It wasn’t too long ago that asking for a beer at a bar only meant choosing between a few simple options, most likely one light and one dark. Slowly, as the world’s economy continued to globalize and beer was less about what you could get locally and for a good price and much more about experimenting with variety. Imports from all corners of the globe have inundated the American market, which even more options coming from regional microbreweries. With stores, websites, and periodical publications all dedicated to homebrewing, it seems like everyone is getting in on the act. It seems inevitable, then, that creative minds would start tinkering with the basic formula for flavoring beers.
Beer is in essence a very simple fermentation of water, starch, and yeast. Historically, flavorings like spices, herbs, fruits, and even narcotic substances were added to beers with varying levels of success, but with the discovery of hops and all its inherently fantastic qualities, other flavorings feel by the wayside. Recently, however, experimenting in beer flavoring has begun again, and with renewed fervor.
Theoretically, you can flavor beer with almost anything. Whether or not it will taste good is another story. Anything you add to your basic beer recipe should complement the flavors that already exist. Logic is a great tool here, but sometimes trial and error is key. Cheese, for example, is fantastic with beer. But cheese flavored beer? Maybe not.
Flavoring can be achieved several ways. If you adding fruit, for example, you can add whole, mashed, fresh fruit, fruit juice, or even fruit extracts. It is important that seeds and stems be removed from whole fruit, as they can cause bitterness, and that any additives be free of preservatives, which can kill yeast, stop fermentation, and ruin your entire batch. Opinions differ on whether flavorings should be added to the initial kettle, or during first or second fermentation; all methods work, with varying results. Again, success is subjective, and heavily dependent on the flavor and intensity desired.
Fruit is the most basic addition to beer, but there are certainly others. Herbs and spices are popular, and almost every microbrewery has come out with some version of a chocolate-laced stout. Some companies are thinking even farther outside of the box. More than one brewery has released an oyster-flavored beer. While drinkers may initially recoil, when you consider the popularity of thinks like vodka-based oyster shooters and Blood Caesar’s made with clamato, a blend of tomato and clam juices, perhaps it’s not so strange. Other flavorings attempted by breweries include pizza, bacon, milk, seaweed, chilis, tea, coconut, donuts, crème brulee, and mustard.
If you’re homebrewing, your options are only as limited as your time, budget, and imagination. Try brewing based on an upcoming occasion, such as pumpkin sage beer to accompany Thanksgiving dinner, or a vanilla wheat beer to wash down a big piece of birthday cake. Whatever you choose to experiment with, make sure your equipment is clean and set any preconceived notions aside – this might just be your eureka moment.