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Homebrewing: How to Brew with Spices

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[Photographs: Sarah Postma]

Do you want to spice up your brew day? We've looked at ways to get all types of flavors from hops, yeast, and grain, but sometimes it's fun to add a little something extra. Belgians have been using orange peel and coriander in their wheat beers for centuries. In the United States, the winter season brings dark strong beer with aromas of pumpkin pie or cinnamon apples. Today, we're going to look at the best way for homebrewers to use spices in their creations to create balanced and delicious beer.

Some spices contribute their best flavor when added to the boil. In this case, put the spice in a mesh hop bag and add it 10 minutes from the end of the boil. For a more subtle character, reduce the time to 5 minutes before the end of the boil, or even right as you remove the wort from heat. If the spice is a pod or a seed, giving it a little crush with a rolling pin is enough to extract the flavor. It's not necessary to grind the spices into powder.

Adding spices to secondary fermentation is also common, and the cooler extraction can provide a different flavor profile. These spice additions are often just poured into the secondary fermentation vessel two to ten days before bottling. For sanitation, let the spices soak in just enough vodka to cover them for 30 minutes before adding to the secondary. Pour the entire solution into the fermentor, since a lot of flavors will have already been extracted by the vodka.

Here's my guide to a few common brewing spices (and how to use them)—but don't feel tied down by this list! Coming up with new additions and ways to use them is a great way to express your creativity through your homebrew.

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Peppercorns produce a wonderful flavor when used in Saisons, but I've even tasted a Pale Ale homebrew with an excellent pepper character. To get a clean flavor profile, try a single variety of peppercorn, such as green, pink or white. For a 5 gallon batch, half a teaspoon at the very end of the boil is enough to get a subtle flavor, and 1 teaspoon will allow the character to shine through.

Cinnamon Sticks are the perfect addition for a Winter Warmer or Holiday Ale. The distinct flavor is enough to stand on it's own, but it also combines well with orange peel, vanilla or Seeds of Paradise. Since this is a bark, adding it to the boil will extract puckering tannins. Instead, add 2 to 4 sticks to the secondary fermentation vessel for at least a week.

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Orange Peel is a dried spice often added to Belgian Witbier along with coriander. The fruit flavor also combines well with coffee, chocolate or roasty flavors in Porters and Stouts. Homebrew shops typically carry sweet and bitter orange peel varieties. The sweet peel will give a flavor similar to Grand Marnier, while the bitter version is more of a dry orange flavor. Heat will give the best flavor extraction, so add 1/2 to 1 ounce of peel about 10 minutes before the end of the boil.

Oak Chips or Cubes are designed to mimic the barrel aged character of some commercial beers. Oak can be used in everything from Stouts to English IPAs with success. Start with 1 to 2 ounces in secondary, boiling the chips or cubes for 10 minutes to sanitize. With this ingredient in particular, it's important to taste a sample every few days to know when to remove the beer from the wood. For lighter beers, a week might impart enough oak character, but stronger brews may need a few weeks. One variation when using oak is to soak the cubes or chips in bourbon for a week before adding them to secondary. This will give a "bourbon barrel aged" character when added to Imperial stouts or porters.

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Coriander seed provides a complex nutty and citrus flavor that works particularly well in lighter beer styles. Combined with dried orange peel, it makes the spicy character found in Belgian Witbier. The dried seeds should be lightly crushed before use. I usually put them in a Ziploc bag and go over them with a rolling pin a few times to get the right crush. Typically, 1 ounce is added during the last 10 minutes of the boil.

Cocoa Nibs add a dry chocolate flavor to stouts, porters and some Belgian ales. The nibs produce a stronger chocolate character than you can get with dark malted grains alone. I add 4 to 6 ounces of nibs to the secondary for about a week, but letting them sit longer than that will not produce off-flavors. A few ounces of cocoa nibs can also be added to the last 10 minutes of the boil to get a bitter chocolate flavor.

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Seeds of Paradise are a zippy, peppery spice used in special Belgian ales and holiday beers. In some ways they taste similar to peppercorns, but with a noticeably brighter flavor. These seeds may be small, but they are very potent. Use 1/4 teaspoon maximum, five minutes before the end of the boil. If you're making a lighter beer, try 1/8 of a teaspoon; it should still contribute a good flavor. Seeds of Paradise can be tough to crush by hand. If you don't own a mortar and pestle, clean out a coffee grinder and spin them around a couple of times to break them open.


Salt is a very unusual beer spice, and should be used with great restraint after careful recipe formulation. Gose from Leipzig, Germany is a refreshing wheat beer uses the salt along with coriander to balance out its naturally present lactic acid sourness. If you are making a sour wheat beer and you want to experiment with salt additions, add no more than 1/4 teaspoon of high quality salt at the very end of the boil.

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Vanilla Bean produces beautiful, creamy vanilla flavors in everything from Imperial stouts to experimental IPAs. The beans are best used in secondary fermentation, where the alcohol present can help pull out the vanilla flavors. As with oak chips, you should taste homebrews with vanilla every other day to determine an acceptable level of vanilla flavor. For dark and strong beers I recommend starting with two beans, split along the edge—you should get good vanilla flavor in about a week of soaking. Vanilla is also a great complementary flavor, combining it with sweet orange peel in an Imperial porter makes a delicious specialty beer.


Do you have a favorite homebrew recipe that uses spices? Tell us about it!

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