Tinctures: Finding that perfect balance!

Show of hands, how many of you have created a beer, added spices or some other flavoring to the beer, tasted it, and said oh ****, the flavor is way to strong?

The reality is, if you haven’t been in that situation, consider yourself not only lucky, but in the vast minority.  Just about every brewer, from the homebrew hack to the professional has experienced the “over-flavored” beer.  Perhaps it’s to much star anise in a winter warmer, or to much rosemary and sage in that gorgeous saison.  Regardless finding the right balance with spices or other flavor additions can be very difficult, and when added directly to an entire batch of beer can result in a super strong flavored beverage that can be overwhelming and near undrinkable.

The question is, how can we control the flavoring process so that we can get the flavors we want while avoiding that moment where you realize an entire batch of beer is “ruined” by to much spice, zest, vanilla etc?

With that million dollar question in mind, I present to you the tincture.  The idea of using a tincture for flavoring is nothing new or groundbreaking.  However, it is the easiest and most effective way to control your flavoring additions in order to find that perfect balance, as well as make sure any late additions to your beer are sanitized and safe to use.

What is a tincture?

A tincture is a small mixture created using some sort of consumable, flavorless but sterilizing liquid (such as vodka, grain alcohol etc) and specific flavoring(s).  The liquid works to extract the flavor from the different adjuncts being used, while also using its alcohol content to clean and sterilize the flavorings so that your beer doesn’t become infected once the tincture is added.

What is the benefit?

Perhaps, the greatest benefit of a tincture is your ability to control the flavoring process of the beer.  The golden rule is that flavor can always be increased, but once in solution cannot be removed.  Sure, if you were adding late additions to a saison with rosemary, you could add a little, test, then add a little more until you are happy with the rosemary level, but that is a monotonous process.  Simply picture the process of adding, tasting, adding again etc, clearly their must be a more efficient way.  Tinctures allow you to avoid a lot of those cumbersome steps while finding the perfect balance for your beer and palate.

Creating a Tincture

Creating a tincture is beyond simple.  Any sort of air tight container can be used, (I use ball jars) and the only other elements needed are the specific flavorings, and the spirit (vodka, grain) that you will be using to sanitize the ingredients and create your liquid flavoring.  Once you have the different ingredients and your container, simply add the flavors into the container and pour in enough alcohol to cover/immerse all of the flavors.  While you probably won’t use all of the alcohol when flavoring your beverage you do want to ensure that all of flavors that you put into your container make contact with the alcohol to ensure sterilization.  Once the tincture has been created, cap the container and allow the solution to sit in a dark area for about a week.  After a week the solution will be quite strong, however there is nothing wrong with letting it sit longer.  However, be aware that the potency may become stronger, so be careful when adding the tincture to your test beer.

Adding the Tincture

As previously stated, adding the tincture directly to the beer each time can result in an over-flavored beer that could be boarder-line unpalatable.  Therefore pulling out a sample of the beer and adding the tincture in a small sample batch is the easiest, most effective, and most likely way not to irreversibly damage your beer.  Personally, I like to pull out a couple 200 ml samples of the beer (yes I love my beakers).  Once I have the samples I will use a small 3ml pipette to add the tincture to the test beaker.  I start by adding one ml of tincture to one of the beers, stirring it into solution and letting it sit for a couple of minutes.  Then I will sample the test pour, first by taking in the aromatics and then by sampling a small sip of the beer.  If I am happy with the flavor and aroma, then I have my ratio, if not I will either increase or decrease the amount of tincture added in the next test pour.  If I found the flavor to be very faint I may added 2ml’s to the next test jar, if I felt that I was close I may simply add another .5 ml to my original amount.   Once you are happy with the flavor and aroma, then it is time to use your sample beer to tincture ratio to figure how much tincture you would add to your full batch.  There are approx. 18,927ml’s in a 5 gallon batch of beer.  Thus, if your 200ml sample tasted great with 2 ml’s of the tincture then you would simply divide 18927 by 200, and multiply that number by 2.  Thus, 18927ml/200ml = 94.6ml.  94.6 ml x 2ml = 189.27 ml.  Therefore I would add 189.27 ml’s or .8 cups of the tincture to the actual 5 gallon batch.  By using this method you can figure out on a small scale the correct ratio and then  scale it up to a large batch without compromising your beer or having too much flavor that makes it difficult to drink.

Tincture Success Stories:

Clearly I wouldn’t be supporting and promoting the use of tinctures if I hadn’t had plenty of success using them!  I have used this method to create a variety of different flavorings to add to my beer with great success.  Here are a couple of tinctures I have created that have been successful for me.

Maple Tincture:
One of my favorite fall-time beers is my “candied-bacon” rauchbier.  This particular brew is a great campfire beer, but its name can be deceiving.  While the flavor does replicate that of candied bacon, there is neither bacon, nor any sort of maple syrup in the brew.  Instead, the bacon-esque flavor comes from a healthy dose of Cherry Smoked Malts, and the maple flavor comes from a tincture created using a fun spice called Fenugreek.  For the tincture I use crushed toasted fenugreek soaked in a small amount of either vodka or grain alcohol.  If I am really looking to add some extra smoke to the beer, I will occasionally throw in a splash or two of good ol’ liquid smoke.  The tincture does a wonderful job of creating that maple sweetness to pair with the rauchbier creating a flavor closely resembling that of candied bacon.

Vanilla Tincture:
Vanilla is one of my favorite flavors to add to a beer, especially a stout.  However vanilla beans can be tricky to work with based on their potency.  While I still enjoying adding vanilla beans straight to the boil or fermenter, I like to be able to tweak my vanilla level using a tincture at the end of the process.  Often I will dial the amount of beans I use during the brew back so that I am positive the flavor won’t be overwhelming.  Then while the beer is aging I will use a vanilla tincture to adjust the flavor to the point I am trying to get to.

Sage and Rosemary Tincture:
Throwing some herbs into a saison is one of my favorite flavor combinations.  A small dose of sage and rosemary can really elevate the flavor of this particular style, however these herbs can also easily be overwhelming causing the beer to be nearly undrinkable.  Hence, the tincture.  Rather than adding the actual herbs to the fermentor, creating a tincture will allow you to dial in the perfect harmony between the beer and the additional flavors, helping you find that perfect balance.

 

These are jus three examples of tinctures I have used in my own brewing.  However, there are endless combinations of tinctures that can be created, that not only allow you to create new unique flavors, but also dial in your recipes in a way that protects your beer and helps you find that perfect balance.  If you haven’t created a tincture before give it a shot, and if you have, you already know how useful they can be.

 

Until next time,

Cheers!

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