spicy (adj.) 1. Having the flavour, aroma, or quality of spice. 2. Piquant; zesty.
Nothing encapsulates the holiday season in a bottle quite like spiced beer. Many people have their own definition(s) of spicy- so much so, that one man’s zing can be another man’s bland. To some it means “hot”, as in chili peppers. To others, it means having a zesty flavour. It can also mean that something simply has spices added to it. Fortunately, the beer world covers them all with several beer styles which can be considered “spicy”, for many and varied reasons.
Beers with added spices and herbs occupy 4 subcategories alone in the new 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines. Using their definition, these are beers with “…spices… (that) are the dried seeds, seed pods, fruit, roots, bark, etc. of plants,…and herbs are leafy plants or parts of plants (leaves, flowers, petals, stalks)… as well as nuts, chili peppers, coffee, chocolate, spruce tips, rose hips, hibiscus, fruit peels/zest, rhubarb, and the like.”
Whoa, that covers a lot of ground. Given that the base beer can be any style, you can find all sorts of (insert spice or herb here) stouts, porters, IPAs, ales, lagers, etc. These beers are especially popular in the fall, when autumn spice (especially pumpkin) and winter/Christmas beers flood the market, evoking the flavours of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners and desserts.
Of the beers widely available year round, alcoholic ginger beer has become a favourite in recent years. Many taste much like the non-alcoholic version, while others have just enough hint of ginger to give them an added zest.
Chili peppers have also become popular, as they can provide both sweet and hot flavours to anything from lagers to stouts. Most of these beers are made in small batches, and are available only in limited quantities.
It may surprise people that many Belgian (and Belgian inspired) beers have spice additions as well. As a former part of the Netherlands, with their East and West Indies Trading Companies, the Belgians began using tropical spices in their beers half a millennium ago. Although the use of spices is permitted in many varieties of Belgian beers, the most popular style is witbier (literally, white beer). This slightly cloudy, refreshing ale is made with the additions of orange peel and any combination of spices ranging from chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, Grains of Paradise and more.
Many other Belgian beers also appear to have added spice, but it is the mainly the yeast that produces that impression. Belgian brewers use all kinds of yeast strains, even wild ones, which produce esters, phenols and fermentation by-products that emulate spicy characteristics. Likewise, German hefeweizen ale yeast produces fruity esters of banana or citrus and phenols of clove and even bubble gum.
Some grains can also add a spiciness to the beer, the most predominant being rye. Look for its distinctive spicy sharpness in North American rye beers and German roggenbiers.
Lastly, but certainly not least, are the hops. In the last 40 years or so, Americans, especially from Washington and Oregon, have been cultivating hops with high alpha acids which have changed the way people have been drinking beer. These hops have the ability to produce many aromas and flavours, from grapefruit and other citrus fruits, to floral, all the way to pine, liquorice, black pepper, and other characteristics. With Belgian yeasts now being used in North America and American hops crossing the Atlantic to infiltrate the new craft breweries of Europe, there is no end in sight to whatever and/or however brewmasters want to season their beers.
Some Varieties of Spicy Beers
Saugatuck Serrano Pepper Ale
This beer is exactly what you’d think it is – an amber ale spiced with fresh Serrano Peppers. This strong ale finishes with a fair amount of heat, befitting the pepper’s rating of 15,000-25,000
Scoville units. (650 mL, 6.8% ABV, CSPC +767890, $9)
You could write a book about this 570 year old brewery located in the small Belgian town of the same name, and the man, Peter Celis, who resurrected it from the dead in 1965. Its wheat and barley base and noble hops are combined with coriander and dried Curaçao orange peels. Often imitated, the witbier category owes its renaissance to this beer. (6 pk, 4.8% ABV, CSPC +554089, $19)
Royal Jamaican Ginger Beer
Ginger grows perfectly in Jamaica’s climate, and their non-alcoholic ginger beer is famous the world over. This alcoholic version is made with fresh ginger, Cascade hops, cane sugar, and a bit of new crop rum. The ginger notes dominate the aroma, and the flavour has the heat to complement spicy foods. (6 pk, 4.4% ABV, CSPC +741988, $17)
Bangalore Torpedo IPA
Fort Saskatchewan’s brand new Two Sergeants Brewing created this British IPA/Double IPA cross. At 100 IBUs, the spiciness comes from the citrus and pine flavours you’d expect from Pacific Northwest hops, but it is so well balanced that it finishes with a caramel smoothness. (6 pk cans, 5.7% ABV, CSPC +772342, $17)