Used since the inception of beer brewing, beer adjuncts encompass unmalted grains, fruits, herbs, spices, and added sugars. Essentially, an adjunct is any ingredient added to the fundamental beer recipe of malt, hops, yeast, and water. Some adjuncts, such as chocolate, coffee, and pumpkin spice, provide a distinct flavor to the beer, while fruits or bacteria are commonly used to create sour beers. Others modify the mouthfeel or aid brewers in reducing costs, and many craft and homebrewers enjoy experimenting with highly unusual ingredients to craft truly unique brews.
What Are Beer Adjuncts?
The standard definition of adjunct is “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it.”1 In the context of beer and brewing, to understand what an adjunct is, one must grasp the essential components of beer. Then, anything else that finds its way into the brewing process is considered an adjunct.
There are four essential ingredients in beer: malted barley, water, yeast, and hops. Malted barley provides sugar that yeast converts into alcohol, and it contributes color, flavor, aroma, and sweetness to the final product. Hops add flavor, aroma, and a balancing bitterness to the sweet malt. Water acts as a medium for the other ingredients. Each component plays a vital role in brewing, and without any one of them, what remains is not beer.
The purpose of adjuncts is to enhance the characteristics contributed by the four essential beer ingredients. They can be added at any stage of the brewing process, from the wort to fermentation to just before bottling, either intact or infused in the tank like a giant teabag. Some adjuncts increase the initial sugar content of the wort, while others add unique flavors or aromas to the beer or alter the fermentation process. Many beer styles rely on adjuncts, although adjunct beer is not considered a distinct style on its own.
Grains other than malted barley are the most commonly used adjuncts. Brewers employ them to increase the sugar content of the original wort, and consequently, the final alcohol content. Adjunct grains also contribute flavor, aroma, and color to the beer.
Unmalted barley, corn, rice, rye, and wheat are frequently used by brewers. Corn and rice, often associated with American lagers but used worldwide, are sometimes regarded as inexpensive fillers that help reduce production costs. Other grains such as cassava, oatmeal, and sorghum can also be used in beer production.
Pure sugars are common adjuncts. Brewers have long added honey to increase the alcohol content of the final product. Candied sugar is a typical ingredient in Belgian ales, while other beers use caramel, maple syrup, or molasses. Unfermentable sugars like lactose (milk sugar) enhance the sweetness of certain beers, especially milk stouts.
Chocolate and Vanilla
Chocolate and vanilla adjuncts are popularly found in porters and stouts, complementing the natural flavors of dark beer. They provide a dessert-like experience.
Chocolate beer is often brewed with cacao beans or unsweetened ground cocoa, while homebrewers may use baker’s chocolate, chocolate chips, or syrup. Vanilla flavor can be introduced using whole vanilla beans or extract.
Coffee and Tea
Coffee is another widely used adjunct that pairs well with the dark, roasted flavors of stouts and porters. Tea, although less common, is occasionally added to beer. Both can be added as brewed concentrates or steeped directly in the wort or fermentation tank.
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruit is perhaps the most recognizable and comprehensible adjunct. It contributes flavor, aroma, color, and additional sugar, which usually translates to higher alcohol content. From grapes to apples, raspberries to pumpkins, almost every fruit has found its place in the brew pot at some point. Fruit beers are immensely popular and diverse, spanning nearly every beer style, including Belgian lambics, lagers, sours, and wheat beers.
Vegetables are used occasionally, although less frequently than fruit. Hot peppers are perhaps the most common vegetable adjunct encountered, as their heat alters the typical sweet-bitter balance of beer, creating a unique sweet-spicy profile.
Herbs and Spices
If you’ve tried a wit or Belgian white beer, you’ve encountered a spice adjunct. Coriander is commonly used in these beer styles to provide a distinct, albeit subtle, aroma and flavor. Warming spices are often used in autumn and winter seasonal beers. While not all pumpkin beers contain real pumpkin, they typically incorporate pie spices such as allspice, ginger, and nutmeg.
Although brewer’s yeast is usually the only microorganism allowed in the fermentation tank, brewers occasionally introduce certain types of bacteria deliberately. These bacterial strains alter the fermentation process, contributing unusual flavors that are often distinctly sour.
While the other adjuncts mentioned are fairly typical, creative brewers may add just about anything to their beers. This practice is especially prevalent among craft breweries seeking to push the boundaries of what is considered “normal” in a highly competitive market.
Mushrooms are a popular adjunct, and brewers combine fruits and herbs to create beers that taste like a bloody Mary or pizza. On the more unconventional side, you may find beers made with seafood (e.g., oysters, shrimp, or squid ink) or seaweed, as well as beers brewed with Rocky Mountain oysters, which are definitely not aquatic. Cake-flavored and doughnut beers exist, and there are even beers brewed with animal brains or yeast cultivated in the brewer’s beard.