By Roger Fillion
Craft brewers increasingly are like chefs. They’re sprinkling herbs and spices into their beers much like a chef who wants to complement a dish. The upshot: Brewers have food in mind when selecting herbs and spices to use, ranging from basil and sage to cardamom and the world’s most expensive spice, saffron.
“The use of spices helps us design beers that are great for pairing with food, as well as just dang tasty,” says Tim Hawn, brewmaster at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc. in Milton, Delaware.
At the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver in September, the herb and spice category was the seventh most popular. It attracted 142 beers, behind the 149 in the coffee beer category.
What’s the trick to using herbs and spices in craft beers? “Try not to overdo it,” brewer Kevin Haborak, co-owner of Coastal Empire Beer Co. in Savannah, Georgia, advises. “I always start light because you can add more. And you can’t take it back out.”
With temperatures cooling, now is a great time to add some herbs and spices to your beer drinking. Below are some herb and spice beers worth tracking down.
Allergeez (ABV: 5.7%), an American wheat beer that won a silver medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), includes Texas honey, chamomile flowers and rose hips. “Rose hips help with a nice and subtle cranberry tart flavor while the chamomile gives a big floral nose,” says Ryan McWhorter, founder of Panther Island Brewing, in Fort Worth, Texas.
McWhorter, the head brewer, says Allergeez came about because he had a recipe for an American Wheat Beer — but wanted to add something. His wife brewed him a chamomile flower tea and added honey. “I thought it was delicious and decided to give that a try in the wheat recipe,” McWhorter says. Rose hips were later added.
Zarabanda (ABV: 6.3%) is a Spanish take on the farmhouse-style Saison. Deschutes Brewery, based in Bend, Oregon, crafted the beer in collaboration with famed Spanish chef José Andrés. This brew includes two ingredients Andrés likes to use in his cooking – lemon verbena and pink peppercorn – as well as dried lime and sumac.
Deschutes founder Gary Fish and Andrés began discussing the idea of collaborating on a beer “many years ago,” according to Fish. Zarabanda was introduced last year. Deschutes said the name was inspired by the Spanish saraband dance which, “loosely translated, means popular fun or enjoyment; hubbub; racket; row; party.”
Chai Milk Stout
Yak & Yeti Restaurant & Brewpub’s Chai Milk Stout (5.2% ABV) was a 2013 GABF silver medalist. The chai spices are Yak & Yeti’s proprietary blend. Adam Draeger, head brewer at Yak & Yeti, which operates a brewpub and two restaurants in the Denver area, says the blend uses spices typically used in Nepali spiced tea: whole cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon.
Chai Milk Stout is a riff on Yak & Yeti’s Milk Stout. “You usually add milk to your chai tea,” Draeger says. He is tight-lipped about the beer’s chai spice blend: “The only bit of info I’ll give you on the spices is that they are mixed and then finely ground and not left cracked or whole.”
Midas Touch (ABV: 9.0%), by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc., is made with ingredients found in the 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas in central Turkey. The world’s most expensive spice, saffron, gets a starring role. “Saffron is perceived to add a bit of floral sweetness to the beer,” says Tim Hawn, brewmaster at the Milton, Delaware, brewery. He adds that saffron is “known to bring flavors together – in this case the grapes and honey from the base fermentable materials.”
The brewery calls its Midas Touch beer “somewhere between beer, wine and mead.” Dogfish Head, in general, uses many spices in its beers. “What we love about spices is the endless creativity they offer,” Hawn says. “Historically they have been used in the culinary world, but they can also play into beer flavors.”
Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Heather Ale (5.0% ABV) snagged a silver medal at the 2012 GABF and a bronze in 2011. Each summer the Cambridge brewery crew picks heather flowers along the Massachusetts coast. “It’s really just a beautiful floral character in terms of flavor and aroma,” brewmaster Will Meyers says of the heather, noting the beer is “all about the heather.” It includes sweet gale, lavender and yarrow.
Heather Ale has roots in Europe and Scandinavia. The brewery says inhabitants of coastal Northern Europe, Scandinavia and the Northern British Isles originally crafted similar beers, adding that “fresh heather flowers and other herbs were used to balance and flavor the rustic yet sweet toasted character of the malted barley.”
Utah Sage Saison
“We wanted to make something that expressed Utah and the high desert. Sage turned out to be the perfect ingredient, but it needed to be rounded out so we added thyme and rosemary,” Matthew Allred, communications director for Salt Lake City-based Epic Brewing, says of his company’s Utah Sage Saison (7.6% ABV). The Belgian-style ale captured a bronze at the 2012 GABF.
Epic uses fresh whole sage, rosemary and thyme for its Utah Sage Saison and steeps them in the wort kettle. “They have a huge impact on the nose, creating a very floral, savory aroma. This is an amazing beer with roast chicken, lamb or other fall seasonal dishes,” Allred says.
Tennessee Brew Works’ Basil Ryeman (6.25% ABV) combines a Saison-style beer – also known as a classic Belgian Farmhouse Ale – with Thai basil. “We love the anise, fennel and spicy characteristics of Thai basil and the interplay of these flavors with the Belgian Saison yeast,” head brewer Laura Burns says. The Nashville brewery works closely with local farmers to source its herbs.
Burns says the brewery’s Thai basil and rosemary-infused beers are intended to be “very palatable and well suited” for pairing with food. “We use herbs to add distinct flavors that interplay with traditional brewing ingredients,” she notes. “But this also allows our beers to accentuate and help make dishes pop much like an herb does.”