What seems nearly commonplace today—adding hot pepper spice into beer—started at the beginning of the modern craft-beer movement. In the 1970s at his New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, California, Jack McAuliffe largely made three styles of beer: a porter, a stout, and a pale ale. Occasionally he’d get creative and drop whole hot peppers into bottles and mark the labels with a drawing of the peppers to signify the spiciness within.
Now, anyone who has ever brewed with fruits and vegetables will caution you against this method, but in the early days, it was revolutionary. Today, it’s safe to say that most of the country’s 5,000 plus breweries have experimented with hot pepper in one way or another. Pilsners with jalapeños, IPAs with habanero, and everything in-between. The annual Great American Beer Festival even has a Chili Beer category, which in 2016 had 112 entries.
There’s a correlation between chile peppers and beer. Both have devoted fans and makers who seek out new varieties and try to create new things from established styles. On the pepper side, there are farmers and scientists blazing toward making the hottest chile peppers in a race to beat the previous heat. On the beer side, brewers are looking to incorporate these flavors but have come to realize that subtlety leads to the sublime. Some forty years after McAuliffe stuffed a pepper into a 12-ounce bottle, capped it, and sent it off the market, Matt Brophy sat down with Ben Clark at the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland, to talk about some new beer ideas.
“I have this thing,” Brophy, the brewery COO says. “I make a black bean soup or chili once a week, usually Sunday, and eat it during the week. I’m always incorporating peppers, and beer. It’s a slow cooker thing. Amp it up with a habanero or get chipotle for smoke.”
So he brought up the concept with Clark, the brewmaster, to create a diverse group of chile beers. Both being guys with a culinary bent, the ideas started flowing. To get a chile beer right means experimentation and being deliberate.
“I knew a brewer who basically when he had a batch that didn’t come out quite right, he’d throw pepper into it,” recalls Brophy. “Spicy, to me, is a broad term that has a lot under its umbrella. It’s hard to get the proportions right.” So that means time in the pilot brewery and lab. With the different beers the brewery has made in its “The Heat” series—there’ve been nine so far—they use dried pepper powder at different levels and let it sit for a few days.
When both the beer and the pepper are doing what the brewers want, the recipe is scaled up to the 20-gallon system, with more tests performed, then up to the 15-barrel system and finally to the 50-barrel brewhouse. During the whole process, brewers are watching and seeing what they should do to keep the dosage just right to make sure the heat level is neither too much nor too little.
There are so many variables, says Brophy, because they are working with an agricultural product. This is one reason that powder, as opposed to a puree or the whole pepper, is usually preferable.
It’s also why beers are tested in a pilot bottling run and a shelf stability trial in different conditions over the course of several weeks and months to make sure the final beer goes to market in a good condition. Without these, an experimental beer could have an unhappy end-user experience.
There’s a guy who regularly frequents the Flying Dog tasting room who goes by Voodoo Thom and makes his own hot sauce under the Voodoo Chili Sauces label. He has a connection to Smokin’ Ed Currie, who created the Carolina Reaper pepper, which a few years back overtook the ghost pepper as the hottest on the market. That variety went into Flying Dog’s Carolina Reaper Peach IPA because despite its heat, it also has a sweetness that blends nicely with fresh peach and juicy hops.
For most of the peppers used in The Heat series lineup, the brewery works with Thom to make a dehydrated powder that is mixed and homogeneous. Depending on the chile or the beer, the heat element is added at different points. Sometimes it’s on the hops side, others it’s right into the fermentor either while it’s young or when it’s finished. “We’re past that machoness of how many Scovilles you can get into a beer,” says Brophy, referring to the unit used to measure chile heat.
The pepper flavor should match the beer style. In 2016, in addition to the Carolina Reaper IPA, the brewery made an ancho lager with lime, a white ale with jalapeño, and an oaked ale with chipotle. Flying Dog followed up this year with a shishito rice ale, a cherry pepper gose, and two beers made with habanero: a chocolate stout and a mango IPA. The brewery also ratcheted up the heat by making an IPA with an experimental pepper that topped the Carolina Reaper in Scovilles.
Going beyond the normal stouts and IPAs was important for the brewery, as it should be for all brewers looking to experiment. “It’s easy for brewers to make a chocolate stout. You can definitely taste cocoa because the flavors already go together. I think that the challenge is in the lighter stuff,” he says.
For all of The Heat series beers, with maybe the exception of the oaked chipotle and the Carolina Reaper, Brophy says the goal was to enjoy multiple rounds and not put off drinkers who may be spice adverse—something that he encourages homebrewers venturing down this path to consider.
His advice: enjoy the trial and error in finding a recipe that you can replicate. Dry your own peppers and make a powder and then use whatever you can—store-bought beer or something you have on hand—and try the tea-bag method to get a feel for when the heat comes in and you start to respond. But always respect the agriculture because beyond that “it’s just some kind of pissing match to make the hottest beer, and that’s been done.”
And while always important, proper cleaning methods are paramount after each batch lest any heat remains to unintentionally heat up your next batch. At the brewery, Brophy says, there’s a rigorous caustic procedure on their stainless so they haven’t seen any issues there, but when it came to filters, the brewery bypassed D.E. (diatomaceous earth) filters because of the absorbency factor.
“It’s wise to be thoughtful and careful, to do a little bit of trialing so that you’re going to like the beer when you’re finished.”