As I was a drinking a Great Lakes Grassroots ale the other day, and then discussing the beer with my step-brother, I got to thinking about spices and beer.
Spices, of course, have been used in brewing longer than hops than have. Indeed, hops were really just seen as another spice that has a preservative effect. It seems, however, that since the proliferation of German beer in the late-1800s and into the 1900s, that the Rheinheitsgebot and its proscription of any ingredient other than malt, hops, water and yeast has dominated. Since the American brewing history mostly comes from Germany and, at least a little, from England, where spicing was not favored for their clean-flavored beers, that adding spices, likewise, is not a foundational part of our brewing history. We, Americans, mostly tend to see spicing as novelty or "doing something different or unusual"; it's weird that a beer should be fermented with cracked black pepper or coriander or orange zest or chamomile or any other number of herbs and spices that we readily use for cooking but ignore in the brew kettle.
But brewing in countries other than England and Germany have a long history of using spices. The Northern Europeans have long brewed gruit and sahti with spices such as mugwort and heather and yarrow and juniper and caraway and coriander. Belgium and Holland and France have long brewed witbiers with coriander and orange and raw wheat. Not to mention fruit additions to krieks and lambics and wheat beers and berliner weisses.
Yet, Americans see spicing not as a foundational component of brewing. For some reason we stick with this overwrought notion that spices are just used to hide brewing flaws or lack of skill. Indeed, I've heard a number of people comment about how adding spices to witbiers is cheating since a "proper brewer" should be able to get those flavors from the yeast and minimal spicing. Or, that overly herby or spiced beers are somehow inferior since you can't taste the beer through all of the spicing. And, while this should be a simple issue of balance it comes off as an attack on the spices themselves.
I'll admit to some level guilt in these regards. I've often condemned and berated a beer for falling back on the "crutch" of artificial spicing. But, to some extent, I think I was falling prey to what I mentioned earlier - the failure to separate taste and balance from fundamental concept of spicing. In other words, I was trashing spicing as a practice itself rather than the particular brewer's application thereof in an unbalanced or unpreferable manner. Because, I admit, I don't typically like heavily spiced beers - holiday ales, witbiers don't tend to be my thing. However, there some beers that are spiced that I like quite a bit - the aforementioned Grassroots ale (nominally, a "saison" but it's more like a husky/grainy wit if you ask me), Furthermore's Knot Stock, and Tyranena's Scurvy are all beers that are high on my list of beers, even though they contain a significant amount of spicing.
Of course, there is a problem in that it is possible to use spicing to cover flaws or mere novelty. Where the flavor is so dominant or out of place that it takes over, it may be time to evaluate what exactly you are trying to accomplish and the balance that you are looking for in the beer. Which isn't to say that featuring the spice can't be done - Great Dane's Tri-Pepper Pils does a great job of focusing attention on the pepper while still retaining drinkability and the fundamental characteristics of the base pilsner.
Like using spices in cooking, it is essential in brewing that spicing be balanced or the spice can easily overcome the beer. This is particularly true on the lighter end of the scale - witbiers don't need a ton of spicing to provide hints and suggestions of new and interesting flavors. Likewise, stouts and porters can hold up more and bolder spicing. Although, it makes one question whether an Imperial Witbier or a Double Imperial Witbier could be a spicebomb like Ruination or 120 or Harvest are hopbombs.