Brewing Beer With Herbs and Spices

Pale lager

Nicola since 1972 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hey, homebrewers, did you know that you already brew with the ultimate beer herb? Hops have become such an integral ingredient of beer that it is sometimes easy to forget that it is actually a herb. The one that is perfect for making beer.

So, brewing with other herbs means that the same rules apply as hops, right?

Well, no, not really.

Experimenting With Herbs

See, every herb has a unique blend of flavor and aroma character characteristics. For example, let’s talk about mints for a minute. If you have ever grown fresh mint to be used in mint tea, then you have learned that mint can get awfully bitter when left in water too long. Introducing fresh mint to boiling water has a variety of effects. The best is a delightfully balanced herby hot drink. The worst is a horribly astringent and bitter fluid that is barely fit for human consumption.

This is because many herbs, including mints, basil, rosemary, lavender, sage and so on, are perfectly delightful in their original form. However, when you cook – read “boil,” homebrewers - them over an extended amount of time their contribution to the final product changes. The delicate aromas and flavors that characterize these herbs are cooked away. These elements of the herbs are replaced with bitter, or worse, astringent characteristics of the plant.

So, it becomes a question of timing. This is where preparing tea is instructive. If you have a particular herb or spice in mind, try brewing a herb tea before you get to the process of brewing beer.

Making a tea is simple. If we are talking about a particular herb, just introduce the herb to hot water for a few minutes just like you would a regular tea. If you are considering a spice like a nutmeg or cinnamon, it is good to experiment with different amounts of time. The point here is to establish what timed introduction to the heat of brewing results in what aromas and flavors. If you find that steeping your herb for only a short while then drop the leaves in just before you turn off the boil, just long enough to pasteurize them, then pull them out after they have been in for the amount of time you settled on. Naturally, you will want to tie them together or put them in a muslin bag; homebrew supply shops sell these for grains and hops.

And all of that is why we are a fan of teas. With teas, you can experiment with various flavors and aromas before you have actually committed to the homebrew. You can play with a tea by brewing or buying a brew that reflects the style you want to use for your final recipe.

Choosing a Beer Style

Now comes the fun bit: choosing a beer style. There is a lot to choose from and when you are choosing a style to brew with herbs it is best to find partnerships that will work well together. If such abstract considerations make your head spin, consider partnerships that work in the food world. For example, chocolate and mint go quite well together, right? A quick glance at the candy section of your grocery store will confirm that this is a popular combination. So, find a good recipe for a sweet stout with chocolate overtones and get to work. Still not sure? Then find a good sweet stout at your local beer store, pick up some mint tea and see how they go together.

If you want the herb or spice to be the real star of the show, rather than a compliment to the beer, pick a style that is light on flavor like American wheat or pale lager. Even a small amount of herb introduced to these styles would shine through.

Brewing with herbs can be great fun and a way to add a whole new dimension to your homebrew. Just remember two things. The first is also the cardinal rule of brewing, stay clean! Make sure that you add the herbs to the boil long enough to pasteurize them. You do not want a sprig of basil to bring wild yeast into your fermentor from the garden. The second is, do not overcook them. Make sure you experiment with the teas to get the right balance of flavors and aromas from the herb.