Brewing With Special Ingredients: I


Malted sunflowers.

A lot of beer is made from just malt, hops, water and yeast. Given the different types of malts, varieties of hops and strains of yeast, there are a lot of possible kinds of beer you can brew with just these ingredients. Sometimes, though, brewers want to try something different and brew with additional ingredients. For example, some Belgian brews — notably witbiers — are spiced. Lambics frequently contain fruits. American craft brews include beers made with coffee, chocolate, chili peppers and even bacon. There are a lot of ingredients that can potentially work well in beer. However, getting a “non-beer” ingredient to work well in a beer isn’t always easy. Depending on when and how you add the ingredient, the flavor may be too strong, too weak or altered so that it doesn’t taste like it should. In addition, some ingredients can cause problems haze, astringency, unpleasant bitterness, loss of foam or other problems. Here are some guidelines to adding special ingredients to beer.


Learn About The Ingredient

If you want to brew with a special ingredient, your first step should be to learn as much about it as you can. For many ingredients, Wikipedia has has a page that will contain lots of useful information. In addition, there are countless cooking sites on the web and many have pages that focus on individual ingredients. And finally, I have found the book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of a Kitchen,” by Harold McGee (2004, Scribner) to be a treasure trove of information.

When learning about an ingredient, try to find out the following things: 1.) what is it composed of? 2.) what part of the ingredient gives it it’s flavor or aroma, and what are it’s characteristics? (Note: some adjuncts may only add fermentable or other carbohydrates, and not much flavor or aroma.) 3.) if applicable, how is it processed? and 4.) how is it usually used in cooking?

What’s It Made Of?


A sweet potato.

The overall composition of an ingredient is important because it may contain things you don’t want in your beer along with the part you do. If an ingredient contains oils or fats, it may inhibit your foam. If an ingredient has a high protein content, it can contribute to haze and if there is a large amount of plant material in the ingredient relative to the amount of active ingredient, it may yield excess tannins (especially if boiled for any period of time). Processed foods may contain added sugar, salt or preservatives that you don’t want in your beer.

If the ingredient contains elements that are potentially detrimental to beer quality, it’s up to you to decide whether to try the ingredient or not. In most cases, there are no guidelines for deciding how much of an ingredient is to much. For example, many walnuts would be too much with regards to fat content.


What’s The Active Ingredient?

In some cases, an ingredient may be composed almost entirely of one molecule. For example, many kinds of specialty sugar will basically be a simple sugar with a few other residues left over from processing that lend it some extra character. On the other hand, an ingredient may be a flower, leaf, stem, seed, tuber or other part of a plant and contain a variety of things other than the flavor or aroma active molecules. If possible, it’s good to find out if the active molecules are volatile or not and if they are water soluble or alcohol soluble.


How Is It Processed?


Mostly sugar.

Many spices are just dried and ground seeds or leaves. Other ingredients, such as coffee beans and cacao nibs (chocolate), may be roasted to add flavor. Still others may be extracted with water, alcohol or other solvents. A processed ingredient may be salted or otherwise flavored. It may also have preservatives added. To give one example, dried fruit may be preserved with sulfites (the same way wine preserved).


How Is It Used in Cooking?

Knowing what an ingredient is composed of, what it’s active elements are, and how it was processed can help you make a decision regarding when to add the ingredient in the brewing process. Know how the ingredient is used in cooking may additionally help you formulate your recipe to best accentuate the ingredient. For instance, if a spice or flavor is frequently used in sweet foods, you may want to use it a sweet beer to showcase it. If a spice is frequently paired with another spice or flavor, that can also come in handy during recipe formulation.

Once you’ve gathered information on the ingredient, you can formulate a recipe or pick a beer style that it might fit well in. Once that’s decided, you can choose when during the brewday to add it — with the mash, boil and secondary fermenter being the most likely candidates for most ingredients. In some cases, the choice will be clear; in others, there may be pros and cons to two or more possibilities. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss how to use the information about your ingredient to make the best decision as to how to brew with it.

In this series, sugar, fruits, starchy adjuncts, spices and herbs, roasted things and other ingredients will be discussed individually.






  1. Hi,

    Great article, I was just wondering if you could recommend any sources for the solubility of spices in water and alcohol apart from Harold McGee’s book. It is something I have be looking into a lot but haven’t found a source that has the kind of detail I am looking for.

    Many thanks

    • Chris Colby says

      I don’t know any source that lists solubility of common spices. I usually have to Google up a bunch of web sites and look through my cooking books to find things piecemeal. If I find a good source, I’ll post it.

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