By John Holl
For generations brewers relied on the core ingredients—water, malt, hops, and yeast—to impart flavors in their brews. Depending on the type or how the ingredients were prepared the resulting beers could taste like coffee, or tropical fruit, bubblegum, or spice. However brewers are now adding those actual ingredients, and much more, to their beers. This happens for taste, or to stand out, and because brewers are a creative bunch and just want to try new things.
“It takes a lot of imagination to develop a good quality beer that uses unusual ingredients,” says Tony Hansen of Shorts Brewing in Michigan. “Also, a strong technical knowledge of how to incorporate the ingredients is crucial to ensure the beer is a success. Really, if an open-minded brewer has a good palate, creative freedom, experience working with food, and is compelled to make something new, good beer will happen.” To date Shorts has found success in beers with key lime, strawberry shortcake and bloody Mary flavoring.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Jim Koch the founder and brewer of the Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams, has a wealth of experience in this arena, with his brewery releasing a dizzying array of styles with all manner of ingredients added. Recently he spoke about the brewery’s Chocolate Bock and the challenges faced in getting it to market. After the initial idea, the brewers needed to figure out what kind of chocolate to use, then would it be cocoa beans, a finished bar, liquefied? Then how would it be added to the beer? In the mash, or the boil, during fermentation? Are there other flavors that can enhance fresh chocolate to bring out additional aromas and taste sensations? (Yes, vanilla but do you use beans, extract, puree?) The combinations are endless and Koch says there was a lot of trial and error before finding a recipe that worked the way the Sam Adams team wanted. The bock eventually used cocoa nibs in a long, slow cold infusion that brought out the desired flavors.
Over the years Koch has used everything from apricots to nuts in beer. He even brewed a beer with grilled beef hearts and rosemary.
Not everything brewers come up with hits the mark, or even passes the sniff test. Brewers have told of bacon beers, or chicken ales, and banana concoctions that still haunt them.
“You can brew with anything,” says Koch. “But does it make a pleasant drink?”
Currently, Koch says Samuel Adams is experimenting with making a Braggot, a combination of mead and beer. Producers of honey, the key ingredient in mead, have taken notice of the beer industry recently and are making a push to have it become part of a brewer’s flavor arsenal.
With more than 300 unique kinds of honey in the United States, the variety of flavors allows brewers to launch complete product lines of natural, honey-sweetened beers, all with different flavor profiles, says Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board.
“Complementing honey’s sweet flavor profile is the ingredient’s ability to offer brewers an all-natural flavor. Honey is honey,” she says. “There are no other additives or ingredients used to make the sweetener. It’s made in a beehive, not in a manufacturing plant.”
Sometimes brewers even need a boost for the core ingredients, and there are solutions for that as well. Treatt, a flavor and fragrance ingredient specialist, recently released its Cascade Hop Treattarome, a clear, water-based liquid. It imparts a strong hoppy aroma and taste to beer, true to the named hop varietal.
Douglas Rash, Group VP - Global Sales, Treatt, says the company created the Cascade Hop Treattarome, “to help brewers meet the rising consumer demand for beer with a strong aroma and flavor.”
Both Koch and Hansen say that the biggest challenge when using outside ingredients is finding a way to process and incorporate the ingredients successfully. This can sometimes mean building specific equipment or using other equipment for an unintended purpose.
“For homebrewers or nanobrewers, this isn’t very challenging when dealing with a few pounds of fruit,” says Hansen. “However, on the larger scale, it can be very difficult to handle hundreds of pounds of product quickly and efficiently while maintaining a sterile environment. The ability to introduce ingredients cleanly is what makes or breaks an experimental beer.”