Special Ingredient: Tortilla Chips

Dipping in to put the crispy in crispy bois, this is nacho usual adjunct. (Sorry, was that corny?)

Joe Stange Jun 24, 2024 - 7 min read

Special Ingredient: Tortilla Chips Primary Image

Photo: spalnic/Shutterstock

Here at Special Ingredient Laboratories, where anything is fair game to throw into a tun, pot, or tank, we have a special place in our hearts for the adjuncts that are tasty and fun to eat in their own right—pretzels, pickles, oysters, marzipan, marshmallows, and bacon are just a handful of the treats we’ve covered here.

We’re going to add to that subgenre, now, though we have a hard time imagining anyone actually managing to brew with tortilla chips—because, if it were us, we’d definitely eat them all first. Salty, crispy, and supremely addictive, the damned things just disappear around us.

However, we must admit: As a brewing ingredient, tortilla chips make more sense than most other tasty snacks. They’re made of corn, after all—the principal ingredient in the most ancient beers of the Americas and an important one for adjunct lager brewing. It’s also one that may be enjoying a renaissance, as American craft brewers reinvent those lagers and seek out flavorful corn varieties.

Granted, there are a few wrinkles. The first is the presence of salt—not a crazy thing to have in beer, if we think about gose or michelada, but too much of it quickly hinders drinkability. It’s something to watch. Another aspect is the presence of fat—vegetable oil, usually—which might be a foam-killer, and which we’d rather not taste (or feel) in beer.


The third issue is more interesting. Tortilla chips are just fried corn tortillas, obviously—or pressed and fried masa harina—and before corn becomes masa, it goes through a process called nixtamalization. That is, the dried corn soaks in an alkaline solution—usually with lime, a.k.a. calcium hydroxide—to become something that’s more edible, nutritious, and easily ground into flour. As with pretzels and lye, that solution is also a big part of what gives corn tortillas and chips their flavor.

Not surprisingly—considering there are upwards of 9,500 breweries in the United States, and the sheer laws of probability dictate that a few of them are trying out whatever is the most ridiculous thing you can imagine even as you read this—some brewers have been using nixtamalized corn with intention.

In 2020 in Austin, Jester King released a pale lager called Hominimania, made with nixtamalized hominy. The brewery says the grits contribute “an unmistakable masa flour character to the beer, which makes us feel like we’ve done justice to hominy.” Since 2021, Dangerous Man Brewing in Minneapolis has collaborated with the local Nixta restaurant on Heirloom Sipper, a lager made from nixtamalized blue, pink, red, white, and yellow heirloom corns from Mexico, leading to subtle tortilla-like flavors. (The brewery has since made variations that feature coffee and key lime.)

Besides making it taste more like a tortilla, would the alkaline “nixtamal effect” raise your mash pH? We suspect not, since any lime solution should have been washed from the corn—but if so, you could always adjust with lactic acid or acidulated malt. What seems clear enough is that nixtamalization is not the same as gelatinization—so, if you want fermentables from your Doritos, and not just those sweet Cool Ranch flavors, you could try cereal mashing your snacks.


Yes, that’s insane, but this is the department where we take such things seriously.

All That and a Bag of Chips

What if we told you there was a magical place where a beer made with tortilla chips isn’t just a gimmicky one-off, but in fact is a special thing that happens every year? And what if we told you that magical place is called Shawnee, Kansas?

At Servaes Brewing, in the southwestern suburbs of Kansas City, founder and brewer Courtney Servaes really loves salsa. So, once a summer, the brewery hosts a Salsa Day, where the team shares a bunch of locally made salsas and—naturally—folks enjoy lots of chips and beer. Clearly, it was inevitable that they would brew something with the chips.

“Every year, we gauge which beers people liked the most,” Servaes says, “and decide which ones we are going to bring back, and which ones we may want to rethink. The Tortilla Chip Pilz is one we have done on repeat because people seem to enjoy it so much.”


So far, Servaes hasn’t added the chips to the mash. You’ve heard of dry hopping, and you may have heard of dip hopping … but have you heard of dry chipping? “If we were doing this beer as a large batch, I would absolutely add them to the mash and then follow up with a secondary addition,” Servaes says. “But because we are doing a small batch of this, we use tortilla chips as if we are dry hopping with them. Once the beer has cleared up and is ready to be packaged, we add the tortilla chips to the beer in a dry-hop bag.”

Her suggestion for a five-gallon (19-liter) batch is to “dry chip” with a 12-ounce (340-gram) bag—or two bags, “if you really wanted to hit it with that tortilla-chip flavor,” she says. “We are aiming for more of a complementary flavor, but it could easily be increased for preference.” She says she just crushes the chips up into fine bits first, but not into powder.

Your own favorite brand of tortilla chips should do the job; Servaes says they use some from a local Kansas City–based company called Silva’s. Besides the smashed-up chips, they add some fresh-squeezed lime juice and an extra dab of salt.

Here’s how she describes the flavor impact: “The base of this beer is a traditional Bohemian pilsner. It is extremely drinkable. When you add tortilla chips to it, it really just imparts a corn flavor that pairs super-well with the base beer and tastes exactly like you are drinking a tortilla chip. The lime and the salt are present but not overpowering.”

A practical tip: The chips will soak up some of the beer, so Servaes recommends going into the fermentor with an extra half-gallon or so.

Meanwhile, besides planning to brew up some extra wort, it might be wise to buy some extra chips, too. Every experienced brewer knows you need to be ready in case your supply of raw materials is breached by hungry animals.