Generalisations about beer culture homebrewing opinion

Gimmick or Twist?

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.

30 replies on “Gimmick or Twist?”

I think there’s an element of fun and experimentation at play here, especially on a home brew scale. Commercially however, there’s also the increasing necessity to look beyond the ‘sexy’ hops for interesting flavours and aromas given they’re becoming harder to come by for small breweries.

I think we’ll see a shift towards beers where herbs/spices play a part as well as more focus on traditional malt and yeast forward recipes rather than hop forward. If ‘peak yuzu’ was declared due to perceived over-use, ‘peak hop-bomb double IPA’ will perhaps be more of an enforced change.

We did think about your experiments with extracts and flavourings, too, and the real fly in the ointment is that we kind of like those Saltaire beers which are *so* fake tasting, but still fun, and just downright enjoyable.

(But then I really like Fanta, which I realise is not very cool at all.)

To its credit, Bateman’s Hazelnut Brownie beer tasted exactly like I’d expect a hazelnut brownie beer to taste. And if a hazelnut brownie beer is ever something I actually want, I’ll seek it out.

I think it all depends on the approach. In BLAM, Stan quotes a brewer (probably a monk, can’t remember know) speaking about spices in beer. According to him, if the drinker can identify them, you’re using them wrong.

As a drinker, I prefer beers that taste like beer, and if they brewed with an unconventional ingredient, it’s more fun to try to figure out what it can be, than to have it screaming at me already from the bottle.

That’s a great quote; reminds me of a beer I had yesterday. Nøgne Ø Asian Pale Ale – currently on cask at your, or at least my, friendly local Spoons (brewed at Caledonian) – is made with late additions of lemongrass, as I found out when I got home. Drinking it you’re almost sure there’s something there apart from hops, but not quite – and I’d be impressed if anyone identified the flavour on a blind taste test. A few ‘seasoned’ porters & stouts work a similar trick, particularly when the flavour’s in the same area (rum, coffee, chocolate).

I blame sommeliers, I’m afraid. Well, cynical brewers first, sommeliers second. A few years ago the label copy you could expect to see on supermarket beers seemed to change, from (say) “rich, warming, with coffee and cinnamon notes” to “rich, warming, brewed with coffee and cinnamon”. The underlying logic seemed to be that brewing a complex flavour profile is hard, and chucking in extra ingredients is easy.

For me the ideal is to brew something that tastes complex using nothing but the standard ingredients (and maybe some sugar if you ask nicely). If you can’t do that, use additives but keep them well hidden. And if you can’t do that, make a feature of the additive, but have it complement the base beer.

People who don’t really like beer are desperate to find something they can drink in a craft beer bar. They’re in the craft beer bar because we’re at the the peak of the craft beer fad. Once it passes beer will be beer again.

Well yes, my missus hates beer, and hence welcomes the opportunity to drink a fruit beer that tastes a lot like fruit and nothing like beer.

I however, actively like the taste of beer, and hence the addition of extra ingredients only ever really detracts from my enjoyment of the beer. At best, it makes no real noticeable difference.

It also feels like cheating, I’m less likely to be impressed with a brewers ability to bring out a coffee like taste in a porter if he’s actually just thrown in a hundredweight of coffee beans. I could have done that myself.

Roosters High Tea is an example of one done well – it’s a decent IPA and the tea certainly adds something.

One thing we don’t seem to get in the UK but seems pretty common in the US is shoving random ingredients into a cask. That just seems wrong.

It seems to offend traditionalists, that’s for sure. Wonder if it actually works as a vehicle for adding flavour? Guess they’re only extending the principle of dry-hopping in the cask, really.

Well I wouldn’t exactly call myself a traditionalist but it does seem somewhat…uncouth maybe. I’m sceptical of adding flavours to beer generally, and when this is combined with the stereotypical view of Americans wanting to push everything to the extreme you get things like:

“Terrapin Wake ‘N’ Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout. This delicious cask is infused with vanilla beans, four pounds of raspberries, and primed with grade-B maple syrup. 9.4% ABV.”

That’s clearly a limited edition Terrapin Wake ‘N’ Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout, not the plain old everyday run-of-the-mill Terrapin Wake ‘N’ Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout. Because who’d want a beer you can describe in only four words, when they could be drinking Terrapin Wake ‘N’ Bake Vanilla Raspberry Maple Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout?

(Still, at least it’s cask Terrapin Wake ‘N’ Bake Vanilla Raspberry Maple Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout. None of your keg Terrapin Wake ‘N’ Bake Vanilla Raspberry Maple Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout rubbish.)

I think I’d prefer a nice cold keg version. Hopefully wouldn’t be able to taste as much.

Variety. It’s a curse and a blessing. With so many breweries jostling for attention and greater marketshare, an oligopolistic market forces differentiation. Gets peoples’ attention and triggers variety. But obvious facile variants which are little more than “flavour added” which attract the non-beery sorts both degrades beer conceptually as a thing in itself and undermines respect and even capacity for skilled brewing. This is the little discussed gift of US craft where this is only encouraged if the brewers’ conference agendas are to be trusted.

This is where wine has it all over beer. Skillfully made wines showing real terrior and displaying elements of particular as well as traditional grape varieties are now $15-20 in Canada. Many Cotes-de-Rhone Village or Spanish Bierzo or Mosel Reislings are less than $4 a serving at home. Vino Verde is under $2 a serving. I am looking at trendy craft beer at $5-8 retail. I pass on it. This is why it’s certainly a fad, a bubble, as it is simply out-pricing itself.

