Nobody questions the basic idea of spicy food, but beer is a different story. Outsiders will ask, “Why would you even want to do that to beer in the first place?” My reply is because peppers split the difference between spice and fruit. The heat is obvious, but the bright grassy tang of jalapeño and the fruity citrus of habanero add more than just the scorch. And roasted chiles or chipotles can even add smoke to the mix.
Some brewers fall under the spell of “macho chile” culture, though. They set out to prove something by cramming in the most Scoville units, which is how chile heat is measured. This train of thought spawns beers such as Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer, which is all burn and almost no flavor. More sophisticated chile lovers recognize that the pepper’s taste is just as important as the amount of capsaicin. The challenge is to find a complementary balance that harnesses the full character and warmth of the chiles within the context of the beer.
Fortunately, a wide range of beer styles offers a sea of options to create that result. Lighter, hoppier beers can provide a clean, crisp backdrop that accentuates chile flavors, letting the fruitiness come through. Consider jalapeño pale ale, green chile Kölsch, or maybe something more exotic, such as an ancho saison. While all three of these suggestions rely on peppers from different sections of the Scoville scale, a lighter beer calls for a low-to-medium level of burn so that the base beer flavor is not obliterated. This can be adjusted by the amount of pepper and how they’re added.
On the other hand, heavier beers with strong flavors can stand up to more assertive chile character, or even treat the peppers as an accent. Roasty stouts and rich schwarzbiers work well with earthier peppers such as dried red New Mexico chiles and chipotles. A higher malt sweetness can accommodate a stronger pepper bite, as well. A Scottish Wee Heavy, for example, can support a lot more heat than a blonde ale.
The truth is that any style is a decent starting point, as long as you don’t overwhelm the beer along the way. That’s why it’s a good idea to think of your recipe as the first step of an iterative process. If you don’t hit your target the first time, you can always adjust the next time around.
Once you have a basic recipe, you have to make two more decisions: how to prepare your chiles and how to introduce them into your beer. They can be used whole, sliced, or chopped. They can also be seeded and deveined to reduce the heat. And there are several possibilities for getting them into your beer. In some ways, chiles are like hops—they contribute different elements at each point in the process. Personally, I’ve found that adding them to the secondary gives the most control over the final beer and allows you to adjust the spiciness, but here’s a wider set of choices.
During the Brew
There are a few proponents of first wort additions (pouring the wort onto the chiles during the sparge process), and I’ve even heard of adding them to the mash. Most people, though, use the peppers like a very late addition of aroma hops, adding the chiles at flameout and giving them 15 minutes or so to work their magic before chilling. This works well to pick up the warmth and flavor of the chile, but you won’t get as much aroma as with the secondary or packaging. I particularly recommend this when using dried chiles, which have a bit less aroma.
Adding the peppers to the primary will give a brighter chile flavor and preserve more of the aroma. This is more useful for fresh chiles, although it does raise minor sanitation concerns.
Adding the chiles to the secondary presents you with several choices: directly adding fresh chiles, steeping them into a spicy tea, or doing an alcohol extraction. Dried chiles such as chipotles, work best when steeped, but any of these methods will maintain the rich aromatics and flavor of the pepper itself. The advantage of steeping or using alcohol is that you can be conservative with your additions at first and see how the mixture tastes, fine-tuning until you reach the desired heat.
Finally, you can put a chile (or a slice) to each bottle or you can add them to your keg. Both will give the freshest flavor, but the heat will build up over time, so drink up while it’s at the right level of burn.
You don’t have to be locked into a single approach. You can mix and match techniques and chiles. For example, serranos at flameout with habaneros in the secondary can provide some nice complexity.
Also, remember to be careful when dealing with hot chiles—you don’t want to let them touch anything sensitive, even indirectly. Gloves are a good idea and safety glasses wouldn’t hurt.
Scottish Wee Habanero Recipe
We couldn’t mention the robust Scottish Wee Heavy without sharing a recipe. Prepare and add the habanero chile to taste.
Batch size: 5 gallons (19 liters)
Brewhouse efficiency: 75%
MALT /GRAIN BILL
13 lb (590 kg) pale ale malt
2 lb (907 g) crystal 80
2 lb (907 g) dextrine/cara pils
4 oz (113 g) chocolate malt
1 oz (28 g) Fuggles [4.5% AA] at 60 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Fuggles [4.5% AA] at 30 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Fuggles [4.5% AA] at 5 minutes
Single-step mash at 156°F (69°C) for 60 minutes. Boil for 60 minutes, following the hops schedule.
Wyeast 1728 (Scottish Ale) or White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Scottish Ale)
Chile preparation (begin 3 days before racking to secondary):
1. Chop 1 oz (28 g) of ripe habanero chile.
2. Cover the chopped chile with vodka in a mason jar.
3. Let sit for 3 days.
4. Strain the chile from the liquid.
5. Add half the liquid to the secondary and stir carefully with a racking cane—start even more conservatively if you’re worried about the burn.
6. Taste: if you want more heat, add more liquid.
Learn the ins and outs of adding flavors to your beer. From coffee and spices to chiles and fruit, CB&B’s online class _Adding Flavors to Beer _shows you how to complement malt and hops with flavors that flagrantly violate the Reinheitsgebot. Sign up today!