How herbs and spices ginger up beer
When Chinese and Thai restaurants started serving his ginger-spiced beer, brewer Martin Barry began to think about something even more appropriate. Now, his original Gingersnap wheat beer has been augmented by a more obviously Chinese-accented brew, neatly named Snapdragon. This is brewed from two styles of barley-malt, three varieties of hop and "a Chinese blend of five mysterious spices".

Ginger seems to be there again, along with coriander, orange, cinnamon and something in the anis-licorice department. The beer has an attractively pinkish-amber colour; a spicy, citric aroma; a lightly toffeeish, orangey palate and a slightly dusty, dryish finish. Bring on the spring rolls.

Barry, who worked as a chef before becoming a publican and then brewer, tells me that spices are very difficult to balance in brewing. Root ginger gives more refreshing acidity than powder; too much cinnamon can impart TCP flavours; and the piquancy of fennel can easily overpower. Fennel? Was that the licorice flavour?

Apparently, Barry has blended well. Snapdragon is now in stores nationwide, and his tiny, two-barrel, Salopian Brewery, in Shrewsbury cannot cope. The two-year-old brewery makes draught beer for the local market, and his creations are reproduced on a larger scale for bottling at the King & Barnes brewery, in Horsham, Sussex.

These are conventional ales with spicing, rather than "ginger beer" or the stuff that goes into Scotch-and-Dry. There is a tradition of spicing ales with ginger, and its use in Britain was revived by the Gloucestershire brewery, Freeminer.

I think there is also a touch of ginger in a beer oddly named Morocco, a marmalady, toasty, dark ale made by the Daleside brewery of Harrogate. This is sometimes available in high street shops, but was created for the gift shop of Levens Hall, a stately home near Kendal, Cumbria. There are many stories concerning the brew, but the 1889 book The Curiosities of Ale and Beer refers to Morocco as a drink brought to Levens Hall by a returning Crusader.

In those days, the beer contained meat, presumably to provide protein nutrition for the yeast; today it might be sufficient to drink a glass with a lunch of Cumberland sausage.

At Maclay's, in Alloa, Scotland, Bruce Williams produces the flowery Fraoch Heather Ale and Grozet, a refreshingly tart, gooseberry beer bittered with bog myrtle, a very traditional ingredient. Another chateau beer, the Jacobite Ale of Traquair House, at Innerleithen, near Peebles, prefers a spicing of coriander. This strong (8.0 per cent) brew has a syrupy, sweet-orange character.

Coriander, too, has a long history in brewing. I recently tasted this spice in fine, perfumy form in a sherbety wheat beer called Sparkling Wit from the Fenland brewery in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire. The brewery has only been going since January, but Sparkling Wit has already won an award for being Britain's best wheat beer.

The original coriander revivalist was microbiologist Ian Hornsey who established the Nethergate brewery in Clare, Suffolk, in 1986. He wanted to brew a traditional London Mild Porter, a dark style dating from the 1750s, but at first did not dare use the coriander called for in the recipe. He eventually added it in a Christmas version called Umbel Magna (named after the shape of the coriander leaf). When he then produced the paler, amber Umbel Ale, Hornsey, too, found his small brewery unable to meet demand so moved to McMullen's of Hertford.

I am not surprised that Umbel Ale is popular. This astonishingly fresh- tasting, bone-dry, lemony, brew is addictive and appetising: a distinctive and beautiful beer. Try it with a coriander (and mint?) spiced lamb dish.

There may have been a time when no spices or herbs were used in British brewing but both ginger and licorice, along with tree-barks and various peppers, were widely used in the 1800s and 1700s. The addition of spices and herbs to confer dry aromas and flavours, balancing the sweetness of malt, pre-dates the employment of hops for that purpose by British brewers, in the l500s. Plants like sweet gale, rosemary and yarrow continued to be used long after hopped beer became common. Spices and herbs are still widely employed in the Low Countries, whence we were introduced to the hopping habit.

Among beers available in Britain, the strong (8.0 per cent) "Triple" of the Dutch La Trappe brewery has always struck me as having a coriander note. I am also sure that some of the Belgian Trappist beers contain spices, though the monks are silent on the subject. Also in Belgium, the Norbertine seminary of Floreffe licenses a commercial brewer to make an 8.0 per cent "Double" with a gentle touch of anis. In a former beguinage (community of lay sisters), the famously pruney Flemish dark ale Gouden Carolus is produced with coriander and Curacao orange peels as flavourings. They also feature in the more chocolatey Forbidden Fruit, a good summer digestif.

This combination is more commonly associated with the Belgian style of very pale wheat beer (known as "White" - in Flemish, Wit - but usually cloudy rather than sparkling). The best-known is Hoegaarden, but a sweeter example, variously labelled Student and Blanche de Bruxelles, has recently entered the British market. When winter comes, I may look for Liefmans' Gluhkriek, a cherry beer with Christmas spices; to be served mulled.

Under the German Beer Purity Law, herbs or spices may only be added by the bartender or drinker, not the brewer. I have occasionally seen the summery, wheaty, lactic, Berliner Weissbier in Britain but never the green essence of woodruff with which it is often laced.

A colleague was in Berlin recently and brought back a brew called Turn Your Mind, flavoured with the hop's close relative, hemp, but of a variety that is not narcotic. It had a vegetal, peppery, note but was otherwise a very good Pilsner-type. "How do they get away with this?" I asked a German friend. "You'll notice," he pointed out, "that they don't call it beer"

Stockists: Oddbins stocks Snapdragon, among others. Tesco's selection is mainly Belgian. Safeway has Hoegaarden. Good speciality stores include. The Beer Shop (14 Pitfield Street, London N1; 0171-739-3701); The Beer Cellar (31 Norwich Rd, Strumpshaw, Norwich; 01603-714884); The Bottle Store (66 London Road, Leicester, 0116-2856505); and Barrels and Bottles, The Wicker Arches, Sheffield; 0114-2769666)