From chillies and chocolate to lobster and, er, pizza, brewers are happy to try anything when flavouring their beers. Susanna Forbes takes a deep breath and dives in
In the 15th century, our ale was pure. Brewed from malted barley, often with gruit, a mix of herbs as the bittering/flavouring agent. Beer with hops was
a thing from a foreign land.
But by the 16th century tastes had changed. The appeal for hopped beer had increased so dramatically that a law had to be passed to stop farmers abandoning arable crops altogether.
Today, while hops remain vitally important, they are not the only elements leading the flavour charge. Today, it seems that anything goes. Lobster and cockles? Yep. Pizza and money? Sure – Lervig/Evil Twin’s Big Ass Money Stout, since you ask. It makes the Saugatuck Blueberry Maple Stout in my glass seem, well, normal.
So is this just a fad? Are the beers any good? And is there really demand?
First off, we’re not looking at barrel ageing, barley substitutes like sorghum, or the use of different yeast/bacteria. We’re talking about extra ingredients added solely for flavour.
The 16th century saw the arrival of German Beer Purity Law, the famous Reinheitsgebot, which stipulated that beers should only contain barley, hops and water (later amended to include yeast, and ‘malted grains’, thus allowing wheat).
While this still holds in Germany, elsewhere the ingredient bill has long been more extensive. Pumpkin beer has been around in America since colonial times, and Belgium has long been famous for its fruit beers.
So why have matters accelerated in recent years? ‘In America it came out of the brewpub tradition, where they can throw a bit of everything in,’ says brewer and Hereford Beer House owner, Jonny Bright, who recalls experiencing his first beer with jalapeno peppers in San Diego.
Creative British names to conjure with include Thornbridge, Wild Beer, Weird Beard, Tiny Rebel and Siren. The Twitterverse shared tip-offs including Mad Hatter’s Tzatziki Sour, Northern Alchemy and its eclectic array, including a Lavender Black Berlinerweiss and a Marmalade & Assam IPA, and Little Earth Project, with its foraging-infused farmhouse beers.
Siren recently took over the taps at Craft Beer Co’s Covent Garden branch. As well as a complete fruit salad on the ingredient roster, coconut, chilli and cardamom featured. And coffee. My favourite, and that of bar manager Josh Woodward, was CapHeine, a kettle sour with hibiscus, raspberry and Kenyan coffee from London roasters, Climpson & Sons.
‘This isn’t something that you would ever think should work, but it does so in a way that is balanced and refreshing, allowing both the coffee and the raspberry to shine,’ says Woodward.
Every special ingredient needs to be well understood, says Siren’s founder, Darron Anley. CapHeine is part of this year’s Barista Project series, all based on Siren’s core ‘breakfast stout’, Broken Dream. Fine-tuning meant deciding, for example, whether to cold steep the coffee for more milky notes, or hot steep it to enhance the citrusy element.
Get your flax straight
Sometimes these are drinks created to fit a certain concept. Sara Barton at Brewsters created Britannia’s Brew especially for Beer Day Britain, with rose petals, heather, flax seed and seaweed to represent each UK country.
Evil Twin’s ingredients are inspired by the culture of where gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø lands. Hence his additions with Lervig in Norway for Big Ass Money Stout: pizza (frozen pizza is incredibly popular in Norway), and money (it’s a prosperous country).
For Brad Cummings, co-founder of Tiny Rebel it’s all about new ingredients. ‘We want to capture people’s imagination. So they come back and back again.’
At the brewery, everyone’s ideas count and there’s a Beer Wall to jot down thoughts. At this year’s Great British Beer Festival, the two beers to finish first..? The Mojito Sour (3.5% abv) and Stay Puft, Marshmallow Porter (5.2% abv).
Wild Beer Co’s founders Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis draw inspiration from the meals they experience when travelling, taking novel ingredients to another level in the process. Their 7% abv gose, Of the Sea, used lobsters and cockles along with seaweed, sea herbs, saffron and star anise, while their Breakfast of Champignons saw foraged Penny Bun mushrooms (aka porcini), thyme and black pepper infused in a pale, sour beer (4.1% abv).
This year, Wild Beer’s themed series of seasonal beer, Rooting Around, ‘celebrates our local terroir’. Summer is based around the cherry tree (6%). Aside from the cherries themselves, everything plays a part. The branches went in the mash tun, the buds and leaves in the boil, and the blossom – white and pink – was added post-fermentation.
Of course, with such fevered experimentation, not everything works. ‘I had a horrific goats’ whey saison once,’ says Irish writer and brewer, Susan Boyle.
