The art of brewing may be the oldest craft invented by humanity. In fact, many anthropologists believe that brewing predates agriculture, and may have been the original impetus for the development of permanent agrarian settlements.
Today, the standard formula for beer is malt, water, yeast and hops. In fact, the reinheitsgebot purity law of Germany forbids the use of any other ingredients in beer. However, this has not always been the case. Historically, brewers have utilized a variety of spices to enhance the flavor of their beers. Long before the use of hops became widespread, a blend of spices known as gruit was the primary means of flavoring beer. Often, the spices in gruit also acted as a preservative to protect the beer's flavor. There are many versions of gruit, each using a variety of spices. Many include esoteric herbs such as sweet gale and mugwort, as well as some more familiar spices, such as juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, anise seed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Although the use of gruit largely fell out of favor when hops became the norm, many craft and home brewers, as well as some historic breweries, still use gruit to create unusual and flavorful beers.
Despite Germany's law prohibiting the use of spices and adjuncts, creative brewmasters elsewhere in the world continued to use spices in many classic beers. For example, Belgian witbier, an unfiltered ale brewed with a mix of barley and wheat malt, is flavored with coriander, orange peel, and other spices such as black pepper and grains of paradise. Scottish Gruit Ale is being produced to this day using gruit as the primary flavoring.
With the modern resurgence of craft beer and homebrewing, new beers are constantly being made using a range of interesting spices and flavors. Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon makes a Chipotle Ale, which is brewed with chipotle chiles. Dogfish Head brewery of Delaware makes a number of unusual spiced beers, including Sah'Tea (Juniper), Theobroma (Chiles and cacao, annato), Midas Touch (saffron), Namaste (lemongrass), and Pangea (crystallized ginger). Five Rabbit Brewery of Chicago makes a 5 Vulture amber ale with ancho chiles. Winter and fall seasonal beer are also often flavored with spices. Pumpkin beers are spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove and other baking spices. Holiday Ales are often flavored with juniper and ginger, and Wassail is scented with cinnamon, nutmeg, and citrus.
Homebrewers can get even more creative with spices in beer. Spices such as licorice, vanilla, sage and lime peel have been used by daring homebrewers to delicious effect.
Almost any spice can be successfully used for flavoring beer. Below is a list of some of the most popular spices for brewing:
- Grain of Paradise: One of the most important spices in modern brewing. A member of the ginger family, this seed contains α-humulene, which is also the primary flavor component of hops.
- Coriander: The seed of the cilantro plant. Traditionally used in many beers, especially witbier and saison.
- Orange Peel: Typically the peel of a bitter orange such as Seville or Curaçao.
- Vanilla Beans: Popular for stouts and porters, as well as winter beers.
- Pumpkin Pie Spice, Cake Spice or Apple Pie Spice: Baking spice blends used in pumpkin ale and fall and winter seasonals.
- Juniper: The primary flavoring in gin, juniper is used in many traditional European beers, as well as holiday ales.
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