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Vanilla Porter and More

Vanilla might mean plain when it comes to ice cream, but for beer it is anything but. Similar to coffee or chocolate, vanilla is a complicated blend of flavors just by itself, and while successfully adding it to the flavors of your beer can be a challenge, the result can be greater than the sum of its ingredients.

Recently Northern Brewer released our first beer kit to use vanilla, the Urca Vanilla Porter from our Dry Dock Brewing Co. Pro-Series Line. To get as close as possible to their fantastic porter, we sourced the same vanilla beans they use. To our surprise, we found they use a blend of vanilla beans from Tahiti and Madagascar to get the right flavor in the beer.

The Madagascar vanilla beans are a bit more expensive, and they provide some deep and dark complexity - think of flavors like leather or tobacco, combined with a rich and lingering vanilla aroma. In contrast the Tahitian beans have more of the stereotypical vanilla flavor to them, with bright and fruity notes. Together they provide a good deal of intensity, but also some unique undertones that keep their contribution from being one-dimensional. The Urca recipe calls for five vanilla beans in the secondary, two of the Madagascar and three of the Tahitian. This is quite a lot of vanilla, considering that a lot of homebrew recipes only call for two or three. The vanilla is definitely up front in the final product, especially in the aroma, but it doesn't overpower the beer. Let's take a look at the recipe to see what backs it up:


Partial Mash

1 lb English Maris Otter

0.875 lbs English Medium Crystal

0.75 lbs Flaked Barley

0.5 lbs English Chocolate Malt

0.5 lbs Belgian Aromatic Malt

0.5 lbs Belgian Special B

0.25 lbs English Black Malt

Mash at 156 degrees

3.15 lbs Gold Malt Syrup added at 15 minutes remaining

2 lbs Munton's Light Dry Malt Extract added at 15 minutes remaining

3 oz Willamette Hops (45 min)



OG 1.061

4.25 lbs English Maris Otter

4.25 lbs Rahr 2-row Pale

0.875 English Medium Crystal

0.75 lbs Flaked Barley

0.5 lbs English Chocolate Malt

0.5 lbs Belgian Aromatic Malt

0.5 lbs Belgian Special B

0.25 lbs English Black Malt

Mash at 156 degrees

2.75 oz Willamette (30 min)

30.4 IBU

The first thing I'm noticing here is the high amount of dextrins - there is over a pound of crystal malt between the Medium Crystal and the Special B, and the mash temp is quite high at 156. So the body will be very full, and it may be on the sweeter side. In addition, the flaked barley is amazing at providing a very full, silky, and smooth body (think Guinness). The roasted grains are on the low side for a porter of this strength. A lot of porters will have at least a lb of roasted grains, but this one has only .75 lb, and most of that is Chocolate malt, which tends to be more smooth than Black Malt or Roasted Barley. And finally, the Aromatic Malt is great at providing a little complexity to a malt bill. The hops contribute about 30.4 IBUs, which is pretty low, especially given the high starting gravity, so they pretty much stay out of the way while providing a little balance and maybe a bit of flavor. So all together, this reads like a very smooth, very full tasting porter with moderate to low roasted character for the style.

Adding the vanilla beans directly to the secondary has a similar effect to dry-hopping; you get a lot of aroma without much bitterness (in this case it would likely be astringency). That aroma is very clear in the final beer, and it really brings the vanilla to the front of the flavor. Taking a sip of this beer, I get a rich vanilla flavor first, followed by a very full body, reminiscent of a mousse or meringue, and then some subdued roasted grain in the finish. This beer would go great with a dessert like molasses cookies.

What other beers would work with vanilla? Well, a couple of popular homebrewer recipes use vanilla in a bourbon porter. Bourbon definitely has vanilla tones at times, usually as a result of the oak it is aged in, and the grainy intensity of it can pair well with vanilla. Try our Bourbon Barrel Porter Kit with a couple of vanilla beans added along with the oak and bourbon. Oak is well known for contributing vanilla flavors due to the compound vanillin, which has an unmistakable vanilla taste. Any beer that uses oak can have this flavor enhanced by adding real vanilla, so beers like Imperial Stout are a good match as well. Vanilla is used all over the place in baking, though, so I wonder if it wouldn't work well in other beers besides porters, stouts, and brown ales. Adding just one vanilla bean to a cream ale would be a great experiment. After all, vanilla is most often used in food to add complexity rather than dominate the flavor. A single or even half a bean could add something intangible to a noble hop aroma, for example.

Let us know if you've got good homebrew recipes or a good idea for using vanilla! Cheers!

Northern Brewer
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