(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This post introduces the concept: Eating the Woods: Other Traditions of Spicing and Tannic Structure.)
Spiced beers tend to be looked down on in American Brewing, often thought of as a sickly sweet gimmick trotted out for the holidays. Only a poor brewer trying to hide technical faults, the thinking goes, must resort to spices and herbs. The thing is, the same person who thinks this is also probably quite appreciative of hops; but, of course, hops themselves are certainly herbs, and all beers are spiced or herbed. We can just be more or less cognizant and inquisitive with our use of these herbs and spices, and there have been many traditions outside of hops. Suffice it to say that fermented acorns can provide a flavor profile not found in your next millionth hazy IPA or pastry stout. Beyond offering the obvious advantage of new flavors, there are other advantages to alternate approaches to spicing in beer.
This question of other herbal traditions in beer is related to another either ignored or unconsciously serviced element of American brewing: tannic structure. While we tend to think of tannins as a feature of wines, tannic structure can feature beautifully in beers. In fact, I would contend that much of the craze for barrel-aged beers or beers with coffee or cacao nibs comes from the drinking public encountering the rare example of a tannic structure in beer, and going crazy with the pleasures of it.
Tannic textures and experiences come in immense variety, as well, with at least as many possibilities as there are hop profiles, and they can be put to myriad different uses. It is not just velvet or wool; it is not just grape skins. The tannins from pulverizing a small portion of the grist are a radically different gustatory experience than the tannins that result from pecan skins, are radically different than the tannins that result from aging on cinnamon bark, are radically different than the tannins that result from aging the beer on birch roots, and so on and so forth. The flavors that inhabit these tannic structures are among the most pungent and distinctive in the world and cannot be produced by simply grain or yeast or hop.
Beers with tannic structures and spiced flavor profiles are also uniformly good for food pairing. To pair well and widely, beer or wine must cut against the food in some way, either with acid or tannins, or preferably with both. That is why extremely dry, high acid, and high tannin beers, like Jilted Comrade or Cuvee Soeur’ise that we have looked at in the past, are perfect for almost any meal. In fact, I would go so far as to say sour beers with savory notes, high to moderate acidity, balanced tannic structures, and a culinary feel for spicing pair better with food than any drink out there, including the usual suspects in the wine department.
These other traditions of spicing are also a way to further emphasize terroir, to make beers more individual and localized and less nationalizable. See what can grow in your personal share of this world, and what already grows there as well, and let that give you a beer that can come from nowhere else. Especially if spontaneous fermentation (letting only the bacteria naturally occurring in the environment inoculate the wort) is employed as well as the herbs, then we are really tasting one specific earth that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, period.
In addition to adding new flavors, tannic structure, pairing potential, and particularity of place, alternate traditions of spicing give us access to a whole different type of sensory experience, extra-gustatory effects that exist somewhere between the gustatory and the haptic. I am referring to drying and warming sensation of many tannins, the textures that register in the dark and dreamlike way in the mouth, the heat of capsaicin, which is genuinely the sensation of your cells tearing apart, the cooling effect of mint, which is closely related to the numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns, the ma component of Sichuan cuisine. This other tradition of spicing gives us access to a liminal region of real sensation which is much more nebulous and particular than the five senses.
I would like to emphasize that this is not an attack on hops; I have no problem with hops, which are some of the most intense and various and useful herbs in the world. I am even working on a series of posts about the mind-bogglingly immense variety of flavors that can be implied by the modifier “hoppy.” But again, Scratch Brewing uses fermented acorns to impart a flavor of, as they say, oak, leather, madeira, prunes, and bourbon; it doesn’t all have to be hazy IPA’s with Citra, Mosaic, and (fill in the blank with some Australian variety). There are other traditions, other worlds, other pleasures, and we will look at them this month in the examples of Mam’zelle which is a gruit, Meletti’s amaro, and Mole Merkin, which is a mole stout.