Ask any brewer or craft beer lover and they’ll remember exactly where they were when they tasted a big flavorful craft beer for the first time. Hoppy beers in particular, were not always at the forefront of the industry like they are now and the floral, piney and bitter flavors were something that a lot of people couldn’t wrap their head around at first, but knew they wanted more. As the craft beer industry expanded, the beers got hoppier. And stronger. And in some cases crazier. And after seeing every possible style of beer come out over the years, each more extreme than the next (yeast from a beard, come on people!) one might wonder what could possibly follow. But recently, a new type of “extreme” beer is making its way into the market that actually makes sense- spicy beers brewed with hot peppers. Now at first the idea of a beer brewed with peppers may seem a little off kilter but in reality there are several varieties that have a lot in common with ingredients in beer and breweries like Flying Dog, Ballast Point and Founders have been showcasing them beautifully.
Colby Chandler, specialty brewer at Ballast Point Brewery in San Diego has definitely been influenced by the local Southern California cuisine. The abundance of peppers available at the Mexican supermarkets and specialty wholesalers has made it easy for them to bring a San Diego twist to classic styles. They’ve even started infusing Ballast Point’s own signature beers with a variety of peppers resulting in some spectacular new tastes. Colby says he looks for a pepper with a “bridge flavor” for the beer he’s infusing and has found that the similarities are pretty exquisite. For example, the green grassy flavors from the German hops in their pale ale matched perfectly with the sweet green flavors of a Serrano pepper and their “Serrano Pale” was born. It’s a perfect beer for beginners to the style because you get a lot more aroma and flavor of the pepper than actual heat, and paired with fish tacos is a combination you won’t soon forget. On the opposite end of the spectrum (get your glass of water and bread ready in advance), the roasty notes that come from chipotle peppers almost mimic the roasty flavors of the dark malts used in their Black Marlin Porter. Throw in some cocoa nibs and orange peel, and their “Chipotle Black Marlin” isn’t unlike a rich cup of (very spicy) Mexican hot chocolate. But perhaps their most well known and requested pepper beer is the world famous Sculpin IPA brewed with habaneros. Colby says that beers with a low bitterness cut pepper heat while hop bitterness intensifies it and the “Habanero Sculpin” proves that point. Halfway through the sip you find yourself thinking ‘this isn’t so spi..wait, there it is,’ and the heat on the finish stays with you for as long as you want it to.
Jeremy Kosmicki and Jason Heystek, the Head Brewer and Head Cellarman at Founder’s Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan said the brewery has been playing around with peppers in their brews for about ten years releasing small batches mainly just for the brewpub. But recently, they released “Mango Magnifico,” which is a new take on a fruit beer using mangos and habaneros. It’s a big beer at 10% but the combination of the sweet juicy flavors of the mango with the roasty spicy flavors of the pepper almost evokes a mango ceviche. Jeremy and Jason think the recent increased interest in these big beers coincides with the public’s search for more flavor in general. With a wider range of restaurants (Thai, Sushi, Indian, etc) popping up in the suburbs and outside of the cities, people are realizing these beers can be a perfect companion for a variety of cuisines. I brought a bottle of Mango Magnifico to my favorite taqueria and it was a dream with spicy carnitas.
It may be easy to write these beers off as a fad, but for years I’ve been serving bar food to patrons and as someone who goes through a ton of hot sauce, I don’t see people’s desire for heat going anywhere anytime soon. Brewery Ommegang’s latest collaboration with HBO’s show Game of Thrones will be brewed with red ancho chile peppers, and Stone just released two beers called “Crime” and “Punishment.” Crime is their “Lukcy Basartd” ale aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels with hot chiles and Punishment is their “Double Bastard” aged in bourbon barrels with even hotter chiles. Not a
brewery to be outdone when it comes to extremes, I recommend keeping bread or a glass of milk close to you when trying these as they are in-tense.
Recently, myself and my fellow comrades from NYC headed up to the Empire Brewpub in Syracuse to get in on the fun. Four of us from four different beer bars collaborated for the first time with Empire to brew a chocolate chile imperial stout that will be released during New York City beer week this February exclusively at The Ginger Man, Blind Tiger, Spring Lounge and Taproom 307. The entire brew house smelled like a wonderfully rich molé as we were brewing and I can only imagine it’ll taste just as delicious. It’s anyone’s guess what the direction of these pepper beers is going to be in the future but in the meantime, we can expect plenty more to come and on a much larger scale. The folks at Founders have even let me know about the sixteen different single pepper varieties they currently have aging in bourbon barrels, which I for one, cannot wait to get my hands on.