Beer predates the cultivation of hops, so brewing with spices and herbs is truly old-school. From Ancient Egypt to Sumeria, brewers combines fermentables and flavorings to taste according to what they could find or grow. Malted grain that's transformed into a beer without any hops or herbs will turn out too sweet. By the Middle Ages in Europe, secret blends of bitter herbs and spices called gruit were sold to brewers to balance the sweetness and add some preservative qualities.
Modern homebrewers have the advantages of playing with those traditions or inventing all new spice additions. Here are some of the approaches we've seen.
Look to the Past for Inspiration
In any good modern homebrew shop, you'll find a few nods to those early days of hopless brewing. Some of the traditional flavorings you may find are spruce tips, from the Nordic brewing tradition, and the many spices used by some of the great Belgian brewers, including orange peel, star anise and coriander seeds. A little bit of research may have you digging deeper into traditions for gruit herbs, or looking to heather for the secret of historic Scottish brews.
Contemporary Spiced Beers
American spice beers began as a toast to the holiday season, relying on the kinds of spice blends used for baking pumpkin pies, for example, with such ingredients as ginger, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Most of these ingredients go into the boil, but others may be added late, perhaps even as a tea or tincture that can be mixed to your taste.
In the savory direction, chili beer is the best-known example. Some go for pepper flavors with modest heat while others test the metal of any chili lover.
Designing a Recipe
Why not take an existing recipe you like, decrease the hops and experiment with modest spice additions? You may want to grab a witbier recipe as a starting point, then replace one or more of the spice elements. You'll find these beers are typically hopped to under 20 IBU, because they derive bitterness from the dried Curaçao orange peels. Why not try another citrus source and spice for a first design foray?
Remember that spices and herbs must be fresh to be flavorful. Boiling decreases aromatics, so if you want to sanitize a "dry" spice addition, mix it briefly in boiling water then cool it down. Under-spicing is a better problem than over-spicing. You can add more spices in the fermentor or even in the keg if the zing of your spice doesn't come through.
Get in touch with us with your ideas. We love to talk beer making!