heated. This is why it is recommended that for any brew containing honey, the honey should be added only when the temperature is no greater than 70-75 degrees C. (150-158 degrees F.). This temperature will still destroy some of the finer flower essences, but greatly reduce the plaquing effect that higher temperatures do to the honey.
Agave nectar syrup is now a commonly available and natural alternative to sugar. The popularity of agave nectar has greatly increased in the last ten years. When I first used agave nectar to brew, it was to make a beverage similar to the traditional drink of Mexico called Pulque. My version of Pulque tasted nothing like the Pulque I have tasted in Mexico. However, I felt that without the ingredients of raw human saliva and whatever else they put in there (rumors abound), it stands pretty well on its own as a delightfully carbonated sweet wine-cooler kind of beverage.
Molasses contains a lot of minerals that the yeast really goes crazy for. I highly recommend the addition of molasses to any dark beer intended to be made for high gravity. Molasses works well with dark malts and chocolaty flavors. There are some more complex sugars in the molasses, which usually take about two and a half to three months to ferment out completely. [Molasses Stout]
This very delicious natural syrup, a blessing and a gift from the amazing maple tree, is not to be confused with REAL 100% MAPLE (flavored) SYRUP. Like REAL 100% (grated) PARMESAN CHEESE, you have to read between the lines to see what is REAL and what is authentic. Brewing using the wrong type of sugar will result in an atrocity or worse. That being said, brewing using actual maple syrup is a tricky operation. Maple syrup can add tangy and fruity flavors to your beer, so use it accordingly and balance the brew appropriately.
If you are looking for herbs and spices to make your beer more interesting, I recommend looking in your backyard first. Perhaps a fistful of night-blooming jasmine might improve that lambic, or a couple ounces of morning glory flowers for that mead. Just remember that if you are not familiar with the edibility of the herbs and flowers in your garden, you may want to consult a professional herbalist before randomly throwing a nice smelling flower into the brew pot.
This is especially true with any angel trumpet style flower – which should NEVER be used in any brew, as they can cause madness and death. Make sure you know what you’re doing. As a general rule, when I am consulting an herbal codex, if I see that a plant can cause “madness and death”, I will avoid it, but if it causes “nightmarish visions and euphoria” I usually investigate the matter more thoroughly. That being said, here are some herbal mixtures I have found to be delightful:
I encourage brewers to experiment and find out for themselves what brewing techniques, adjuncts, sugar, spices or syrup substitutions can add to a beer or indeed be made to create a whole new type of beverage. As always, be informed about the ingredients you are using, from reliable sources, and drink it in good health.
|Christian Lavender is a home brewer in Austin, TX and founder of Kegerators.com and HomeBrewing.com.|
Using Herbs and Spices - Enhance your brewing with an infinite variety of flavors.
Hop Substitutes - Herbs that can be used in the place of hops.
No Hop Brewing - Gruit ale, Brewing Without Hops