By Greig McGill
Boy am I the wrong guy to write this article! At Brewaucracy, we try to avoid adjuncts unless they are necessary to the style. “Beer is for fun” is the zeitgeist, but we have a little too much respect for this great beverage to go throwing everything but (or perhaps including) the kitchen sink into a beer just for giggles. That said, though it may not be for me, there’s certainly no pushing back the tides of popularity. With that in mind, the Brewshop team has asked me to write a little about how to get the best from your adjunct additions. Be it a touch of sugar to boost alcohol and lighten the body or a chocolate cake in your dessert stout, there’s always a way!
You can apply the same basic principles to any adjunct you wish to add to your beer. You start by defining exactly what it is you want to get out of the given ingredient, then you apply good practice to ensure you achieve that aim without damaging the base beer. What is good practice? Well, we know we want to avoid a bunch of things in any scenario to make good beer, so when adding adjuncts, we need to be careful not to do those things. In the case where that is unavoidable, we need to try to minimise the impact those things will have on the beer. I’ll go through the things we want to avoid, and list steps we can take to mitigate the negative effects.
If the adjunct we’re adding is to be added any time after active fermentation has completed, there is risk of introducing oxygen into our beer. This will reduce the life of the beer by creating staling effects, and depending on the beer, may have a negative and quite drastic impact in a short space of time. It follows then, that the first and most obvious thing we can do is see if we can add our adjunct during the mash, boil, or at yeast pitch/during active fermentation. Any of these addition times will allow any oxygen to be scrubbed by the boil and/or taken up by the actively fermenting yeast. Of course, if you’re wanting a particularly delicate or aromatic adjunct addition that might not survive the scrubbing and evaporative effects of those various processes, then you may want to just accept that the tradeoff will be oxidation, and plan your consumption/sharing accordingly so the beer is as fresh as possible! If you have an engineering bent and are particularly dedicated, you could always build yourself an infusion chamber. This allows you to add your adjunct, fill it with beer from the fermenter, bubble CO2 through it to purge or at least minimise oxygen presence, and then push the mixed contents back into the fermenter under CO2 pressure. Technical? Yep. Overkill? Perhaps, but it’s the ultimate way to add delicate adjuncts to post-fermentation beer!
Many adjuncts we want to add to beer can contain natural oils. Many oils are foam negative, and will have a debilitating effect on the head retention in your beer. A good head on a glass of beer is vital at capturing and dispersing the full aromatic experience to your nose and palate. Just ask Charlie! Your best bet is to look for low fat/oil versions of your adjunct, or ask the almighty Google to see if there is a simple method for reducing or removing the lipid or oil content of your chosen adjunct. If not, then you’re best off attempting to compensate by using additional protein sources in your grist. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a trade-off.
On the topic of foam and head retention, protein is quite important in forming and retaining a good head on beer. If you’re making a beer which contains a lot of low protein adjuncts in the grist such as rice, corn, and/or various sugars you may need to balance this by using malts which are higher in protein. Crystal and caramel malts are good for this, but be careful to then not take the beer out of balance. Wheat malt is also good for this, as is raw unmalted barley - often available as flaked barley. Likewise, if you’re adding a high-protein adjunct, you could have clarity issues. Too much protein will lead to haze, which you may not have a problem with in these dark and hazy times we live in!
If your adjunct is an alcohol extract or tincture of some kind, this will not be relevant. However almost anything you can think of to add to your beer has a high likelihood of having some unwanted critters hanging out on it and throwing a microscopic party. Obviously, we don’t want these little beasties in our beer. Even if it’s likely that yeast will outcompete them and starve them of resources, it’s possible that they’ll hang around long enough to introduce off-flavours or stability issues to your beer. If you can, with regard to the above advice about delicate aromas and flavours, you can add potentially contaminated adjuncts to the mash or boil to ensure sterilisation. If not, consider gently simmering them in water first for a short time before adding to the fermenter or at bottling. If possible, you can make a tincture by soaking in alcohol - cheap vodka works well - as this will also do a reasonable job of killing any hitch-hiking bacteria. Some adjuncts can possibly be oven-baked to sterilisation temperatures also.
Those are the main things to avoid and how to mitigate them, but there are other considerations. It’s always worth considering how to optimise your adjunct additions. For example, if your recipe calls for a sugar addition of some type, you could theoretically add it to the mash, with the rest of your grains. However, at that point, you’re likely to lose some of it, as sparging is never 100% efficient and some will remain with the spent grains. You could add it all to the boil, but then you need to consider if it’s an aromatic/flavourful sugar. If so, you won’t want to add it too early, or it’ll just become another source of sugar for fermentation and all those lovely aromas will volatilise and evaporate away. If it’s a large sugar addition in the boil, you run the risk of the yeast taking the easy way out, fermenting the simple sugars first, and becoming inefficient at fermenting the longer chain sugars of maltose. If that happens, your fermentation can stall. A workaround for this is to dissolve the sugar in as little boiling water as possible to make a syrup, then add it to the fermenter in a few separate additions during early fermentation so that the yeast is always fermenting maltose as well as glucose/dextrose. This can make a big difference when aiming for highly attenuated Belgian styles such as Tripels.
When adding non-traditional adjuncts in the “weird and wonderful” realm, even if you’ve taken all the above considerations into account, you will still need a plan beyond “just throw it in”. In the silly example I used in the introduction of throwing in an entire chocolate cake, it’s worth noting that people have done this and worse! You will need to consider all the ingredients that make up the cake and their potential effects - chocolate/cocoa in the icing will be fatty, flour will potentially form a stable protein haze, sugar will trigger further fermentation, etc. The methods I’ve talked about above will help but at the end of the day, experimentation is what drives these sorts of beers. Well, that and a profound sense of the absurd! There’s nothing wrong with getting weird, so long as you apply a bit of thought, remember what you’re trying to achieve, and mitigate the factors that might hurt your beer.