Posted on August 20th, 2010
The history of spices in beer is as old and varied as beer itself. Despite the fact that hops have become the predominant spicing agent used in most contemporary styles, that was not always the case. In areas where hops are not native or easily grown the role of hops was frequently played by another bitter and/or mildly anti-septic plant, such as marigold, burdock, juniper, or heather. In fact, during the Middle Ages, a substance known as gruit (a mash-up of various herbs and spices) was used to provide the same preservative and flavoring benefits that hops can provide. As recently as the Renaissance, spicing beer was still fairly common all across Europe. Grains of Paradise (a peppery member of the ginger family) was particularly popular and was most likely used to cover over the stale or sour flavors of beer that had been improperly made or stored.
However, as regulatory practices worked towards more standardized beer production, spiced beer remained traditional in some regions and was legislated, regulated, and even shamed out of popular use in others. For this reason, spices are a much more common element of styles produced in regions like Belgium than they are in Germany (where the Reinheitsgebot limited beer ingredients to the big four) or England (where for a while even the use of hops was forbidden in certain ales.)
Though spices are uncommon to many beer styles, if you’re both a beer-lover and a spice-enthusiast (like me) there are still lots of styles you can explore. For the purposes of keeping it simple, I want to talk about three of the spiciest beer categories:
Fall & Winter Seasonals (Pumpkin beers, Winter “Warmers”, Holiday beers, etc.)
Cooler weather means warmer beers, so these seasonals combine the natural warming effects of alcohol with the natural warming effects of certain spices. Pumpkin beers tend to spice with the same ingredients that we know and love in our pumpkin pies. In fact, the core spices used in most cool-weather brews will be things you could find in any given kitchen: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, and vanilla. among others. In addition to these types of warming spices, Winter beers frequently add fruit flavors to mimic the classic Wassail experience.
As legendary beer writer Michael Jackson noted, “the Belgians are the greatest users of herbs and spices in beer.” And you don’t have to be a serious beer expert to feel the truth of this statement. A wide range of Belgian brews feature spice as a prominent ingredient -most notably, Belgian witbiers and saisons. Traditional spices include coriander, sweet and bitter orange peel, black pepper, grains of paradise, and sweet gale – all of which provide the sweet, spicy, and summer-y flavors that you except from those styles.
Though the Belgians may be the reigning spice champs, the American craft scene is giving them a run for their money with a collective penchant for spices and other unorthodox ingredients. In addition to all the classics, many American brewers are using herbs, flowers, and even chili powder to play with styles and flavors.
Boston-based Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project makes a Rustic Stout with rosemary. Rogue offers us a a beer spiced with Chipotle peppers (their Chipotle Ale, which tastes exactly like what you’d think,) a few variations on Juniper beers (John John Juniper and the Juniper Pale ale,) and even a Chamomile Ale (of same name). Dogfish Head seems to use every spicing agent under the sun, including basil (Black Thai), lemongrass (Namaste), crystallized ginger (Pangea), chiles (Theobroma), and juniper & black tea (Sah’Tea).
Got a favorite spice-y beer? Let us know by tweeting with hashtag #mybeer!