It was a cold, miserable, snowy day when I walked into the south-east Asian grocer to buy ingredients for a meal I was cooking that night. I needed a bunch of exotic ingredients, including one that was hard to find at the time: fresh curry leaves. I walked into the store, asked the owner if he had any. He took me to the back where he had a fridge with foliage inside, taking out branches that had dark green leaves on it. After a whole day of running around the city, I finally had fresh curry in my hands. I took a deep whiff of it and had the same thought many homebrewers have: “this would be awesome in a beer!” I grabbed a couple extra branches, and the next day tried my hand at my very first curry beer.
Yes, curry beer.
Before you judge, I encourage you to get your hands on fresh curry and tell me that can’t work with the right grain and hop bill! And if you make it work, let me know, because I failed on three separate occasions! I’m convinced I’ll get it right one day. When I do, the recipe will finally earn a spot in my library of recipes.
My epic failures haven’t discouraged me from experimenting with herbs, fruit, spices, and vegetables. I’d like to think I’m charting new territory, but you already know that fruit (and spiced) beers have enjoyed a resurgence with the craft beer boom. Adding fruit beers to your arsenal at home often takes trial and error if you’re building a recipe from scratch. However, when used well, they can elevate your beer to a whole new level. I’m here to help you step it up a notch with this detailed tutorial on how to use fruit and spices when brewing beer.
Start with the right beer base and yeast
One of the big mistakes I made with my attempts at making a curry beer likely came in my choice for the base beer. I had it in my head that a saison would work. I thought the pepper notes you sometimes get in a saison would match well with curry. I may one day prove it works, but I would have probably had a better chance if I started with a more appropriate base beer. Which means, I would need an appropriate yeast. Rather than go with one that produced peppery notes, I should have started with a “clean” yeast that contributed little character to a beer to see what the curry would offer when not competing with the yeast. American ale strands would be a good fit in this case.
However, if you’re making a fruit beer instead of a spice beer, you might want to experiment with a yeast strain that adds natural fruit flavours. You’re looking for a yeast that could enhance the perception of fruit, without overwhelming it. Finding the right one may take some trial and error. Which is why I strongly recommend sticking to a recipe for your first attempt at fruit or spice beers. Once you have one under your belt, you can experiment with it. And when you do, there are some guidelines to consider.
Let’s start with fruit beers.
What fruit should I use?
This is obviously a matter of personal preference. You could play it safe and use some of the more popular options available to you, like raspberries, cherries, peaches, blueberries and grapefruit. Or you can do what my local brewery recently did and play with a more exotic fruit like mango (Left Field’s Mango Lassi is a gift from the gods. If you’re ever in Toronto, you must try some. I insist on it).
There’s a reason some fruits are more popular than others. Raspberries are tried, tested, and true. This fruit can hold its own in a beer and shine. Raspberries are also highly acidic, which enhances the fruit profile of the beer. In that way, they are easy to use. They are joined in this category by other assertive fruits, like cherries, blackberries, passion fruit, and chili peppers.
Other fruits don’t hold up as well and require much more experimentation to get right with your base beer. For example, the aforementioned mango, as well as peaches, apricots, blueberries, and strawberries are much milder than raspberries. It can be tough to assert their flavours in the beer. Which means you’ll likely want to pair them with a pale, light-flavoured base beer, but in large quantities to truly extract their flavours and aromas.
And then there are the fruits you think will hold up strong, but have a stronger bark than bite. In this category, we have citrus fruit like orange, lime, lemon, and grapefruit. You’re better off not bothering with the fruit and instead using the peel, which will impart much more flavour. However, do not use the pith of the peel. This can—as it has for me—ruin a beer with ridiculously astringent flavours.
Do I use fresh, whole, frozen, or cooked fruit?
This might seem like an unnecessary point to make, but if you’re using fresh fruit, the fruit must be ripe. I really mean it. Keep in mind that most fruits we buy at the grocery store—or even at the farmer’s market—are not ripe. You might need to give the fruit a minimum of three or fours days to fully ripen. However, this rule of thumb doesn’t apply to all fruit. For example, strawberries will not ripen much after picking. You need to get them at the peak of their season and be very selective about which ones you toss into the beer.
The safer option is to go with frozen fruit. Often times juices, purées and frozen fruits undergo flash-pasteurization which leaves little risk for contamination if added to the beer after primary fermentation. When a fruit is frozen, cell walls are broken, making their sugars and flavours more accessible. For the most part, frozen fruit are harvested at their peak flavour and are usually much more ripe in taste than fresh fruit. The same is true of puréed fruit. As long as you’re getting 100% fruit, you’re in good shape and will likely get a more intense fruit flavour from either of these processed versions.
