Yeast. Barley. Water. Hops. The quadfecta. Why mess with something that’s worked for hundreds of years? Maybe because it’s only been the “in” thing to do for hundreds of years. Go back farther to, say, 12th century Middle Ages, where hops were just becoming the thing all the cool kids were doing. Before then, the quadfecta was more like yeast, barley, water, and spices, so let’s talk about adding spices to hopped beer.
Today, adding spices to hopped beer is a competition to see who can ruin a good thing fastest. Or so I often encounter. Chief Beer Officer Tim Piotrowski (Pio) of Delta Beer Lab is making a statement about balance with the work he put into creating Delta’s Coconut Chai Stout. The first year of figuring out the recipe, “I opened up, it had to have been 150 of these little cans of coconut milk.” Rarely have contemporary brewers learned the ropes through adjuncts. Taking the time to understand new ingredients from an objective chemical level translates into beer drinkers recognizing the effort and thought behind ingredient choices and harmonies.
Last issue, I talked about women in brewing, and how brewing beer is akin to cooking. Every chef knows that fresh ingredients are crucial for hitting key flavor profiles. The same goes for brewing, and I’d like to use Delta’s Coconut Chai Stout to illustrate the point. Pio says, “We build this entire beer up from basic ingredients. We shaved and shredded fresh ginger. We used whole cinnamon sticks. Green cardamom and cracked it open in a food processor. Clove you don’t have to do much with—it’s pretty powerful as it is. And then vanilla bean. So it’s unadulterated, as fresh as most of those things are. The ginger is the most fresh of all of it … I always forget how long it takes to peel ginger.” As Pio is talking, I’m tasting the beer, and the more he said, the more obvious all these factors became. It wasn’t mush. It was a play where each ingredient has a role, and the authenticity behind each factor amplifies the next.
I’ve often railed against pumpkin spice beers because, to me, they taste like an afterthought. Have you ever had really good pumpkin pie? I mean, really good. So good it made you wish Linus wasn’t crazy and that there was a Great Pumpkin you could pay your respects to each year to help ensure the next year’s pie would taste just as good. After that pie, how do you feel about other pumpkin pies? For that matter, did you even like pumpkin pie before then? That’s how I feel about pumpkin spice beer, but I’ve yet to have a good one.
“I think there’s definitely room for well-done spiced beers,” says Pio. That’s certainly true considering we’ve not discovered the horizon dictating limits on beer amalgamations and identities. But as Jeff Goldblum, disguised as Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” There are beers out there trying to do radical things to recreate an experience you’ve had with food. For example, a lot of breweries have taken a stab at concocting a key lime pie beer to recreate the sensation of eating a key lime pie. Probably the worst thing that could happen when I’m enjoying a beer is for the thought to cross my mind that I wish I was eating or drinking something else, and that’s exactly what happens nearly every time I have a beer that’s trying to imitate food.
However, if you start with a good base beer and build from there, maybe now you’re thinking about the idea of key lime pie, and not key lime pie itself. “Does the spice component complement the beer?” asks Pio. “Because if it doesn’t, maybe there’s a beer that would complement the food that uses that spice. Maybe that would be a better pairing.” One of the defining characteristics of a good key lime pie is the graham cracker crust. Maybe instead of trying to hit the lime note so hard, time would be better spent focusing crust-ward. I’m very much okay with walking into a brewery and being given an eight-ounce pour of cinnamon wheat beer with a slice of key lime pie.
There’s no right or wrong way to evaluate a beer on an individual scale, but Pio shares how he goes about breaking down a spiced beer to determine if it hit the mark. “First, I take in the spice component because it’s going to be the most prevalent. Spices are there to make food more diverse or more appetizing. It’s to remove a bland component of pasta or potatoes or meat or veggies. So is it applied in such a way that it’s a complement to the product or to the beer? Does it add to the base? Then I would judge the base beer. Try to push past the spice component and see if the color is right for that style. Is there enough sweetness, but not too much? How’s the carbonation level compared to that whole experience?” For the Coconut Chai Stout, less carbonation allows the silkiness of the coconut milk to give a warmness to the spices, akin to a chai tea. For a pepper beer, crank up the bubbles and make it pop.
Mixing spices with beer is nothing new, it’s just being done in new ways. Witbiers are still very much a thing, as are many other Belgian styles that welcome spice components. But Belgian styles have been around for quite some time, so we aren’t going in blind. Open-mindedness and craft brewing are quite the pairing, but it’s okay to call out a bad idea when you taste one. As Pio says, make sure you’re not “either covering up a beer or overwhelming it with spice to make it taste good. Start with a good product—start with a good base.”
May we always be daft enough to be daring.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.
Be a test subject for the Coconut Chai Stout at Delta Beer Lab. There is no control group.
Pio also recommends:
Spiced Beers at
Working Draft Beer Company
St. Nikkilaus at Black Husky Brewing
Divine Herb at Hacienda Beer Co