Cyril Vidergar: Pondering the Pint: Nut beer surprises abound
HomeHome > Blog > Cyril Vidergar: Pondering the Pint: Nut beer surprises abound

Cyril Vidergar: Pondering the Pint: Nut beer surprises abound

Aug 14, 2023

Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct the name of the Indeed Brewing Company.

Hints of sweet cream and blossoms on the nose; light and biscuity on the palate, the top-selling pistachio cream ale by Minnesota's Indeed Brewing Company is more reminiscent of spumoni gelato than most nut-inspired ales.

Despite the name though, few "nut" ales are made with whole nuts. From peanut butter chocolate stouts to pecan light amber ales however, exploring nut beers can be quite the epicurean rabbit hole.

No nut comes anywhere near the traditional English "nut" brown ale. Rather, their grain bills are typically all but barley malt with occasional adjunct sweeteners or mineral additions. The nuttiness of beers like Samuel Smith's Nut-Brown Ale comes instead from either roasting brewing malt to a midrange that leaves residual moisture and toastiness in the husk, enough for sweet grain flavors to softly express, or using roasted (unmalted) barley, which does not contain enzymes that convert starches into sugars for yeasts to consume.

The latter approach leaves a "nutty" grain flavor and a full mouthfeel in the final beer. Historical advertising for British brown ales also indicates use of the name "nut brown" to denote the beers’ color — like roasted nut meat.

Authentic nut flavors are also achieved by using malt roasted or smoked with tree nut wood — e.g., southern amber ales that employ pecan wood-smoked pale — Munich, biscuit and caramel malts and end up expressing nut flavors and subtle "rauch" aromas.

Truly brewing with nuts is possible, though and often used to invoke regionally associated flavors like southern pecans, northwest hazelnuts, Pacific Island coconut and macadamia nuts and Horchata-conjuring almonds.

Nut flavors are typically introduced in two ways: hot-side and post-fermentation. Randy Mosher describes the first method in "Radical Brewing" (Brewers Publications, 2004): adding to the preboil mash one ounce of finely ground, lightly toasted nuts per pound of malt. Trace oil left in the nut meal will either boil off or contribute to healthy yeast cell growth during fermentation, hopefully without affecting later foam stability.

Using the whole nut or nut butter this way risks introducing oils and residual proteins that alter the feel of the final beer and potentially lead to early spoilage. Adding nut meal ahead of the boil also contributes to fermentation trub — the layer of sediment composed of fats, proteins, hops and other organic materials and byproducts that settle to the bottom of a fermenter.

Far more brewers keep the nut away from as much of the heat as possible though, due to the potential that heat and extended exposure, e.g., a 60-minute boil, will cause nut flavors to bitter, especially with walnuts. Commercial brewers address this problem in two ways: roast crushed nuts to reduce oils, then steep them in a muslin bag; or use nut flour. Both methods still leave the potential for excess trub, though.

To avoid this parade of horribles (trub, yeast and foam inhibition, and potential early spoilage) commercial brewers like Indeed Brewing instead rely on post-fermentation infusions and nut extracts. Indeed's pistachio cream ale, for example, uses the latter, introducing a flavorful essence concentrate from the green cashew cousin after fermentation in the bright tank stage.

This method leads to the most predictable nut flavor because it allows a brewer to know beforehand how the nut will express in aroma, as well as the flavor layers it will build on in the base beer's character. Especially with light nut-flavored beers, introducing nut ingredients far from the hot side of the boil allows maximum control over the final beer.

Intrepid brewers nevertheless can be hard to talk down. And despite the potential pitfalls of whole or fresh nuts, brewers and aficionados with keen senses of taste frequently shun the thinness of infusions and fake flavors that come with some extracts.

Instead, they go bravely with nuts into the hot side of the boil. Most beers made using whole nuts in the boil tend to be higher gravity and dark, relying somewhat on caramelization of the nut's natural sweetness to create depth and drama in the final beer, e.g., Snowbank Brewing's Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup stout. Beers made in this fashion also tend to express the nut more in their aroma than beers made with extracts or infusions.

Lithe and sweet, dark and rich, craft nut beers offer niche culinary treasures to behold, as nuts create a sense of place like no other ingredient. And you rarely need to shake a tree to find one.


Cyril Vidergar can be reached with ideas and comments at [email protected].

Sign up for email newsletters

Follow Us