In my experience, you need to break down the cell walls to get the most fruit flavour out of the fruit. And the best method is to create your own purée. Buy frozen fruit, thaw it, and then purée it. Doing so will release as much juice and flavour as possible and give a chance for the yeast to make the most of the fruit.
How much fruit should I use?
This is the big question. It usually takes more than you think. To a point. Why? Because most fruits lose their sweet flavour during fermentation. Yeast will consume the fruit’s sugars just as they do sugars derived from your grains. As a result, the more sugar you add, the more alcohol you’ll get in the final product. This is the single biggest impact fruit plays on the final product. Fruit won’t enhance your beer’s maltiness, sweetness, or body. Usually, your fruit’s flavour and aroma gets lost or significantly diminished during fermentation. Trying to make up for this reality can cause problems.
It’s a balancing act
For example, if you toss in more fruit and dial back the grains in an attempt to enhance the fruit flavours and aromas, you’ll actually end up with thin, watery beer. If you swing too hard in the other direction by boosting the malt profile, you’ll bury the fruit flavours. I’ve made this mistake a couple times (in both directions) and it’s easy to get wrong. Balance is a critical component of a good fruit beer. Which makes sense—fruit is itself a work of balance. Think of the evolution of flavour when you eat fruit. Picture a fresh apple. How does it smell? A bit fruity. You bite into it, and you get that sweet taste before your tongue detects a touch of acidity. It’s the right balance of sweet and sour. I think it only makes sense that our beers would need to be equally balanced to give fruits their due. We rarely enjoy bitter fruit, which could explain why most good fruit beers keep the bitterness in check and use low-alpha hops. Getting it right is literally a balancing act. Thankfully, many came before us and there is a body of literature with best practices and guidelines on how to use a variety of fruits.
Fruit by fruit
- Apple. Start with 2 lbs per gallon and then work your way up from there. Apples don’t contribute strong flavours, so don’t expect to extract too much apple flavour.
- Apricot. Here’s a secret: your favourite peach beer was likely augmented with apricots. Apricots do a better job than peaches at imparting peach flavours. As a rule of thumb, you can use between 1.5 lbs to 4 lbs per gallon.
- Blackberry. Blackberries are an increasingly popular choice because they can add a beautiful flavour to your beer. They require a larger usage rate than raspberries, with a recommended dose of 1 to 3 lbs per gallon. You should expect this fruit to impart its colour to your final product.
- Blueberry. You may be surprised to learn that blueberries have a hard time making a meaningful impact on a beer’s flavour. I have been disappointed on several occasions with how little “blueberry” taste I got in my final product. However, as a starting point, try a minimum of 2 lbs per gallon.
- Cherry. There’s a good reason this has long been a favourite amongst brewers, especially in Belgium: cherries blend so well with malt. While you can use the pits of cherries to add almond-like flavours, when making your first cherry beer, play it safe and remove the pits. Apparently, the cherry seed contains cyanide compounds! In any case, be prepared to make an investment in this beer, this expensive fruit works with a usage rate of 1 to 3 lbs per gallon.
- Cranberry. I have generally been disappointed with commercial attempts at cranberry fruit beers. It seems even the pros struggle with this fruit, which does not contribute much flavour. However, they can add a dry tartness to the beer, which is lovely when used well. You’ll need between 1.5 to 4 lbs per gallon.
- Grapefruit. By now, you’ve probably enjoyed plenty American IPAs that have been injected with citrusy hops and grapefruit. Done well, it’s a beautiful combination. Keep in mind that grapefruit can be quite bitter. If you’re using the peel, make sure to remove the pith, as it can ruin the beer with excessive astringency. If using the peel, start with 5-7 grams per gallon and work your way up from there. If using the juice of the fruit, start with the juice of a quarter of a fruit, and no more than one whole fruit. Once you get your bearings, you can scale up in your next batch.
- Lemon/Lime. As you know, these are very acidic and have a strong flavour. You should be judicious in your use of these fruits, they can easily take over. Like grapefruit, start with 5-7 grams per gallon if using the peel/zest or the juice of 2 lemons or limes per gallon.
- Mango. Start with 1 pound per gallon and work your way up. This fruit can give your beer an enticingly tropical flavour that will impress your friends when you get it right.
- Orange. If you’re making a wit, you’ll want to do your best to find bitter orange peel, which comes from Seville oranges or Curaçao oranges. If you’re making a holiday beer, or enjoy a sweeter orange taste, your local grocery store will carry the sweet oranges you need.
- Peach. Sadly, peach does not have much staying power; its flavour disappears quickly. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re set on making a peach beer, you’ll want to consider using apricots to augment the flavour. In any case, start with 1.5 to 4 lbs of peaches per gallon.
- Pear. Like apples, pears do not impart a lot of flavour, but they can give your beer a nuanced and refreshing taste. And like apples, you’ll want to start with 2 lbs per gallon.
