Last time we discussed about putting fruit in beers, so how about using spices, herbs or vegetables? How do you feel about spicing up your dark beers? Read on to find out…
First we will cover the history of the category, then take a look at the specifications of each style highlighting the similarities and differences. We then sample commercial examples of each style.
Historically different beers have been brewed at certain times of the year to tie in with harvesting times for certain crops, to enjoy on certain holidays, or to complement particular seasonal weather.
Pumpkin Ales are usually brewed in the Fall/Autumn due to when pumpkins are readily available and strong darker beers have been brewed to enjoy during the winter holidays or around Christmas time.
Breweries now tend to release seasonal beers, in addition to their year-round offerings, and these can often be darker, stronger, spiced, or otherwise more characterful than their normal beers. Spiced versions of beers are more of an American or Belgian tradition, since English or German breweries traditionally do not use spices in their beer.
According to Jamil Zainasheff in his book, Brewing Classic Styles, most of the beers in this category tend to be seasonal or holiday-type beers such as a pumpkin ale or Christmas spiced beer. However beers brewed with chillies, coffee, or something extraordinary are also included.
These beers should be as follows:
- Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer – a beer with distinctive flavor and aroma of the spice, herb, or vegetable well integrated with the character of the beer.
- Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer – a stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish good for the cold winter season.
The following table* shows the characteristics of the two styles of Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer:
|Characteristic||Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer||Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer|
|Original Gravity:||Varies with base style||Varies with base style|
|Final Gravity:||Varies with base style||Varies with base style|
|ABV (alcohol %):||Varies with base style||Varies with base style
Generally above 6%.
|IBU’s (bitterness):||Varies with base style||Varies with base style|
|SRM (color):||Varies with base style||Varies with base style
Usually somewhat dark.
The above table shows that there are no specific guidelines as to a Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer’s characteristics more that those of the underlying style apply to the beer e.g. Atwater Decadent Dark Chocolate Ale is based upon a Brown Porter so the characteristics of a Brown Porter should be applied to this beer.
The characteristics of Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beers are also based upon the underlying style though the alcohol content is usually above 6% ABV and the color of the beer is generally on the darker side.
In the following sections we will look in more detail at each of the above Beer Styles.
Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer
Commercial examples of this style include Alesmith Speedway Stout, Founders Breakfast Stout, Traquair Jacobite Ale, Rogue Chipotle Ale, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, Bell’s Java Stout, Fraoch Heather Ale, Southampton Pumpkin Ale, Rogue Hazelnut Nectar, Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Ale, Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, Left Hand JuJu Ginger Beer, Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Dogfish Head Midas Touch, Redhook Double Black Stout, Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, BluCreek Herbal Ale, Christian Moerlein Honey Almond, Rogue Chocolate Stout, Birrificio Baladin Nora, and Cave Creek Chili Beer. We decided to sample Atwater Decadent Dark Chocolate Ale and Ithaca Country Pumpkin.
Atwater Decadent Dark Chocolate Ale has a base style of Brown Porter and has the following characteristics which is slightly too high for alcohol content and too low for bitterness:
- ABV = 5.5% (max 5.4% for style)
- IBUs = 11 (min 18 for style)
This beer is black in color with a tan head. A strong chocolate aroma and a flavor like hot chocolate. Low carbonation and an oily mouth-feel.
Ithaca Country Pumpkin has the following characteristic which feels right for this type of beer but the underlying base style is unclear – it is most likely an American Amber Ale which would put the alcohol content a little high:
- ABV = 6.3%
This beer is cloudy orange in color due to sediment in the bottle with a white head. Pumpkin spice aroma and moderate balanced pumpkin spice for flavor. Low carbonation with a good mouth-feel.
Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer
Commercial examples of this style include Anchor Our Special Ale, Harpoon Winter Warmer, Weyerbacher Winter Ale, Nils Oscar Julöl, Goose Island Christmas Ale, North Coast Wintertime Ale, Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Lakefront Holiday Spice Lager Beer, Troegs The Mad Elf, and Jamtlands Julöl. We decided to sample Samuel Adams Winter Lager and Saranac Rudy’s Spiced Christmas Ale.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager has the following characteristics which is a bit low for alcohol content:
- ABV = 5.6% (min 6.0% for style)
- IBUs = 22
This beer is light red in color with a white head that lasts. A slight malt/lager yeast aroma. A prominent caramel and malt flavor. Moderate carbonation with a good mouth-feel and clean finish.
Saranac Rudy’s Spiced Christmas Ale has the following characteristic which is at the bottom of the style for alcohol content:
- ABV = 6.0%
This beer is dark golden in color with a white head. The aroma is nondescript and the flavor is just of yeast. There are no detectable spices. Moderate carbonation and mouth-feel.
Our next article will look at BJCP Category 22, ‘Smoke-flavored and Wood-aged Beer‘, where we will examine the three styles making up this category.
If you have any questions or comments about this article, please do not hesitate to contribute to the discussion below.
* Beer Styles’ data is courtesy of BJCP.org.