Brewing With Herbs and Spices

Herbs and Infusions in Beer
One thing we see a lot of is people wanting to use out of the box ingredients in their brewing.  This is awesome, and what homebrewing is all about, especially this time of year when it's time to make Pumpkin Beers, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Mulled and Spiced Ciders!  Here's some good ways to get the full utilization out of your fun and unique ingredients.
First and foremost, you have to think of what your overall goal is, and craft your beer around that.  For example, do you want a burning hot jalapeno saison, or just a pepper saison with hints of jalapeno?  Depending on your ingredients, there are good ways and better ways to pull the flavors you want without getting the ones you don't.
IN THE MASH
Although adding herbs and spices to the mash is really only effective for a small number of them, I wanted to touch on pumpkins and squash since they have high levels of starch.  Most of these go very well in the mash, as you can harness all of those wonderful enzymes to convert the starch in the pumpkins as well.  This is a tricky business, and you'll need lots of rice hulls, but still very fun.  Use a lot of pumpkin, say two medium-large pumpkins per 5 gallon batch to pull the flavor out of them, otherwise it's just a sugar boost.  Remember, too, that a big part of most pumpkin beers is the spice profile!  To see ours, click HERE!
Many home brewers will roast the pumpkin first to make it more pliable and pull some melanoiden flavors from the flesh, and this is also a great way to make your pumpkin beer more pumpkin-y!  Many recipes you read will suggest coating the pumpkins with a brown sugar glaze, which will definitely add more flavor, but I find honey slow roasted on squash is WAY more delicious!  Try it!
Herbs and Spices Ready for the Boil
IN THE BOIL
Putting ingredients in the last 5 – 15 minutes of the boil is always a great and easy way to get the essence of what you're adding into the recipe.  It's also a great way to pull unknown astringent characteristics from most herbs, like lavender or heather, and over-bitter an otherwise amazing beer.  For this, I always try to do a little background research on an herb to see what I'm really pulling out.  Also, while this method is amazing for things like coriander and fruit peels, you have no idea how MUCH flavor that you're pulling out without trial and error, so it's always a good idea to plan on multiple batches if you are going to use this method.  Most peels, where the oils are what you are trying to pull out, go in at a rate of 1 -2 ounces per 5 gallons.  Many herbs, like hibiscus, release their flavors with temperature, and go in at 2 – 4 ounces per 5 gallons.
Homebrewing Tea to infuse flavors in beer
MAKE A TEA
Making tea from your specialty ingredient is a fantastic way to see how much you need, how concentrated it will be, and how much actually needs to be added to the beer.  This method has the added incentive of being added in the keg or bottling bucket to a finished base beer.  This way you can add a little at a time and get the exact intensity of flavor that you want, and see how well it blends with your beer.  This is the perfect method for adding herb and tea infusions.  You are basically doing the same as adding them at the end of the boil, but in a more controlled way by extracting the flavor first in a more concentrated solution, then adding it back.  This is one of the best and most controlled ways to really nail a flavor profile in an infused beer.
Fresh Hops Measured and Ready for Dry Hopping
DRY HOP IT
When you make a beer, you are making a low alcohol mixture that can serve as an ethanol tincture.  Alcohol is the great solvent, and, with time, can extract just about any flavor compound from most things.  I really like using this method for ingredients like coffee.  Using whole coffee beans as a 'dry hop' can give you all of the flavor of the coffee with limited amounts of the roast or tannins.
Dry hopping usually takes 5 days or so, and works better in higher gravity beers because of the alcohol present.  You can still use this method for lower gravities, just expect it to take longer.
Ethanol Tincture Made with Coriander and Love
CONCOCT A TINCTURE
Ethanol Tinctures are amazing.  Alcohol, as we know, is a widely used solvent, and can pull and concentrate some of the best compounds out of many ingredients and make them easy to add in the keg or bottling bucket.  One of the best forms that I've found is using a clean vodka, like Kettle One, to whatever ingredients that you are using.  For example, adding the seeds and placental material from a jalapeno in a small mason jar (you want to keep your tincture closed so you don't lose the alcohol to evaporation) and letting it sit for a few days will give you an intense and capsaicin-rich tincture that you can use to add to your finished pepper beer (pepper flesh went in at the end of the boil or as a 'dry hop' to get a hint of actual pepper flavor).  Simply add it into your finished pepper beer, a few milliliters at a time, and taste as you go.  This gives you all of the power that you need to put in exactly the intensity of heat that you want!
This works with fruit peels, most herbs, and just about anything that you would want to use as a flavor infusion, as you can see by our Coriander tincture in the picture above. 
The real difference between these methods is going to be the ingredients.  Many herbs and flowers, like elderflower, hibiscus flower and sage, pull flavors at certain temperatures, so might be better extracted as a tea, although you can definitely do a tincture, or even both!
Herbal Infusion Ready For Homebrewing
DON'T BE AFRAID TO SWITCH IT UP
Because there are several ways to add herbs and specialty ingredients, don't be afraid to use them all!  Splitting your fruit peel additions between the end of the boil and a tincture addition can give you a more balanced, more complex flavor to your beer.  Even with the jalapeno example, you are literally using the best ways to extract the flavors you want.
It's all about getting the complexities of flavors into your beer, and using the best mix of methods that makes it taste like you imagined it would.  Check out our Brewing Spices section for awesome ingredients!  Experimentation is the best part!
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