Chili pepper beer is a popular oddity offshoot of the craft beer movement. Unlike other veg beers that have waxed and waned since the movement began – I have seen tomato beers, beet beers and horseradish beers to name a few – the chili pepper beer endures. They can be hard to find. They tend to be a one-off brew from a brewpub or a production brewery with a rebellious reputation. But, at any given moment in time, it seems that there is always a chili pepper beer available somewhere.
The good ones, in my opinion, bring the heat but not the flavor of the pepper to the beer. Do not get me wrong, I love the flavor of a good pepper but there is something about it that conflicts with the basic flavors of beer. Maybe it clashes with the hops, or maybe it is the barley. There is just something about that earthy taste of pepper flesh that does not work in a beer for me. In short, I like a chili pepper beer that tastes like a good, strong ale but leaves a nice sting on my lips and tongue. The heat increases and encourages me to take another sip to put out the building fire. A good pepper beer leads me to one or two more servings followed by something like a Belgian wit to finally put out the fire. Now, that is a nice evening of beer, wouldn’t you say?
The heat of chili peppers comes from a compound called capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin in a given pepper or hot sauce is measured on the Scoville scale. Different peppers have different levels of heat so you will want to play with a few different types of pepper before deciding on your brewing pepper of choice. Jalapeño peppers have somehow gained the reputation of being super hot chili peppers. I have never understood this but, do not believe it. They are actually fairly mild when contrasted against some other types of peppers. My favorite pepper to use when I want to bring the heat is the Habanero pepper. It certainly brings the heat although, there are a few other peppers that rate higher on the Scoville scale. It also has a very nice flavor in the flesh that appeals to me.
But, this is your homebrew we are talking about, isn’t it? Yes, okay, so let’s talk about getting what you want. Take a look at the Scoville units in various types of peppers and consider how hot you want your beer. Next, pick a few varieties that you think would work for your dream chili pepper beer. Now, head out to your favorite grocery store or farmers’ market to find your chilies. In my experience, the best place to find a wide variety of chili peppers is a well-stocked international grocery store, the kind with German aisles, Vietnamese aisles, and Thai aisles. If you are lucky, the store will have a dizzying array of dried chili peppers in plastic bags. Pick the ones you like, just one of each. If you have a gardening bent within you, go right ahead and grow the chilies you want. Unfortunately, you are probably not going to find a great variety of chili pepper plants at your local nursery. You will do well to find four or five different varieties of only the most popular types. If you, like me, have very specific tastes, then you will have to go searching through seed catalogs and seed selling companies on the Internet in order to track down just the pepper for which you are looking.
Once you have the chilies with which you want to experiment, it is time to test them out. The best way to do this is with a tea. Find a whole, dried pepper in the plastic bag you bought at the store. Get a small saucepan and add just enough water to completely submerge your pepper. Crackle the pepper and all the seeds into the water. Bring it to a boil then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes. Now you have a good tea that represents how the pepper will present in your beer. Strain it and let the tea cool completely then add a few teaspoons to a commercially brewed beer that is similar in style to that which you ultimately want to brew. Taste it and see what you think. Make sure to make notes. Do you want more heat, do you want more pepper flavor, do you want less?
If you are brewing a five gallon batch of beer odds are you will not need more than a few ounces of pepper. Based on your testing, you will want to adjust how and when you add the chili pepper. If you are looking for straight heat, add the pepper early in the boil, around the same time that you add the bittering hops. If you like the flavor of the pepper, add it during the final five or ten minutes of the boil, just enough time to pasteurize it. If you really like that pepper flavor, make sure that the chilis are transferred into the initial fermentation vessel for some “dry-peppering.” (A food-grade plastic bucket with plenty of head space is best for this. A carboy with a blow off tube is too easily blocked with pepper bits.)
Now, let us talk about the beer style. Ultimately, of course, the decision is yours. I recommend simple ales like bitter or a British style pale ale. The ale provides significant beeriness while not getting in the way of the pepper. There are plenty of other beer styles to consider like Belgian ales with their wild yeasty flavors. I have never experienced such a beer and can imagine being either horrified or completely entranced by it. I think the best recommendation is to go for beer styles that tend toward neutral or sweet profiles in order to provide a contrast to the chili pepper’s heat. Beers with a heavy hops bitterness would not tend to lend a good balance.
One last thought, despite all the planning and tasting ahead of time, you might find yourself with a blazingly hot and undrinkable beer. It is a good idea to brew a beer that is identical to the base recipe sans the chili peppers for later blending. When both beers have finished fermenting taste them. If the beer with the chilis seems well balanced then good ahead with bottling or kegging. If it seems too hot, then try a few blends with the un-chilied beer. Mix glasses of 20/80, 40/60, 50/50, 60/40 and 80/20 and taste them. Whichever tastes best, blend your beers accordingly and package them.
Chili pepper heat is a pretty extreme way to go with homebrewing. Odds are that your first attempt will not be the greatest but, that is what homebrewing is all about, right? Experiment and keep trying different blends. Eventually, or quite suddenly, you will come up with the perfect recipe. Make sure that you keep good notes for when you do and when you do, please send me a few bottles. I would love to try it!