Ahead of our saison tasting spree (first batch tonight) we’ve been thinking about the place of herbs, spices and fruit in beer.
Back in February, Masterchef winner and Japanese food expert Tim Anderson wrote a post suggesting some obscure citrus fruits to use in brewing:
I understand that there’s something irresistible about yuzu, but if everybody uses it then it loses some of its appeal. I fear we may have reached ‘peak yuzu.’
(There’s nothing to make you feel uncool like reading that something you’ve only vaguely heard of is already played out.)
He gives a reason, in passing, for why you might want to use obscure fruits: to make ‘a dish or a beer exotic and intriguing’, which additive-sceptics might read as different for the sake of being different — what’s wrong with beer that tastes like beer?
So, there is a question of motive, which probably, or maybe, coincides with the success of the experiment. A brewer who is trying to meet demand for a ‘new’ beers by chucking cinnamon or maple syrup into base products (a problem in ‘real ale’ before it became a problem in ‘craft beer’) will inevitably turn out a few duds where the Guest Starring additive clashes or overrides.
On the other hand, a beer that is thoughtfully designed and carefully developed, where the left-field flavour is brewed in rather than merely added at the end, may well do a better job of truly integrating it into the finished product. Camden’s Gentleman’s Wit isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the bergamot that is its unique selling point is not clumsily done, and does, indeed, add a twist which makes the beer intriguing, without surrendering its essential beerness.
When Lars Marius Garshol wrote about traditional herbs in Norwegian farmhouse brewing earlier this week, he reminded us that such additives aren’t a trendy new thing. We were particularly taken by his description of Myrica gale:
Home brewer Micro Maid made a Myrica beer for the Norwegian home brewing championship last year that won the prize for Audience Favourite. She used leaves picked in the forest, crushed in a kitchen blender, 23 grams for 26 liters of beer, boiled for 25 minutes. I tried the beer, and it really was excellent, with a lovely fruity flavour, not entirely unlike lime or yuzu.
Maybe the reason this seems, to us, less gimmicky than some such experiments is because it is in some sense historically and regionally authentic?
If all that matters is how the beer tastes, as some insist, then the brewer’s motives, or the authenticity of the additives, is neither here nor there, but we suspect that brewers who consider why they’re using a particular ingredient — who think about what the story is — might just generally be more careful and thoughtful, which tends to lead to better beer.
And if you’re a brewer (pro or at home) and you need more ideas than those provided by Tim and Lars, here’s Stan Hieronymus’s hot tip:
Main image adapted from ‘Fruit’ by Nils Dehl, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.