Spice Beers for Winter

(The following column was originally published in the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American on Dec. 28, 2011.)

By Will Siss

When it comes to spice in beer, a little goes a long way.

You can end up with something tasteful, with background notes of ginger or cloves, or feel like you’ve just swallowed liquefied potpourri.

I’ve got a few chilly month recommendations of beers that include spices that you don’t have to fear.

Spices, to get really literal, are dried plant substances that are often aromatic. This includes barks, seeds, berries, roots, pepper and dried fruit. And yes, all of these can be used as ingredients in beer.

There’s a long history of brewers using spice. Hops are now the main beer seasoning and preserver, but research shows that sometimes complex combinations of spices were used at least as early as 3000 B.C.

Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist, brought this history to life when he teamed up with Dogfish Head Brewing Co. of Delaware. He used his research to help create the brewery’s celebrated Midas Touch Golden Elixer. By examining 2,700-year old Egyptian drinking vessels containing ancient traces of libations, he and the brewery approximated the spices they found as closely as possible.

It’s one of the more complex beers you’re likely to drink, since it not only is loaded up with saffron and honey flavor, it has a rich biscuity taste as well.

Over the centuries, brewers have experimented with all kinds of spices, from licorice in porters to coriander in wit biers. Brewers use allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, rosehips, fennel, cloves, saffron, chili pepper and a variety of fruit peels. Basically, used in the right amount, almost anything you can cook with, you can brew with.

To get at the flavor and aroma, brewers need to crush spices at finely calculated rates. Other times they’re left to soak in the beer. Home brewers also love to play with spices at this time of year. They enjoy the challenge of introducing potential spoilers.

What makes for a superior Christmas/winter specialty spiced beer, as it’s described by the Beer Judge Certification Program? It should give off a memorable aroma of, for example, Christmas cookies, gingerbread, spruce trees or mulling spices. It’s usually medium amber to dark brown. As for taste, there are many interpretations of what makes a delicious spiced beer.

Since spice beers are based on a more common style, like porter or brown ale or stout, the flavors of the spices should taste organic to that style. So, for example, nutmeg should complement the nuttiness in a dry brown ale or ginger added to a Belgian style should complement its earthiness.

Harpoon Brewing Co. of Boston recently released Vermont Spruce Tip Ale, as part of its limited-edition 100 Barrel Series. The brewer using spruce tips harvested from Vermont’s Downer State Forest the way finishing hops would be used, that is, added late in brewing process to bring out its aroma. Since it’s all about balance, Harpoon uses hints of roasted barley and Chinook hops to go with the spruce tips’ citrus and pine notes. The result is subtle pine in the background.

Brewing a Christmas ale has been an annual tradition for San Francisco craft beer pioneers Anchor Brewing since 1975. Our Special Ale , as it’s called, gets a unique recipe every year, and this year reviewers say it has hints of nutmeg and clover, is very carbonated and little bit of cocoa in the finish.

And for a hint of spice, try Pennsylvania-based Weyerbacher Brewing’s Winter Warmer. It’s got a mellow bite mixed with almost a plum-like maltiness.

Until next time, sip well.

Check out Beer Snob on Twitter: @BeerSnobCT

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