Even Jean Van Roy, the genius at the helm of Cantillon, admitted to The Sour House podcast a few years ago that his Brussels Sprout Lambic, while it did, indeed, taste of Brussels sprouts, ‘was probably the worst beer I’ve produced’.
Fruit IPAs are a trend that began stateside. US Brewers wanted to accentuate the exotic fruit flavours created by the hops by adding in the relevant fruit, finding that, by boosting the acidity, they heightened the hop character as a result.
Tea beers are now a familiar sight, but when Stu McKinlay and Yeastie Boys brought out Gunnamatta IPA (6.5%) five years ago, everyone else was doing coffee beers. ‘Stu thought… “I don’t drink coffee… I drink tea,”’ says New Zealand Beer Collective’s Todd Nicolson.
Across the globe in Manchester, Marble Beers was also perfecting an Earl Grey IPA (6.8%). Now Marble has made a speciality of this genre, and Gunnamatta is actually Yeastie Boys’ global bestseller.
Herbs and spices remain a fertile area. For many, Williams Brothers kickstarted its resurgence with its Fraoch Heather Ale. More recently Ireland’s White Hag brought out a superlative Heather Sour.
Try me, I’m weird...
Generally, these sort of beers need a bit of love behind the bar.
‘The discerning beer drinker will have seen them on Untappd or social media and ask us,’ says Sam Wheatley, general manager at the Pavement Vaults in York. But for others, expect to offer more samples. ‘For those ordering from our cask range, staff will often suggest an alternative,’ says Wheatley. ‘And it’s worth managing expectations, explaining that something has been added, and you may or may not like it.’
While these offerings can mean more potential on the food-pairing front, they won’t be the cheapest brews on the bar. So don’t exactly go wild with an unknown brewery. Instead, ‘build up the trust,’ says Anley.
After all that, do beers with unusual ingredients help sales?
‘We did an event and a special menu when the Mango Halcyon (7.4%) from Thornbridge came in,’ says Wheatley. Halcyon is popular anyway, but we created four brand new dishes and the place was full. Our two kegs were gone within a few hours.’
Six from six
Jonny Bright, Hereford Beer House
TOP PICK: Westbrook Brewing Co, Mexican Cake, 10.5%
A cult beer, the 2016 edition had maple syrup, Tahitian vanilla, Valrhona cocoa nibs, cinnamon and habanero peppers. ‘Everything works here. This is a real sensory experience.’
Contact specialists like The Bottle Shop London & beg to go on the waiting list.
Jonny Garrett, Craft Beer Channel, Cave Direct
TOP PICK: Lervig/Way Brewing, 3 Bean Stout, 13%
With tonka, vanilla and cocoa beans. ‘This smells like Christmas, with the sweet cinnamon and vanilla notes. It’s perfect paired with smoked barbecue meats and chocolate pudding.’
£71.01/24x33cl, Cave Direct, 01622 710339
Gill Gibson, The Land of Liberty, Peace & Plenty, Hertfordshire
TOP PICK: Tiny Rebel, Stay Puft, Marshmallow Porter, 5.2%
With vanilla, lactose and dehusked wheat. ‘The perfect fusion of two flavours that shouldn’t work – marshmallow and beer – but do. Which is why I like speciality beer.’
POA/24x33cl, Tiny Rebel, 01633 547378
Dan Pavey, The Elgin, London
TOP PICK: Wild Beer Co, Yadokai, 13%
Sake-inspired saison, with sea buckthorn, sea salt, seaweed (Kombu, Hijiki), yuzu juice. ‘The booziness balances the salinity and citrusy notes of yuzu. The seaweed smoothes out the mouthfeel, giving both a balancing bitter note and an umami note.’
£51.10/6x75cl, Wild Beer Co, 01749 838742
Sam Wheatley, Pavement Vaults, York
TOP PICK: Oskar Blues, Passion Fruit Pinner, 4.9%
Session-style IPA, with puréed passion fruit and blood orange. ‘Citrus and mango hop notes balanced by passion fruit and blood orange flavours, and a biscuit maltiness. Works well with Mexican/pan-Asian spicy food and soft cheese.’
POA/35.5cl, Vertical Drinks, 01904 607197
Josh Woodward, The Craft Beer Co, Covent Garden
TOP PICK: Siren, Zu Lu, 3.6%
Based on Yu Lu, Siren’s Pale Ale brewed with Earl Grey tea, plus Yuzu fruit.
‘The staff pick from the recent tap takeover. The low abv and crisp yet fruity notes made it incredibly sessionable.’
£83/30-litre keg; a rare beer brewed for special events; Siren, 0118 973 0929