The Spice Route

Spice_Market,_Marakech_(2242330035)See note below for image attribution.

Flavoured beers in general are very popular today. The subset with spices, anything from ginger to coriander to cinnamon and much more – is legion.

In a recent discussion of porter for the Session, many of the contributions mention flavoured porters, e.g., those with cocoa or coffee, as of particular interest to the taster. The addition of coffee or chocolate is one of the innovations of the craft brewing renaissance. It is now so well-established that it isn’t felt necessary (often) to mention that porter wasn’t flavoured with anything other than malt and hops for hundreds of years.

True, some old writers suggested to add elderberry juice or more nefariously, “drugs” of various kinds to enhance the effect (if not the taste). At least one writer in the mid-1800s advised that “orange powder” was a good thing to add to porter. But in general, these were not used, partly because the laws in Britain forbade such additions in commercial brewing, partly because, or I’d infer, brewers thought the beer didn’t need it. Ginger was used in one or two English brews until the 1950s it seems, so I’d think the law must have changed to permit this, unless the practice was sub rosa.

In Belgium as many beer fans know, the use of spice and other flavourings did survive commercially. Saison beers as well as wit, the Belgian wheat beer style, are sometimes flavoured with some of the spices mentioned and a wide variety of others. Almost always, hops are used too. This harks back to the early days of brewing, either before hops were used at all, or when hops were used variously with a grab bag of other flavourings.

Rochefort Trappist beer apparently uses coriander although to my mind it doesn’t taste of that really, more cumin I would say or sweet gale, somewhat like those Pictish ales some U.K. brewers make. Perhaps it is the seeds that are used, as there is an earthy, musty-like taste vs. orangey as such. The leaves of coriander do not taste the same as the seeds, it may be noted.

The real question is, are flavoured, including spiced, beers worth drinking? I will say straight off I almost never drink a chocolate or coffee porter. They don’t taste right to me. When porter or any beer is well-made, you don’t need anything other than malt and hops (+ sometimes other grains). I make an exception for some spices if used with discretion. Anything orange seems to work well with porter and stout. Ginger too. But it is too often overdone, and the drink is ruined. (The bane of most pumpkin beers). You need a substratum of hop bitterness and flavour and then just a soupçon of the spice.

An old expression says, good wine needs no bush. More prosaically, good beer needs no spice.

Note re image: Image is by Michael Day (Spice Market, Marakech  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Image was sourced here.

7 thoughts on “The Spice Route

  1. All is very well, infact Gary H. and Les with guests are on there way to my house as i write this. Thanks to you, I have a world class whisky collection awaiting them. I wish you were joining us tonight, likewise, I look forward to the next Chambers meeting.

    Keep up the good work,

    H

  2. Gary,

    Great article as always.

    Coriander seeds taste like lemon to me, although a quick check of Wikipedia describes them as nutty, spicy and orange flavoured. I’m sure you know all this, I’m just using this subject for a chance to say thank you for sharing your amazing knowledge.

    I miss those late Friday afternoon beer and bourbon tastings with you, this blog keeps it alive.

    Cheers,

    Howard

    • Thanks Howard, and very nice to hear from you. I would say the atypical taste in this beer (Rochefort 8, the middle one in the range of three) is not really lemon or orange, but more an earthy/herbal note. The monks of the Trappist breweries, or some of them, are known to be secretive about what goes in their beers. Even when they say something, I’m not sure we really know the full story… But it’s fun to speculate.

      I hope you are well and we can revisit one of those tastings before long at the Chambers downtown. All the best.

      Gary

  3. Gary.
    I wonder if spices aren’t used in Belgian Wit beers not necessary to “enhance” them, but rather to add “needed” flavour.
    The Wits that I’ve tried would, I feel, seem weak (flavour wise) without an “extra something”.
    Quick story re stout/porter: I was sitting at the bar in a lovely pub in Bristol, England, some years ago, and an elderly gentleman sat down beside me. He ordered a pint of stout and a glass of port. Every few sips from his pint glass he’d tip some port into it.
    I politely asked him why he was doing it.
    He told me it was good for his gout.
    Alan.

    • Yes I tend to agree about wit, it is light by definition and may need something. Although, German wheat beer does fine without spices…

      That English guy was pulling your leg!

      Gary

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