Four Beer Spices (Part II of II)

BWJrelatedMoleculesMaking spiced beers is a winter tradition for homebrewers. Here is the second half of this article on four popular beer spices.


This spice is said to taste like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It is used in a lot of baked desserts, and is also featured prominently in many Caribbean dishes, including jerk seasoning.

Allspice is the dried fruits of the Pimenta dioica plant. The fruit is picked before it ripens and dries into brown “berries,” resembling whole black peppercorns.

The most abundant essential oil in allspice is eugenol — the main essential oil in cloves and a component of the essential oils in cinnamon.

Allspice is sold ground or whole.


How Much?

A common complaint about spiced beers is that the spice character is either overblown, or barely noticeable. Getting the right amount of spice character in a spiced beer is tricky. There isn’t a fixed amount of, say, cinnamon that works well in every beer. The amount required depends on the strength of the cinnamon and how it is handled.

The strength of any given spice is going to vary, and its intensity will decrease over time (at a rate influenced by the storage conditions). Most spices are, of course, sold without any indicator of their strength. As such, using spices in brewing is like using hops with an unknown (but widely varying) level of alpha acids. In a 5.0-gallon (19-L) batch of beer, most spices are added in amounts of less than a teaspoon. One way to estimate the amount of spice to use is to review numerous representative recipes and see the typical amounts used. Then, use the freshest spice possible and add an amount equal to the lowest estimate given in the recipes you examined.

For the spices discussed here, an eighth of a teaspoon per 5.0 gallons (19 L) — and perhaps double this for cinnamon — would be the “lowball” estimate, assuming fresh spices. If you know you want a strong spice character, you can try increasing this amount. However, you’re always going to be taking a shot in the dark using this approach.


Use in Brewing

The simplest way to use spices is to add them near the end of the boil. A short contact — 5 minutes or less — with boiling wort should extract the essential oils without extracting excess tannin from the plant material. This method works, and is widely used.

Another method is to make an extract of the spices, and add them to the fermenting beer, often in secondary. There are two ways this can be done.

Using a French press (or similar device), you can make a hot water extract of the spices. Just let the spices soak in hot water for a few minutes, then press off the liquid. The temperature and volume of the water and contact time are up to you, but just-boiled water contacting the spices for about 5 minutes should work in most cases. The spice-to-water ratio should be fairly high, so the spice extract is strong. For most spices, an ounce or two of liquid (30–60 mL) to each teaspoon of spice should work. Different spices will soak up differing amounts of liquid. Overly large volumes of spice extract will dilute your beer, so try to make it as strong as you reasonably can.

In the case of these spices, the key essential oils are only lightly water soluble, but much more soluble in organic solvents. Thus, making a French press extract from warm vodka (or a mix of vodka and water), as above, may work better. Likewise, you could try a liquid extract from a longer soak in cold vodka. Try soaking overnight for a start and taste a diluted sample of the extract. Overly long extraction times may also extract more tannins than is desirable.

The benefit of making a spice extract is that you can make a test blend to set your level of spicing. Try using an eye dropper to see how many drops of spice are needed to properly dose, say, 8.0 oz. (240 mL) of beer. Then, scale the amount of spice up to your full batch size. Add the spice extract to your keg or bottling bucket, and rack the fermented beer into it.

None of these spices is particularly expensive. Making both a hot water and vodka extract, and comparing the two by spiking some beer, can show you what your beer would taste like in both cases. Another option many homebrewers, including me, employ is to brew the beer using the “lowball” estimate of spices. Then, if needed, bump up the level of spicing with extract.

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