Vanilla Extract in Beer (How & When To Use It Effectively)

If you like vanilla in baked goods, you will likely enjoy it in beer. The question is how to go about making a good vanilla beer.

Vanilla goes best with darker beers but can be added to other styles. A great way to make vanilla-flavored beer is with FDA-certified pure vanilla extract from Madagascar. It is best to add the extract just before packaging whether that’s bottling or kegging.

Keep reading to learn how to use vanilla in your homebrew.

What kind of beer pairs best with vanilla flavor?

While maybe not as iconic as peanut butter and jelly, beer and vanilla make a great pair. Of course, just saying beer or jelly is a little vague. Just as grape jelly is the most common pairing with peanut butter, there are common beer styles that pair with vanilla.

Vanilla flavor works well in dark beer styles such as stouts, porters, and brown ales. Bourbon barrel-aged beers in particular are well complimented by adding vanilla. In each case, vanilla can add a highly desirable complexity.

  • Stouts, typically aromatic and slightly bitter, gain complexity with the sweetness of vanilla.
  • Porters, often a malt and hops intensive brew, also gain complex flavor combinations with vanilla.
  • Bourbon barrel-aged beers will already have a slight vanilla sweetness from the barrel. Extra vanilla added to the brew will create a strong vanilla flavor.

From baking to beer, vanilla is added to create a strong leading flavor or a slightly more subtle complexity. Darker and heavier beers often have a lot of flavors going on that can benefit from vanilla in the latter role.

Vanilla Extract Stout recipe

Personally, I like a good vanilla stout. Here is a recipe I like:

Ingredients:

  • .75 lb Black Patent Malt – UK
  • .25 lb Roasted Barley – US
  • 7 lb Liquid Malt Extract – Light – US
  • 1 lb Dry Malt Extract – Dark
  • 1 oz Cluster hops
  • 1 oz East Kent Goldings hops
  • Wyeast Irish Ale 1084 Homebrew Yeast
  • 2 oz Vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp Irish Moss

Method:

Once you have the ingredients, brew your vanilla stout as you would any other stout. The vanilla extract can be added to a secondary fermenter or just before packaging. This recipe will make 5 gallons of the stout.

What is the best vanilla extract for beer?

Quality ingredients make quality beer. Vanilla extract is especially important as it can have a large influence on the taste of your beer.

The best vanilla extracts are considered “pure” by the FDA. Avoid synthetic extracts as they can taste inferior. Quality vanilla will include only three ingredients: water, alcohol, and vanilla bean extractives. Sometimes sugar is added in small amounts to improve clarity.

Here are two great, high-quality vanilla extracts to use in your brewing:

The problem present in imitation vanilla extracts is the excessive use of corn syrup, sugar, artificial flavors, and other additives. These additives can approximate the taste of pure vanilla extract, but the quality is reflected in the low price.

How to add vanilla to homebrew beer

Once you have your vanilla of choice, adding it to your homebrew beer is relatively simple. However, there are certain methods you can use to get the most out of it.

There are three main ways to add vanilla to your beer:

  • Vanilla extract – Extract is great for getting precise measurements and is less time-intensive.
  • Vanilla beans – Allows greater control over the ingredients. Be certain to use high-quality beans.
  • Vanilla bean tincture – Some refer to this as a homemade vanilla extract, but that’s not really accurate since there’s no extraction. You can create your own vanilla tincture by following these directions. Be sure to use high-quality vanilla beans and liquor – cheap ingredients will give cheap results.

The method you use depends entirely on your preferences. Whichever you choose will add a nice vanilla flavor to your beer. Let’s explore how to use each method.

Using vanilla extract

The simplest option is using vanilla extract. Be wary of extract, however. It can be very easy to use too much.

The best way to use vanilla extract is to add it before packaging. Extract does not need time to be absorbed as beans do. Start with a recommended amount of extract for your batch size then add to taste.

Because you want vanilla-flavored beer and not beer-flavored vanilla, be careful when measuring and adding. Graduated pipettes are great for adding vanilla extract to small samples for taste testing.

After figuring out how much to use, you can add the extract to your bottling bucket or keg. Stir it in to achieve the best results.

How much vanilla should you add to beer?

If you love vanilla you may be tempted to say “all of it,” but some things are best in moderation.

When adding vanilla to beer, use approximately 1.5 tsp per gallon. Beers with strong competing flavors will require more vanilla. Lighter or sweeter beers will need less. You can add more or less depending on your taste. If adding before carbonating, add more since carbonation will balance flavors.

The flavor profile of the beer will have a big impact on how much vanilla extract you’ll need to achieve a mild flavor. Experiment with various styles and flavor profiles to find a ratio that meets your needs.

How much vanilla extract do you add to 5 gallons of beer?

This will still depend on the above factors, but let’s assume you are brewing a vanilla blonde ale.

A 5 gallon batch of beer will need 7.5 tsp of vanilla extract at 1.5 tsp per gallon.

As a blonde ale is lighter in terms of flavor it may not need as much, but again it depends on your taste.

Using vanilla beans

There are two basic options if you’d rather use vanilla beans. Both take time which is the downside of using beans instead of an extract.

To use vanilla beans for flavoring your beer you can either add them directly or make a tincture. The first requires you cut them lengthwise, scrape the seeds out and add both contents and pods to secondary fermentation. A tincture starts the same except you soak them in vodka for several weeks before adding the flavored vodka to your beer.

Preparation is the most important step when using vanilla beans. Just adding whole beans would probably get you some flavor, but it would not be very efficient.

The best way to prepare vanilla beans is to cut them open lengthwise with a sharp knife. Once it is open you should see the seeds. Scrape them off of the pod and collect them in a container. Don’t dispose of the pod.

Once this is complete you have a choice. You can add the seeds and the pod to your beer in a secondary fermenter. This is a good choice if your brew requires time in secondary for another reason. Let your beer absorb the vanilla for a week or two.

The other option is to make a tincture. Instead of adding the pod and seeds to your beer, add them to a flavorless, high-proof vodka (80 or 90 proof will do). Any container will do. Just cover the beans in the vodka.

This tincture should sit for 2-3 weeks. After this period, you can strain the tincture into your beer just before packaging.

How do you clean vanilla beans for brewing?

A good brewer tries to minimize outside influences such as wild yeast and bacteria on their beer. Vanilla beans can be a source of these.

The best way to clean vanilla beans for brewing is to soak them in as little vodka as possible overnight. This should be done after cutting open the pod and scraping out the insides.

It is possible to skip sanitizing and not have any adverse effect on your beer, but it isn’t recommended.  

Can you add vanilla extract to a keg of homebrew beer?

Packaging can affect what methods of flavoring and other techniques you can use. However, it does not in this case.

Vanilla extract can be added to a keg of homebrew beer. Rack your beer on top of the extract to mix it in.

The worry with adding vanilla extract in the keg is that it won’t mix properly. This can be easily solved by racking your beer on top of the extract. If you want to really mix things together you can also gently shake your keg once it’s sealed.

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