For the first six millennia of mankind’s “relationship” with beer, brewers were more like chefs than they have been during the last 500 years.
Ancient brewers used available grains to create fermentable sugars and then balanced that flavor with a bevy of ingredients used as bittering agents. Flowers, herbs, berries, roots and even mushrooms were employed by early brewmasters. The first use of hops is credited to Bohemian brewers in the 8th or 9th century, but the practice was far from universal. A medieval drinker was more likely to sip beer flavored with heather, dandelion or even moss.
It was left to the Germans to try to bring some order to this situation. In 1489, Bamberg’s Prince Bishop Heinrich III decreed that “nothing other than hops, malt and water” be used in brewing beer for the good people of Franconia. In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot spread these rules to the rest of Bavaria. Soon, most brewers abandoned the spice rack in favor of exclusively using hops.
There are traditional exceptions to the rule. Belgian brewers have long thumbed their noses at their rigid German neighbors. Some brews from Scandinavia, the British Isles and elsewhere around Europe continued to use various spices and bittering ingredients, along with hops. In the Americas, native and colonial brewers gathered a laundry list of ingredients to make beer—everything from pumpkin to spruce. The modern wave of domestic craft holiday and seasonal brews that utilize spices married to the time of year has opened the minds of many brewers to the benefits of garden-inspired brews.
Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware has been one of the innovators when it comes to using garden ingredients in beers. A partial list of the spices, fruits and vegetables used by Dogfish Head includes cumin, coriander, cloves, spearmint, peppermint, three kinds of peppercorns, juniper berries, St. John’s wort, thyme, lemongrass, vanilla beans, licorice root, nutmeg, cardamom, tamarillos, za’taar, chamomile, allspice, cinnamon, mace, grains of paradise, various teas, pineapple, mint, salt and lavender.
I have a few favorites. You get different flavors and aromas from different peppercorns, which is nice. We use juniper berries in two beers―Sah’tea and Immort―and I love the lemongrass in our Namaste,” says Calagione.
Not all experiments with garden ingredients work out. In 1996, Calagione made a beer with lavender buds, but “added too much and freaked people out.” Calagione’s first homebrew in 1993 used cherries and he says it turned out great. But his third homebrewed batch included peppercorns and he says he added “too much and it sucked.” This did not dissuade Calagione from using spices. His first commercial batch at Dogfish Head was Punkin Ale with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and brown sugar.
Calagione advises homebrewers working with garden ingredients to go low and slow in building a recipe. “Make a tea with it before brewing. This will better allow you to recognize the flavors and aromas it is bound to contribute and its intensity,” he says, noting that you want “the right presence in flavor and aroma, without being overpowering.”
Craftsman Brewing in California has won awards for its Triple White Sage ale. Mark Jilg, who founded Craftsman in 1995, says his goal in using sage was to build a unique beer around a locally-sourced ingredient from the nearby foothills and show that a beer could be interesting without having to be extreme.
We try to be subtle and refined in the things we do,” Jilg says. “When you add a new ingredient it complicates things. When it comes to our Triple White Sage, some people have a hard time finding the flavor, while it jumps right out for some other people.”
We use sage as a sort of late addition hop. It shows up big in the aroma and some in the flavor,” Jilg says. He says the beer is part of Craftsman Brewing’s response to what he perceives as a “real problem” in the craft beer community between “consumption and appreciation.”
Conceptually, craft beer is perceived as high quality. But there is quite a bit of effort put into being the most talked-about beer by making extreme beers,” Jilg says. “There is an underlying aesthetic to craft beer that is getting lost. We are driven by younger legal drinkers as an industry, and it is hard to pitch subtlety and refinement when much of this audience wants the biggest and strongest. We end up racing to being the biggest and most extreme.”
Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brewing in California, says the brewery’s use of garden ingredients got its start before he joined the company. Much of the experimentation took place with Stone’s cask-aging program.
Stone Smoked Porter with Chipotle emerged from one of these tests. The peppers are added in the secondary and are steeped for three days in a bag. The result is a twist on Stone Smoked Porter that has a trailing heat that does not dominate the flavor.
Steele’s advice to those considering brewing a garden beer? “Go light,” he urges. “Every time we’ve done something new we have overdone it the first time. It takes time to dial in just the right flavor.”
With brewers spending more time in the garden and the growing season fast upon us, there is a good chance that your next beer might just have a spicy note.
Rick Lyke is the founder of the Pints for Prostates men's health awareness campaign. www.pintsforprostates.org