- Pineapple. A popular choice, this fruit can add subtle flavours to your beer. You’ll need at least 2 lbs per gallon to impart noticeable flavours.
- Plum. This fruit has long been a popular choice for darker beers. It has a wide usage rate, between 0.5 to 2 lbs per gallon.
- Raspberry. I covered this one at length earlier, but raspberries are a wonderful fruit for brewing. This fruit packs a punch and can hold its own, imparting its flavours and aromas very well in the finished product. You can get started with 0.5 to 1 pound per gallon.
- Strawberry. This is one tough fruit to master. It loses its flavour very quickly and barely imparts aroma. It takes 2 to 5 lbs per gallon to have any meaningful impact. And once the beer has been conditioned, you need to drink it as quickly as you can before the fruit flavour disappears.
- Tangerine. These are less tart than oranges, but you’ll want to treat them the same way. Be sure to remove the pith from the peel and use the zest to flavour the beer.
- Watermelon. There is so much water in watermelon that it takes a lot of it for you to extract its flavour. You’ll need 3-5 lbs per gallon. You might think about adding the rind for extra flavour, but if you do, it will sour the beer.
When do I add it to the beer?
There are two distinct ways of doing this: when the wort is still hot, so you extract fruit flavours and minimize the risk of wild bacteria; or once primary fermentation is complete, to add as pure of a fruit flavour as possible. Let’s dissect both of these options.
After Primary Fermentation
While I advocate for a method that keeps the entire fermentation process in a primary fermentor, the standard approach to using fruit in beer is to add fruit during secondary fermentation. Traditionally, when you make use of a secondary fermentor, you transfer the beer from your primary fermentor to your secondary fermentor, and then let the beer ferment some more.
With the method I advocate, we avoid the risk of infection by not bothering with a secondary fermentor. However, when we’re brewing with fruit, we need to be prepared to use a secondary fermenter. It’s not necessary, but I strongly advise you transfer your beer to a secondary fermenter after primary fermentation is complete.
What if I don’t have a secondary fermenter?
Then you need to know when primary fermentation ends so you know when to add the fruit. Every fermentation is unique, but to play it safe, I would wait 3-4 days after you have pitched the yeast before adding the fruit to the fermentor. By then, the airlock or blow-off hose should have calmed down, signalling that primary fermentation is over. Rather than transfer your beer to a secondary fermentor, just add in the fruit to your carboy and let it sit for the balance of fermentation (a minimum of another 11 days, and up to 27 days). However, be careful to minimize the amount of oxygen you introduce to the beer at this stage. Don’t just drop in the fruit and splash it around. If using a purée or fruit juice, gently pour in the fruit, trying to make as few bubbles as possible.
This might be an important time to point out that given the volume of fruit needed, you may want to consider a larger fermentor. If that’s not an immediate option, then you may want to consider this other approach to using fruit:
Before Primary Fermentation, While the Wort is Hot
If you want to avoid contamination, or don’t want to deal with transferring your beer from a primary fermenter to a secondary, you may want to consider adding the fruit to your wort at the end of the boil. This will help break down cell walls and minimize the risk of contamination. However, it comes with two big drawbacks.
- You risk adding a cooked fruit taste, which might not be what you’re after. Most of the time, you’re likely wanting to add “fresh fruit” taste, and that can best be achieved by adding the fruit after primary fermentation.
- You also end up with a messy wort you’ll need to filter before transferring to the fermentor. I personally hate the mess, and also hate the loss of volume that comes with it.
What else do I need to know about brewing with fruit?
If you can, monitor the pH
As I mentioned earlier, fruit is naturally acidic. And for the fruit flavours to shine, you need the beer to be a bit acidic. Not as much as a sour, but more acidic than traditional beer. For example, if you were brewing a sour beer, you would be aiming for a pH range of 3.2-3.8. With fruit beers, your aim should be 4.0-4.4 (or even lower if you like).
If you want clear beer, use pectinase
Most fruit additions will cloud your beer. I personally don’t care much about a beer’s clarity, so I’m fine with a hazy outcome. But if you want to go clear, you’ll want to experiment with pectinase, which will help to extract more sugar from the fruit, which will, in turn, give more fuel for the yeast, which will, in turn, lead to a clearer beer. Start with 1/4 to 1/2 tsp per gallon
Brewing with Spices
As I learned with my failed curry experiment, brewing with spices is really an art in restraint. It usually takes much less spice than you think you’ll need. And as I have come to learn over the years, timing is also a critical component to a balanced spiced beer. If you add spices too early in the boil, you’ll lose flavour, and add potentially unwanted bitterness and astringency to the beer. While I used to add spices with 10 minutes left in the boil to make sure the spices didn’t harbour wild bacteria, I’ve read a lot of material that supports later additions. You’ll get more flavour if you add spices at the end of the boil.
