How to Brew Delicious Beers with Herbs and Spices

Maybe you just drank a pumpkin spice latte or spied an exotic spice at the grocery store. Maybe you’re bored. Whatever brought you here, we’re discussing herbs and spices and how to use them in your next brew.

The key to using herbs and spices in beer is knowing how much to use and when to add them. Because there is so much variety in herbs and spices, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to add them. Each specific ingredient requires thoughtful planning.

How to Brew with Herbs and Spices

What’s a Spice and What’s an Herb

Let’s briefly distinguish between spices and herbs. A spice is usually a root, seed, bark, or flower that has been dried and maybe ground. An herb is a leaf and may be fresh or dried.

What Spices and Herbs are Used in Beer

Here are some of the most commonly used spices and herbs used in brewing, in no particular order:

  • Lemongrass
  • Lavender
  • Mint
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Coriander (seeds)
  • Orange peel (really any citrus peel)
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Nutmeg
  • Vanilla
  • Sage
  • Peppercorns
  • Chilis
  • Grains of Paradise
  • Salt

The list goes on… There really isn’t anything you can think of that hasn’t already gone into beer. The key is using the right spice or herb that meshes with the base beer, knowing how much to use, and where in the process to add it.

How Much Should I Use

The old adage, “practice makes perfect” hits home here. How much of a given herb or spice you need depends on how prominent you want the flavor to be. And It will likely take several iterations to nail it.

I lean towards the “less is more” side. Start with a little. You can always add but you can’t subtract flavor. The easiest way to get a ballpark amount is to reference other’s recipes. But if you’re delving into the realm of experimentation use the following guideline.

One method mentioned by Josh Wiekert in a BYO article is to use the “Family of Four” amount for a guide. To do this you simply look at a recipe for a meal that includes your target ingredient, scale the amount of food to six servings, and use that amount of seasoning in your 5 gallon batch. Make sure you’re choosing a food recipe that uses your herb or spice in a balanced fashion or you’ll end up with way too much in your beer.

The “Family of Four” method is a good starting place for using ingredients that you can’t find other comparable recipes for.

Whole or Ground?

What form you add depends on what you’re adding. In general, if you grind a spice, it will give you more flavor. Think coffee. The finer the grind the more flavor you get.

That said, if you simply crack coffee beans, toss them in a mesh bag, and add them to a secondary fermentor you will get a lot of flavor extraction in 24 hours. Coffee is quick.

Vanilla in particular needs to be sliced open lengthways in order to help facilitate flavor extraction.

My rule for whether or not I grind something is this. If it’s potent, I don’t grind but I might crack it open. If it’s mild, I’ll mush it up or grind it.

The Best Ways to Grind

Go to a thrift store and get an old coffee grinder or two. Clean them really well and use them for grinding up your spice additions. Use like spices in the same grinder. For example, cinnamon and nutmeg in one and chilis in another. This will save you time and from cross “contamination” of flavors.

Another great and simple way to get your grind on is to use a mortar and pestle. Every brewer should own one.

I’ve used a rolling pin with coriander in a ziplock bag many times. In a pinch, use a bottle or glass to roll and crush whatever you’ve got in the bag. As always, be careful with glass.

When Should I Add Herbs and Spices

We know a lot more about hops now than we did ten years ago. While the compounds found in other herbs and spices are not exactly the same, we can still follow the principles of hop additions in order to preserve flavor and aroma or enhance bitterness.

Here are the basics. Boiling will drive off volatile compounds, fast! Whirlpool additions will enhance flavor and aroma. Additions during active fermentation can and often will result in transformations of compounds by the yeast. Those biotransformations produce flavors that wouldn’t otherwise be in the beer.

Finally, adding hops, spices or herbs post fermentation is likely to result in the best preservation of the original flavors and aromas of whatever we’re adding to beer. These principles are generalizations. You’ll find nuance when you dig into a specific herb, spice, or hop variety.

Now let’s dig into specific timing for adding ingredients.

Post Fermentation Additions

Adding ingredients after fermentation is likely the best way to ensure a good outcome. You’ll get the purest expression of the herb or spice you’re using. Remember to bag loose ingredients that would be a pain when racking and use some marbles to weigh down any floaters.

The main drawbacks to adding stuff post fermentation are oxidation and risk of infection.

Boil and Whirlpool

There are many tried and true spices and herbs that are added in the boil. When brewing a Belgian Wit, you add the orange peel and crushed coriander seed in the last 5-10 minutes of boiling. Anecdotally, the reason for adding while still boiling is to sanitize the additions.

I’m a proponent of moving some classic end-of-boil ingredients to the whirlpool. Adding them at flameout should help to preserve some of the volatile flavor compounds while still providing a degree of sanitation. Remember, temperatures above 140 F are really hard on bacteria.

Tinctures; Add Any Flavor

For some reason making tinctures feels like cheating. My recommendation is to ignore that feeling and embrace tinctures as a gift to homebrewers from Ninkasi herself.

How to Make Tinctures

In order to make a tincture, you will first need vodka. Buy some cheap stuff. Next you need some mason jars. All you have to do is soak your chosen spice or herb in enough vodka to cover it.

Soaking for 30 minutes may be all that’s needed to extract a good amount of flavor. That said, something like vanilla will take a lot longer. Try three months for good extraction. Generally, I recommend soaking for 24 hours, tasting, and deciding whether more time is needed.

How to Add Tinctures

Now that you have your tincture, it’s time to add it. How much should I add, you say? Here’s what I do to get started.

Take a measured sample of your beer. A nice round number like 100 mls will work well. Next add a drop of tincture. Taste. If more flavor is desired. Take another 100 mls sample and add two drops. Repeat this process until you hit your target flavor profile.

Once you have your desired level or flavor it’s time for some math. Don’t be scared. It’s a simple ratio and proportion problem.

We know that 20 drops equals 1 ml. The actual amount a drop depends on your dropper. Using 20:1 will get you started and close. Now if you added 2 drops into your 100 ml sample, we can scale that to the total volume of your beer like this:

2 drops : 100 ml = X (drops) : 19,000 ml

100X = 2(19,000)

100X = 38,000

X = 38,000 ÷ 100

X = 380 drops

Now we can divide 380 by 20 and we get 19. That’s 19 mls. That’s the amount of the tincture we need to add to 19 liters or 5 gallons of beer.

In this mystery ingredient example, I’d go with 15 mls to play it safe and add more to taste, if desired.

I have used this method successfully to add a tincture of Sichuan peppercorns to a Saison I brewed. In my experience, it will get you in the ballpark but you’ll still need to dial in the exact amount for a batch. That’s why you should decrease the total and add more as needed.

If all that math and measuring isn’t your thing, try dosing the entire batch with a syringe and tasting as you go. Start with 5 mls or so and work in 5 ml increments as you taste and add.

Final Thoughts

There is an endless amount of variety of herbs and spices to add to beer. Take each ingredient on a case by case basis. Ask questions like, if I add basil to an active fermentation will I get pizza beer or citrusy biotransformations…then try it and find out.

Because you’ll likely be experimenting, take notes…lot’s of notes.

In the future, we may have more science to explain the how and why behind using specific ingredients. For now it’s a lot of trial and error. Brew bolding!

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