Is That an Orange in My Beer?
Of the myriad seasonings used in beers over the millennia, few have such a prized role as the orange. From the subtlest nuances to the brightest starring role, oranges have been used to enliven countless mugs of ale through the ages.
There are just two species. One, Citrus sinensis, has a number of varieties: Valencia, blood, and navel. These have a thin, easily peelable skin, with a large juicy interior. The other, Citrus aurantium, is the bitter orange, AKA Seville or sour orange, the type most useful to brewers, prized for the oil in its intensely-flavored rind.
Curaçao oranges are a specially harvested bitter orange, picked when still small and unripe, and sometimes referred to as “orange peas,” gray-green in color. These go directly to distillers and flavor manufacturers, and are extremely hard to find on the market.
My local Caribbean market stocks bitter oranges, which they sell as “sour oranges,” from September to about May. They’re ugly, unappetizing things. Bumpy, dull and dry, they certainly don’t look like something you want to put in your prized homebrew, but give ’em the scratch’n’sniff test, and they come alive with beautiful marmalade aroma.
Both originated in China, where they were treasured for their aroma. They were familiar in Greece, India, and Rome 2000 years ago. Bitter oranges reached Europe around 1100 through places like Sicily and Seville, thanks to an expanding Arab empire. The sweet orange shows up several hundred years later, probably through Italy.
It is hard to say precisely when oranges showed up in beer, but brewers adopted exotic spices whenever they appeared, so it may be safe to assume oranges were part of the brewers’ cupboard by the Renaissance.
My earliest recipe–Hugh Platt (English)–mentions oranges as one seasoning alternative in a 1609 recipe. Later that century they appear in all kinds of meads, possetts, syllabubs and the like, as well as beer. This timing is right in line with the beers with which they are most often associated, white beers, which grew up along the North Sea coast and beyond, to Russia and Devonshire, England.
England outlawed the use of such seasonings in commercial beer in the early nineteenth century, but spiced beers containing orange lived on there in private and country breweries until about the end of the nineteenth century.
The bitter orange is preferred for brewing. All you want is the oil contained in the colored outer rind of the peel. If you have access to fresh fruit–and I highly recommend that you search it out–just wash it well, then take off the outer rind with a grater, zester, or potato peeler.
This zest may be cast directly into the kettle at the end of the boil, added to the secondary, or soaked in vodka for a few days and added to the beer at bottling or kegging. Any way you do it, I find that one bitter orange is about right for five gallons of beer. I helped a brewer at a local brewpub concoct a 10-barrel batch of a “grand cru” style ale. We used the peels of two dozen, added at the end of the boil, and the final beer had a lovely orangey nose.
I have also had good results with cheap triple sec liqueur. This does contain some sugar, somewhere around half to three-quarters enough in a 750 ml bottle to prime a batch of beer. If you are of a calculatory nature, you can take a hydrometer and work it all out. It will add around one percent alcohol to your beer, so adjust the recipe accordingly. You can also use the liqueur to extract flavor out of the coriander you may be adding to the brew with the orange. Just grind it up and allow it to soak a few days before straining through a coffee filter.
The dried peel available at homebrew shops and Chinese markets has the bitter white pith as well as the aromatic oils. I haven’t figured out a way to get the one without the other, and so, can’t recommend them.
One method I haven’t tried is to use marmalade, which is just chock full of good bitter/Seville orange flavor. It also contains the gelatinous substance, pectin, which may impart a haze to the finished beer–desirable in a white beer. Try half a normal sized jar as a starting point.
For some reason, the oils present in oranges do not seem to interfere with beer head formation, at least in my own brewing experience.
If you can’t find bitter/sour/Seville oranges, sweet varieties may be used, although with a different flavor. I’d recommend maybe three times the quantity to get the same flavor level. I have also used tangerines to good effect, especially with richer, darker beers. Sweet oranges almost always come slathered with some kind of wax, often laced with antifungal agents. While I couldn’t come up with anything definitively dangerous about them, it seems prudent to use organic oranges for this purpose, which are coated solely with food-grade materials like carnauba and beeswax.
Orange blossom water, available at Middle Eastern markets, can add a unique floral layer to the peel flavors. A teaspoon or so will suffice.
Orange is mandatory in wit beers, of course, and sneaks its way into many other Belgian styles as well. It can help tie together those unruly spices in a warming Christmas ale. Its friendly nature allows it to go further, and I urge you to experiment, perhaps in a soft and chocolatey porter, or a crispy weizenbock, or a shimmering blonde barley wine. Ahhh, the possibilities!
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer's Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.