Whether you’ve brewed 3, 30, or 300 batches of homebrew before, you’ve probably been inclined to brew a beer that’s different than what commercial breweries often produce. Classic styles are great, but, you want to do something different, something special! Enter the Spice, Herb or Vegetable beer category! In this category, you take a classic style— say an IPA—and add a complimentary ingredient, maybe lemongrass. You choose some great flavor hops like Citra and Amarillo to pair well with the added citrus of the lemongrass. The beer still tastes like an IPA, but it also showcases the unique flavor that lemongrass imparts. There are two things to keep in mind when brewing a beer for this category in competition: 1) the base beer style needs to be obvious, and 2) any special ingredients you list need to be obvious. If you brew a beer with five herbs, but only two are really noticeable, it’s better to just list those two rather than lose points because the other three aren’t discernable.
The 2008 BJCP guidelines for this category had two subcategories: Standard Spice, Herb, Vegetable and Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced. Standard S/H/V received an update in 2014, broadening and clarifying the guidelines for aroma, flavor, and overall style. In addition, the new guidelines have added a third subcategory: Autumn Seasonal. This covers the popular pumpkin and fall spiced beers that have been showing up more often, both commercially and at homebrew competitions. Winter Specialty remained the same as far as guidelines for judging are concerned.
With standard S/H/V beer, the guidelines make it clear to keep in mind the base style when judging the beer. Note how it is affected by the S/H/V ingredients. Some key characteristics of the base style can be subdued, sometimes intentionally, to allow the S/H/V aroma and flavor to shine. Balance is key here, however. The S/H/V shouldn’t completely overwhelm the base style of the beer. Likewise, any S/H/V mentioned on the entry form needs to be noticeable. When judges have to really hunt for these ingredients, they will give the beer a lower score. There was a slight change in this subcategory. This sentence was removed from the 2014 guidelines: “If the base beer is an ale then a non-specific fruitiness and/or other fermentation by-products such as diacetyl may be present as appropriate for warmer fermentations. If the base beer is a lager, then overall less fermentation byproducts would be appropriate.” (BJCP 2008 Guidelines.) This was most likely removed to get rid of generalized assumptions that may not have been accurate. Also added to the 2014 guidelines under Overall Impressions: “The individual character of each SHV may not always be individually identifiable when used in combination.” (BJCP 2014 Guidelines.) The key here for judges is to keep in mind that adding these S/H/V components is going to change the base style of the beer. When the base style is still evident, the S/H/V component(s) is/are appropriately showcased, in balance, and brewing process flaws are not present. That’s an award winning beer in this subcategory.
With the 2014 guidelines, there is a new subcategory called Autumn Seasonal. Beers in this subcategory include any S/H/V that one might associate with fall. An obvious style here, which has taken the American Craft Beer scene by storm in recent years, is the pumpkin beer. Other beers that might fall into this subcategory (pun intended) include beers spiced like pumpkin pie (which don’t contain pumpkin), beers that use other fall squash, and beers that have overall spices reminiscent of fall and harvest. Traditionally these beers are malt forward, with the S/H/V components playing a supporting role. There are certain base beer styles that lend themselves more towards this subcategory, like ambers, stouts, browns, and porters. These beers do not typically display a complex hop profile, as the spices tend to take the place of their role. Again, like in the standard S/H/V subcategory, balance is critical in this style.
If you’re looking to make a beer that’s both unique, yet classic, a Spice/Herb/Vegetable beer may be just what you’re looking to brew. Starting with a base style that you already brew well, like a stout, and then adding a couple of ingredients that compliment it, like chocolate and mint, could be a great way to showcase to your friends what a creative brewer you are! As long as your base style is done well, and your added ingredients are in balance with it, you can brew an award winning beer!