My real hope is seeing a group of brewers here who are rejecting additive based trendy adulteration. It’s not just ideological. I think I am seeing a new form of differentiation based in simple top quality brewing. Oddly, it is not priced higher – which is telling in itself – just imbued with greater authenticisity.

I’d be very interested to know who you’d put in that last group of brewers – care to share?

Not being that familiar with the North American scene, I’d probably understand your position better if you gave a few examples of the people knocking out “obvious facile variants” as well…

Very Ontario specific but Northwinds, MacKinnons and Stone City all are new breweries with very good brewers who avoid adjunct herb and fruit. Bad examples? Just follow the adjectives I suppose.

Oddly, it is not priced higher – which is telling in itself – just imbued with greater authenticisity.

We had that here once. Didn’t call it ‘craft’, though. Real something, I think it was. ‘Real beer’? Naah…

Yes, I remember how you could buy a pint of Butcombe’s 7% ABV simcoe IPA for a pound fifty before these nasty “craft” people spoiled everything.

“Simple top quality brewing”? Anyway, I have seen RedWillow Ageless DIPA going for the price of any other cask beer, twice. (No wonder they got into keg!)

IME traditional additives (fruit lambics being the number one example) and modern experimental ones can all make for great beer. Traditional ones are already tried and tested and hence more liable to be good, whereas modern experimental ones have a higher risk and a lower hit rate – personally I’m much more chary about buying unusual fruit / herb / spiced / etc beers than more traditional stuff – I won’t normally bother unless I can get a taste, really like the brewery, or have had it recommended.

I think tabamatu’s probably right as well that brewers just enjoy messing around and experimenting with stuff to see what works. After all, the fact that they got into brewing at all, probably when you could already get a lot of very good beers relatively cheaply and easily, suggests that they’ve probably got a “lets take it apart and see how it works” mindset anyway…

Regarding difference for difference’s sake – massive topic, but personally I’ve always got a satisfaction from things that trigger an initial “what the hell is this” reaction followed by a gradual dawning of “no, actually, this is rather good…” that’s different from the satisfaction of things that are just uncomplicatedly nice. And I think that’s different from just having a short attention span or wanting to be into the next cool thing before everyone else.

For me, much of beer’s appeal is that it can taste like anything – there’s a lot of historical precedent for adding ingredients beyond water, malt, yeast, and hops. So I feel that beers that use fruits or spices or herbs or whatever don’t necessarily taste any less ‘like beer’ than others, even in cases where the flavors are not at all subtle.

Having said that, sometimes when I think about citrus fruits in brewing, I wonder: is this necessary? Is it cheating? We already have these great things called Cascade, Amarillo, Citra, etc. to add a citrus flavor to beer, so why don’t we just use them? In Pressure Drop’s Nanban Kanpai we used actual juice rather than just peel, since we wanted some tartness as well. But in many cases, I feel like actual citrus isn’t really needed to achieve a certain flavor.

If you are clever in your application, it can give your beer actual terroir. Like a honey or heather ale made with actual heather honey.

I like to tease people that my elderflower saison has some terroir.

“Made from that tree over, there across the canal, beside the pirate ship”

You can’t be more specifically terroir-y than that.

But unless you have hives or near at the brewery, there’s no terrior in it. Airborne yeast is analogous I suppose. Such things are possible. I am only suggesting that it is a little to easily used as a swap for local. We have a wine region near us (Prince Edward Couny) with long narrow bands of differnt soils and it really shows, especially in the whites. I wish there was a similar concept in beer. Maybe the NY state farmhouse brewery laws will trigger it. Your lands own water, hops and malt. Girardin in Belgium is close with their own wheat malt.

Does terroir have anything to do with how local the ingredients are to the place where they’re processed, though? It’s a historical feature of winemaking that the final product is often made in essentially the same place that the grapes are grown, but there’s no reason that a brewery in Sheffield couldn’t make a beer that showcases the terroir of a specific hop farm in the Yakima Valley and a barley producer in Hampshire, provided they could get hold of the stuff.

I think that is a different thing that needs its own word. Selecting and showcasing top quality ingredients is very good. But unless your ingredients are all from one place how does the coming together express any one place as opposed to the individual brewmaster?

“Expressing a place” is a rather misleading way of putting it, though! Technically it’s correct, but”expressing” in this context is not the same as “evoking”. It’s more a function of the interaction between (micro)climate, soil chemistry, growing methods, plant genetics, water quality and brewing methods and their effect on flavour.

All of this seems rather unlikely to produce a particularly distinguished beer (particularly given that you need at least three ingredients to be available locally and to not suck), and particularly unlikely to produce a beer whose taste is actually inherently redolent of the place where it was produced, and hence a rather arbitrary exercise.

By the way, my tip for the next cool additive is cascara – the dried coffee cherry husks that they make into a tea in some coffee producing countries. It’s got a bit of sweet-sour fruity flavour, a hint of coffee and a big caffeine buzz, and I reckon it’d go well into either a sour or a sweetish strong ale.

Adventurous homebrewers can get it from Has Bean:

Nope. That’s the other cascara, not the coffee one. Though that’s also a reason why lots of commercial cascara beers are possibly unlikely.

Nøgne Ø did a cascara bitter a while back. I’ve used it in a pale ale and a cider. The cider was better.

Not that you’ve barely started with the saisons yet, but what about coffee/chocolate beers as your next batch test? Whether with chocolate malts or actual coffee and chocolate.

I had Pilot Moccachino stout at a festival last week – wow, so lovely. Organic cocoa nibs, Tahitian vanilla and brewed in Leith. Terroir? (And Fallen Salted Caramel Porter – ok that’s neither coffee nor chocolate, but was darned good as well.)

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