Hot vs. Cold Steeping
As with hops, the steeping temperature has a huge impact on a spice’s flavour extraction. Hot steeping is the most common method used by brewers to extract flavours. The heat does an efficient job of extracting flavour. However, heat also has a remarkable ability to kill the very flavour it helped extract. That’s why many brewers will use a hot steep to make a spice tea which can be added to the wort after the boil, to preserve the spice’s flavours.
However, an increasingly popular technique—cold steeping— is capturing brewers’ imaginations. Cold steeping is a technique used when your local hipster coffee or tea house makes cold-brewed concoctions. You steep the spice overnight to extract an intense flavour without the bitterness or astringency that comes with hot steeping. You rarely want to steep for longer than 12 hours though. The name can be misleading: you steep at room temperature, not in the fridge. To avoid any contamination issues, always add your cold-steeped tea to your wort at the end the boil, so it can pasteurize.
Choosing the right spices
If you’re developing a recipe from scratch, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about the natural spice flavours that your base beer contains. These flavours can come from the malt, specialty grains, and especially the yeast. This is why it’s important to start with a base beer you know well. You’ll know it’s flavour profile intimately and can develop complementary flavours with added spices. You could develop teas with your proposed spice additions and mix them into a freshly poured glass of your base beer and get an idea of how that spice will impact the beer’s flavour. If you like what you taste, use that spice on your next brew day.
How much spice to add?
As I mentioned earlier, less is more. Every beer is different and you should brew to your tastes. But since it always helps to have a starting point, here are some generally-accepted maximum amounts for a 1-gallon batch. You will likely need a micro scale that can measure smaller amounts more accurately.
- Allspice. Use the whole seed. No more than 2 grams, at the end of the boil.
- Cacao nibs. No more than 45 grams, after primary fermentation.
- Caraway. Use the whole seed. No more than 2 grams, at the end of the boil.
- Cardamom. Ground the seed, and use no more than 2 grams at the end of the boil.
- Chile. Use fresh pods at the end of the boil. No more than 22 grams. Don’t steep longer than 15 minutes.
- Cinnamon. Use a whole stick, or half if its one of the longer sticks, at the end of the boil.
- Cloves. Use 1-2 whole cloves, at the end of the boil.
- Coffee. Use ground coffee beans, and extract the flavour in a steep. Use no more than the equivalent of 2 shots of espresso.
- Coriander. Use the seed, whole or crushed, to a maximum of 12 grams, at the end of the boil. Don’t steep longer than 15 minutes.
- Fennel. Use the whole seed or ground, to a maximum of 2 grams, at the end of the boil.
- Ginger. Get fresh ginger and grate it. Use it at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 35 grams. Don’t steep longer than 15 minutes.
- Greek Oregano. Use dried leaf at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 12 grams.
- Heather. Use the flower at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 2.5 cups.
- Juniper berry. No more than 2 grams, at the end of the boil.
- Lavender. Use the flower, at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 5 grams. Don’t steep longer than 15 minutes.
- Lemongrass. Either the leaf or the stalk will work. Limit yourself to 5 grams or less, at the end of the boil. Don’t steep longer than 10 minutes.
- Mint. Use dried leaves at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 3 grams per gallon. Don’t steep longer than 10 minutes.
- Mugwort. Use the leaf at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 10 grams.
- Nutmeg. Use ground nutmeg, at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 0.5 grams. Yes, half a gram. Nutmeg is strong.
- Oregano. Use fresh leaves at the end of the boil, to the tune of 3 grams or less.
- Rhubarb. Use freshly chopped stalks, after primary fermentation, to a maximum of 100 grams.
- Rose hips. Stick to a maximum of 10 grams at the end of the boil.
- Rosemary. Start with dried leaves, at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 5 grams.
- Saffron. You won’t need more than 5 grams per gallon, at the end of the boil. Don’t steep longer than 15 minutes.
- Sage. Steep at the end of the boil for no longer than 15 minutes, to a maximum of 10 grams.
- Spruce. Use the buds from a fresh branch, ideally in the spring. Use a maximum of 30 grams at the end of the boil.
- Star Anise. Crush the pods slightly and add no more than 5 grams at the end of the boil.
- Sweet Basil. Steep the leaves for no more than 15 minutes at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 10 grams.
- Bog Myrtle. Use the leaf at the end of the boil, to a maximum of 10 grams per gallon.
- Sweetgrass. Steep for at least 2 days in the fermenter, after primary fermentation, to a maximum of 10 grams.
- Thyme. Use fresh leaves at the end of the boil for no more than 10 minutes. Use less than 2 grams.
- Vanilla. You’ll use half of a bean after primary fermentation and never in the boil. Your best best is to soak the vanilla bean in a neutral alcohol like vodka and toss the whole slurry into the beer.