Article

Turn Up the Heat

Most beer styles are about balance. This is not to say that all the flavor and aroma aspects of every beer style are in equilibrium, but that there is a balance to each style. For example, a West Coast IPA would be balanced toward the use of hops in flavor, aroma, and bittering while a traditional bock beer would lean toward bready malts throughout its profile. Pepper beers can be balanced by heat either way — with so much heat that only a few brave souls can stand to drink a pint or balanced equally with the malt, hops, and fermentation characteristics so that the pepper aroma, flavor, and heat balance the base style of beer. Some pepper beers can focus less on the heat as you swallow and more on the initial aroma of the type of pepper used. Not all pepper beers are scary hot. With such a wide range of ways they can be utilized in a recipe — not to mention the various techniques of how they can be used in brewing — peppers are a really interesting and fun ingredient to brew with.

A Little About Peppers

Peppers are a New World contribution to the global culinary community, having been cultivated in Bolivia for 6,000 years then “discovered” by Columbus on his earliest trips from Europe and spread so extensively that regions on the other side of the planet are known for their use in spicy foods. They can be so mild as to only present a fruity or vegetal character or so hot that printed warnings are appropriate. Peppers can range in heat, based on the scale that Wilbur Scoville devised in 1912, from fewer than 100 Scoville Heat Units (SVU) in a bell pepper to the 10,000 range in a jalapeño and well over 100,000 in a habanero. Bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper, can be over 3 million units, but that is still only a small fraction of the intensity of police pepper spray.

Heat from a pepper is actually a pain response, not a taste. Our brains warn us to stop eating something with capsaicin (the hot part of the pepper), mistaking it for poison. In a similar way, mint stimulates a nerve receptor sensitive to cool temperatures, leading us to believe it tastes cold.

The pepper’s capsaicin is secreted via a special gland in the stem and forms mostly in the placental material (the white pith surrounding the seeds). There is some heat in the seeds only due to their proximity to the pith. Each part of the pepper has a different sort of heat and flavor. The seeds and pith material have a grainy, somewhat nutty taste while the flesh has the actual pepper flavor.

Pepper Beer Styles

One can add any kind of pepper to any style of beer. It all depends on the flavor you are after and where you want it balanced. The use of chili peppers such as ancho, guajillo, and pasilla in a strong stout, coupled with vanilla and chocolate has brought several examples of Mexican imperial stout into the market. Hunahpus, from Cigar City, has just a hint of heat to balance the other herbs, spices, and malts. Raw jalapeños can add a “green” flavor to a beer, making it suitable for a light-flavored style such as American wheat or Pilsner. Roasted peppers enhance and complement roastier beer styles such as stouts and porters along with adding a nutty contribution. Smoked chipotle peppers in a beer turn the resulting beer into a delicious accompaniment to a Mexican meal with flavors complementing the chocolate and spicy flavors of the food. Spiced beers, such as Belgian witbiers or even estery/phenolic saisons seem to work particularly well with peppers, letting the pepper flavor and aroma meld with other spices to create a confluence of something more than the original beer. Salt plays well with heat and spices as well. Think of how well salt, caramel, and pepper go together in a chocolate bar and then imagine a beer designed with that in mind. Or how about a chipotle Gose?

Craft breweries have been releasing beers with various hot pepper varieties, and in various base beer styles, to much success. On the top end of hot pepper beers from craft breweries you will find Ghost Face Killah from Twisted Pine Brewing, brewed with the addition of six different peppers including one of the hottest, the bhut jolokia. Only truly brave pepper-heads will be able to finish an entire pint, but it is so popular that it is their most requested beer, brewed every couple of months. More subtle but still showing a high Scoville ranking are beers made with the habanero pepper. Ballast Point Habanero Sculpin is a widely available example. Lower on the heat scale is Cerveza Chilebeso from Great Basin Brewing Company in Nevada, which uses jalapeños in the recipe. This year’s gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival was White Legs Jalapeño Wheat Ale from Tribute Brewing Company in Wisconsin. 

