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Brewing with Peppers: Tips from the Pros

When it comes to chili beer, the options are endless. What base beer style do you want as the backbone? What chili varieties will you use? When should you add them, and how many should you add? Roast them first, or add them fresh? Subtle spiciness, or a heat wave in your mouth? We’ve rounded up three pros known for their chili beers, and while their answers vary widely on these questions, their advice should help your planning as you design your own chili beer.

Brewer: Nick Wilson, Twisted Pine Brewing Company in Boulder, CO

We use a pretty simple wheat beer as a base for Billy’s Chilies and Ghost Face Killah. We get a subtle sweetness and nuttiness from the wheat that adds some balance to the pepper flavor and the hops mimic the fresh cut veggie notes. We want to keep Billy’s pretty simple, yet give it some complexity so you can sip on it and enjoy the great aroma and flavor without a ton of heat. Ghost Face, on the other hand, is a different animal; we want to make it almost as hot as possible, but we still want a nice smoky pepper flavor to be in the finish. If you can somehow get past the heat, Ghost Face has a lot of flavor going on.

We add our chilies in the brite tank. We slice them up with a food processor and place them in a nylon bag before we transfer our wheat beer on top of them. You want to make sure you don’t pack in the peppers too tight so that the beer can reach all the pores of the peppers and pick up the flavor. The peppers sit on the beer for 5 to 10 days depending on how hot the peppers are. The flavor profile goes through three stages: 1. “Not even close” A scientific term meaning that it tastes like wheat beer and some chilies. 2. “Green tasting” The beer has some heat but tastes like green plants or chlorophyll still. 3. “On point” The chili flavor is very present and the wheat beer flavor only supports the chilies.

Unless you are adding say, dried poblanos to a stout, I think there needs to be multiple peppers in a beer to get some roundness of flavor and to make it interesting. We use five pepper varieties that give the beer lots of different flavor profiles and makes it more complex. Fresno are slightly sweet, Anaheim add some green chili flavor, serrano add a mild spiciness, jalapeños add some heat and some green flavor, and habaneros mainly add heat.

As a homebrewer trying to replicate this, I would brew a 5-gallon (19-L) wheat beer. We use classic, mild hops with our chili beers. I would say to go for noble or earthy, grassy, herbal hops to complement a chili beer. The same goes for yeast in regards to complexity; we use California Ale to get a nice, clean beer without any yeast flavor to compete with the chilies. During secondary, slice and add 1 oz. (28 g) serrano, 9.5 oz. (0.27 kg) Anaheim, 2.5 oz. (71 g) Fresno, 1 oz. (28 g) habanero, and 1.5 oz. (43 g) jalapeño to a nylon bag and add them to the beer. Monitor the flavor over the next ten days. Remove the chilies when it tastes right to you and carbonate the beer.

Brewer: Thomas Larsen, Ska Brewing Co. in Durango, CO

I think chili peppers can go in any spiced beer but I always try to make sure there is enough body to work with the spices. If your beer is really light bodied the chilies can overpower and leave you with something resembling chili juice.

When we first started talking about our Seasonal Stout program we knew a chili version would be in there. I had made chili beers using a blonde as the base with green chili peppers and always wanted to make a stout version. I looked up a few molé recipes and tailored the spices to make a combination I thought would work well with a sweet stout. I like a little heat in a chili beer but not enough to make you sweat and I didn’t want the spices to make you forget you’re drinking a beer.

We use hatch green chilies along with guajillo and ancho peppers, which pair well together. In a stout with spices you probably aren’t going to pick up the subtleties of a particular chili but they do add nuances. Green chilies are used at 1 pound per barrel and the guajillo and anchos are 1⁄2 pound each per barrel. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch that would be around 3–3.5 oz. (85–100 g) of the green chili and 1.5-1.75 oz. (43–50 g) of each dried pepper.

We add all the chilies and spices into the brite tank and filter the beer onto the top of them. We let it sit on the spices for 5 days before we recirculate it to ensure consistent flavor throughout the tank.
I have made a few one-offs of our IPAs Decadent and Modus with habaneros and extra citrusy hops and they have turned out well. I could see earthy hops with certain chilies and I think tropical/citrusy hops are an easy combination. One word of warning, chili oils will kill your head retention!

Brewer: Carlos Sanchez, Six Rivers Brewing in McKinleyville, CA

Chili beers are a love-hate type of beer. They are something unique, appreciated by true chili pepper lovers. I have found chili beers work well when you start with a light bodied beer such as a lager or wheat ale. I make mine hot because that’s the way people want it. I use four varieties of peppers that I roast before adding to my brew — habanero, jalapeño, serrano, and a mild pepper such as Anaheim or anchos. I use 1 lb. of each variety per barrel (~2.5 oz./70 g per 5-gallon/19-L batch) and roast them to bring out a sweetness and aroma I am looking for.

After roasting, I run the peppers through a food processor and add them to the kettle, seeds and all. I add them later in the boil, usually after 60 minutes along with my second hop addition. I have also tried adding them in steeping bags and placing them in the brite tank for a few days, but have found it is far better and more consistent to add them to the boil. There is also less chance of an infection.

For hop pairing, I like Hallertau or any Hallertau-type such as Mt. Hood or Liberty. These have a sort of spiciness that goes well with the beer. I’ve made chili IPA too, but that’s a whole different animal. Some people like to blend my chili with traditional wheat beer to cool it down, and people have also combined it with IPA or even my raspberry lambic style ale. The possibilities are endless. When it comes to yeast, I recommend a nice, clean finishing ale yeast like the ever popular Wyeast 1056 (American Ale). Yeast flavors should not be too prominent.

If you are planning your first chili beer, err on the side of caution. You can always make a hotter batch later or increase the heat by dry peppering in the keg or secondary. Whatever you do, don’t get it in your eye!

Issue: March-April 2015