The Spice in Your Beer

Since the onset of craft brewing spiced beers are a regular part of the scene. Initially one tended to see them at close of the year, as a festive offering. The iconic Anchor Brewing in San Francisco lead the way with its annual Our Special Ale, a series now almost 50 years old, and many brewers followed.

These days the popularity of so-called pastry stout and the ever-ranging spirit of investigation result in many beers laden with spice year round.

Belgian brewing, which never gave up on spicing beer even at the apogee of industrial brewing, played some role in this. While I have always felt its ales were overrated, and have explained why on numerous occasions – the monochromatic yeast flavour in much of it – I will say the Belgians handle the spicing with more finesse than we have seen in craft brewing until recently.

A good example is St-Feuillien Cuvée de Noel, a Christmas beer with a delicious yet natural beer taste informed by a selection of herbs and spices. I detect light anise and orange, in particular.

Centuries of experience have shown them that less is more, frequently. Whereas too often craft brewing has delivered the spicing with a Tommy gun. The results to be sure were often enthusiastically received, but the value of the productions left much in doubt, imo.

(Below is a an antique portrait of the nutmeg bush, via Wikipedia Commons).



I must say though craft brewers are learning how to handle spicing better, at least judging by Ontario spiced beers in the last few years. A vanilla porter from Beau, or Charles Maclean’s Cherry Porter, show a more subtle approach that makes the final result particularly enjoyable. It is recognizably porter still, but set off in some way from the usual result.

Some might say they cannot notice the flavour added but if it wasn’t there the result would be different – the whole trick lies in using the spice, or other flavour added, to achieve a good synergistic effect.

I was writing this week of the English food author Elizabeth David, of her inspiriting, romantic style of writing and (I should add) particular dry humour. But as I also noted, the books are replete with sound culinary knowledge and tips.

She understood very well what good flavour was and how to achieve it. ln her 1977 English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she included an excerpt from an American baking manual that stressed the importance of nicety in balancing flavours, but the words apply no less in the brewing arts.

The passage appeared in J. Thompson Gill’s 1881 The Complete Bread, Cake and Cracker Baker, 5th ed., and, in full, reads as follows:



While the word nauseating is a bit excessive perhaps, one gets the point Gill was making. A deft balance of spices or other flavouring in beer, as in baking and confectionary, can make all the difference to palatability – to a dazzling product vs. the commonplace.*

Brewers should know this from the fact of modern hops presenting often themselves a wide variety of flavours. Hops have always been used to get a good balance and pleasing final result, whether the taste aimed for is assertive or nuanced.

It should be no different with spices. An ale using coriander should not reek of the stuff. The spice should inform, interleave, intrigue, not inundate. Pop gun, not the Sten. Yes?

*Take a product such as Coca Cola, or Heinz Ketchup, albeit neither is beer or baking. Their success undoubtedly is due to a careful balancing of spice and other flavours.


4 thoughts on “The Spice in Your Beer”

  1. “monochromatic yeast flavour”

    Spoilin’ for a fight, are you?

    Well, there’s some truth there, I have to admit, especially the way they get interpreted at some craft brewers. I think a good comparison is the way some people go overboard with hot peppers trying to recreate Indian and Thai food.

    It takes experience to make good Belgian style beer consistently.

    • My point is, Belgian ales, with exception for the sour type, Orval, some wit, and… (I would have to think) share a very similar yeast background. This is what I notice in the palate, it dominates as a top-note and therefore, imo, the differences in malt composition, hopping, alcohol content, etc. recede into the background. That clovey, fig, dates taste. Belgian IPA has it too, made there or here. Some of it may come from high fermentation temperatures, but it is a feature of so many beers including North American Belgian emulations I have to think the yeast has a decisive influence on the flavour.

      Many people like it obviously, but I find it dominates many styles of Belgian like most Trappist, Saison, golden, tripel, double etc., and it’s not a taste I find particularly interesting.

      It is somewhat analagous to the grapefruit top-note of most IPA, any kind. I find lagers actually more diverse in character. It’s just my view, fwiw.

      • I think there is a tendency among a lot of brewers to just let them ferment at high temps to push those characteristics and not think at all about the malt or hops. I think that leads to a lot of the sameness you’re seeing. I think it’s the same issue you noted with a lot of IPAs and the overhopping.

        I’ve seen similar complaints with bacon. The occasional piece is great, but when you start getting bacon flavor in everything — mashed potatoes, donuts, coffee, beer — a lot is lost.

        • Well, yes. What I’ve noticed in coursing the routes of beer history is a tendency to sameness, it happens everywhere. It seems a natural combination of market and business forces. A bit of a personal bugaboo with Belgian brewing, as it claims, or its exponents (often outside Belgium) claim it is a diverse and idiosyncratic beer culture. Perhaps it was at one time, I don’t find it so today.


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