My own pepper beer that I have received recognition for is based on a strong Belgian witbier, but with the addition of roasted poblano peppers for flavor and aroma and a touch of habanero so that the drinker will recognize some heat, but not be hesitant to take another sip.

With only a few exceptions, pepper beers seem to share a fairly strong malt backbone and usually rate low on the bitterness scale. Peppers seem to blend more easily with sweet flavors than with bitterness.Pepper heat in a bitter IPA may lead to clashing flavors unless there is a firm malty backbone or some residual sweetness in the beer, but then again it all depends on what you are looking for in your homebrew.If adding peppers to a hoppy beer, it may be a good idea to choose fruit-forward hop and yeast varieties to accompany the spiciness.

Brewing with Peppers

The various stages of poblano pepper preparation — any of which may be appropriate for use in homebrew depending on the character you are after. From left to right: Raw, charred, with the char peeled off, with the stem and seeds removed, and an ancho (dried poblano pepper).

To prepare peppers to add to your beer, the most important piece of equipment is a pair of gloves. Don’t touch any part of your body until after you have removed the gloves and washed your hands. Touching your face or rubbing your eyes can be painful. An inopportune bathroom break can be a memorable if not serious mistake.

After putting on the gloves, remove the stem of the pepper and cut the flesh open. Most of the heat will be in the white, pithy section and inner ribs with some heat in the seeds as well. Most brewers remove the seeds either thinking that they are a big source of heat or more correctly, that they don’t add a good flavor to the beer. Discard the seeds. Leave the white pith for more heat, or if less heat is desired then cut it out.

My first attempts at pepper beers in the mid 1990s were exactly what I wanted with respect to the aroma and flavor, but had an amazing disappearing head. The beer would pour with nice, white foam and then a few seconds later, poof, it would disappear (the foam, not the beer; the beer took a little longer). I found that removing the shiny outer surface of the peppers fixed this problem. In retrospect, I don’t think that this is a wax sprayed on by the retailer or farmer for beauty or protection, and research has shown that less than 20% of tested peppers have trace amounts of pesticides. It could be a natural shine. Removing it by roasting was my solution and this had the added benefit of a resulting roast pepper flavor and aroma. You could also wash the shiny surface with some alcohol, such as vodka.

Peppers can be added at any point in the brewing process, even in the mash, although my experiments with this resulted in very little character, either in heat, flavor, or aroma.

Some brewers will deseed, devein, and toss the peppers in at the end of the boil to pasteurize them. Carlos Sanchez, Head Brewer at Six Rivers Brewing in Northern California, roasts and then chops the entire pepper — seeds and all — in a blender before tossing them into the kettle at the end of the boil. This assures him that no bacteria from the pods will survive into the beer. He brews a pepper beer once a month and particularly likes habaneros in an American wheat beer.

Others add them post-fermentation as more of a “dry pepper” addition. I have found that you get more bang for your buck as to flavor, aroma, and heat with these cold-side additions. As with dry hopping, this accentuates the pepper aroma. It is important in this case not to rely entirely on the alcohol in the finished beer to neutralize any potential bacteria that may be on the skin of the pepper. If adding them post-boil, it is safer to either roast the peppers or to sterilize them with some alcohol. Marc O’Brien, Head Brewer at Tribute Brewing Company washes his jalapeños in a brewing cleanser and then soaks them in sanitizer before adding them to the fermenter. I had never heard of this preparation method, but if you are concerned about infections then it shouldn’t hurt anything to do it.

Still others will go a bit further and roast the peppers, rinse off the char, and add them right to the keg. When I do this I like to pasteurize the peppers in the toaster oven for a few minutes at 200 °F (93 °C), although after roasting there is little chance of any bacteria being present. I just like to be sure. Leaving the peppers in a keg of beer does not seem to be detrimental to the flavor over time. All the heat will be extracted after a week or so and once that happens the beer will not subsequently get progressively hotter as it is consumed. I have left peppers in a keg for months with no off flavors while the beer was on tap. Keep in mind that peppers contain a small amount of residual sugar, which could lead to more carbonation than intended.

