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Spices can catch you on the hop ...

The man in the public bar never quite connects with the idea that beer is made from barley malt. He thinks it is produced from hops. A sophisticate like yourself is aware that the magic cone is used only as a seasoning.

No one is sure exactly when hops became the preferred seasoning in beer, but there is plenty of evidence of other plants, herbs and spices having been used, and some still are, as I mentioned in passing last month.

We accept that chicken soup might be improved by a dash of parsley; some of us even know that wine is seasoned with camomile (among other things) to make vermouth; where the difficulty often arises is in persuading a brewer to concede that any seasoning other than hop cones might be used in his beer.

Probably the most widely accepted speciality seasoning is Iiquorice. The use of liquorice in porters and stouts is a very old practice

I have even found a hint of liquorice in what might be described as a "colonial-style" porter produced in Pennsylvania under the Stegmaier label. (There was until recently also a juniper-spiced beer made in Pennsylvania - as there still is in Sweden under the name Spetsat).

Have British brewers in recent years used anything else? I was once told that a well-known British pale ale contained ginger, but was unable to persuade the brewer to agree this was so.

The interesting twist is that my information came from someone who had in the past produced this British ale under licence in Belgium He swore that he was following the British brewer's specification in adding ginger.

The Belgians are the greatest users of herbs and spices in beer, as I suggested in passing last month. Even a relatively conventional Belgian brew sometimes turns out to contain spices.

In addition to producing some British pale ales under licence, the Belgians also have several of their own. They tend to be labelled without the word "pale," simply as "ale".

The Belgians may be unable to agree on whether to speak Flemish or French, but this great and eclectic brewing nation is quite happy to use English on its beer labels.

All Belgian ales are on the spicy side, but that does not necessarily derive from seasonings. Some specifications of malt, or varieties of hop, can confer spiciness.

When I recently tasted three well-known Belgian ales side by side, I found that Vieux Temps was yeast-accented, Ginder more soft and fruity, and Horse Ale especially spicy.

The brewer of each ale was present. The first two apparently do not contain spices. The man who makes Horse Ale agreed that he added spices, but was coy about identifying them.

I have come across the use of spices in at least one Trappist beer, in several saisons (which are also usually dry-hopped) and in many speciality beers.

Ten or a dozen Belgian brewers have in recent years introduced products described as Kruidenhieren. The word Kruid means herb or spice in Flemish. A good example is Houten Kop, from the Strubbe brewery, at lchtegem. south of Bruges.

Houten Kop. meaning "Wooden Head," is typical of the self-mocking names often given to these quirky beers. This one has an orangy colour, with a palate to match. It reminds me of bitter oranges. It is a bottle-conditioned beer, yeasty and dry.

A year or two ago in Belgium, I met a spice merchant who showed me invoices from decades ago to demonstrate that he has sold a wide variety of exotica to an equally disparate range of his nation's brewers.

At the time, fewer brewers seemed to be using spices, but my feeling is that the idea has since come back into fashion, perhaps encouraged by some of the micros.

My encounter with the spice merchant was fascinating, not least when he told me that brewers in the town of Leuven once used figs as a fermentable material in the production of "white" beers. Apparently when figs ferment, they leave little trace of colour, and this property was useful in the production of a style notable for its pallor.

Today's most famous White Beer is produced in Hoegaarden, without the help of figs, but with a definite spicing. The producer of Hoegaarden Witbier (or Blanche, if you prefer), the De Kluis brewery, makes no secret of its employment of Curacao orange peels and coriander, but declines to disclose a third spice.

My guess has always been cumin seeds. These seasonings, along with Kent and Styrian hops, are added to a brew oh 1048 (4.8 alcohol by volume) made from wheat, oats and barley malt. The brewery's very aromatic house yeast is used, then a separate strain is added in the bottle.

When it is young this beer has a snap of yeast bite, and is very much a dry, fruity, summer refresher. In this role, it has enjoyed great popularity in Belgium in recent years on draught.

In the bottle, it becomes softer, more complex and honeyish with age. Some devotees feel that it peaks at six months (kept in a dark and cool, but not refrigerated, cellar). I have had delightful examples at two years.

I hope that its popularity, and therefore greater production, does not cause its production to be hurried. Recent samples have seemed to me to have less delicacy of aromatic hop character than I remember.

Hoegaarden White is a cherished classic, but the De Kluis brewery does have several other products, and makes something of a speciality of spiced brews, all of them bottle-conditioned.

Perhaps the most familiar, and widely admired, is its Hoegaarden Grand Cru. At lO73-76, This has a similar spicing, but is brewed entirely from pale barley malt. It has a peachy colour and a palate to match. A subtle and complex beer, with a surprisingly warming finish.

Then comes Julius, made entirely from Pilsener malt, again at 1076, and also with some spicing. This is very pale, with a delicacy of fruit aroma, a notably firm body, and a late attack of hoppiness in the finish.

The brewery also has an abbey-style "double" called Benedict, but its classic dark beer is Forbidden Fruit, at 1080. This is both spiced with coriander and heavily hopped. It has a herbal, spicy, vanilla-like, dark-chocolate taste, sweet at first, then dry in the finish.

These are all multi-faceted beers, but on balance I would present Julius as an aperitif, the Grand Cm as an accompaniment to dessert, and Forbidden Fruit as a digestif.

Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAY 1, 1990
In: What's Brewing

Beer Review - Beer Styles

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