My own experience with different types of chili peppers is that the flavors drastically change when roasted or smoked with the resulting peppers gaining a nutty flavor along with the smokiness. I have been told that in the American Southwest during the autumn pepper harvest season, the air is thick with the smell of roasting chilis. Roadside stands and even grocery stores will set up drum roasters outside to prepare the chilies. That’s the aroma I want in my pepper beer.

Peppers can vary in heat level even within the variety. Sometimes a poblano pepper is very mild and the one next to it in the bin at the market is much hotter. This sometimes has to do with ripeness, as the riper a pepper is the hotter it is. Serranos will turn from green to red or yellow as they mature, so the red ones usually pack more heat than the fresher green ones. The opposite may hold true with Hatch chilies as the ripe red peppers have a sweeter, earthier profile.

Wayne Wambles, Head Brewer at Cigar City in Tampa, Florida, has added dried peppers after fermentation with no treatment, but in my opinion it may be safer to include a short pasteurizing step or alcohol soak before hand.  On a recent trip to my local Latin supermarket I found several dried pepper varieties on the shelf, marked by heat intensity: Mild ancho and pasilla, medium guajillo, and very hot morita and arbol peppers were all available for purchase. These dried peppers, used in similar ways as fresh or roasted peppers, work quite well in beers also.

Adding the peppers after fermentation is a safe way to add heat if you have time. Add the number and type that you think will give you the result you are looking for and wait three or four days. If a sample shows the need for more heat, flavor, or aroma, add the appropriate type of peppers to accomplish that goal. If more roasty aroma is needed, add some chipotles; if it needs more heat, add some habanero or scotch bonnet. If you are looking for more fresh pepper flavor, add green chilis of the type you like.

Because the resulting heat in the above methods is difficult to measure until after the additions due to variability in the peppers, another method is to soak the peppers in ethanol and then dose the beer with that liquid extract. This can be scaled up by measuring the amount added to a pint and then calculating the amount needed for the whole batch. Soak the pepper in vodka or your other favorite clean alcohol for a few days and sample it in a pint of beer a drop at a time. For added complexity use a more flavorful alcohol such as Bourbon or Scotch, but be careful not to make a boilermaker (unless of course that’s what you want). A liqueur I particularly like in cocktails, Ancho Reyes, may be fairly easy to make at home with this method. Alternatively, as a time saver it could be purchased and used to spike your homebrew.

To find out what effect a hot chili will add to a particular beer, try dosing a glass of the beer with a dash of hot sauce. Using a type of hot sauce that lists little to no vinegar in the ingredients will provide the best results. This method may not be the best for dosing an entire batch due to the loss of clarity and head retention, but it can give you an idea of how a variety of pepper will taste in a glass of your homebrew. Besides that, it’s fun!

The amount and type of peppers affects the aroma, the flavor, and the heat level of the resulting beer. Using three poblano peppers in 5 gallons (19 L) will add the appropriate aroma and flavor in a lighter style of beer, but usually lacks the punch of heat. Half a habanero or a dried roasted anchochile will remedy this.

One other thing to note, soaking hot peppers in alcohol will decrease but not eliminate the heat from the peppers. A friend of mine soaked a ghost pepper in a bottle of his sweet mead for several months and thinking that all the heat had been transferred into the liquid, he ate the pepper. His recovery was not immediate.

Get Creative with Recipes

I once had a pepper beer while judging a homebrew competition that had a small pepper in each bottle, curiously treated to remove all the heat, leaving only the flavor of a Thai chili. It resulted in more of a novelty than a new beer. Soaking hot peppers in an acidic liquid such as lemon juice removes some of the heat, but not all. An experiment by Epicurious found that lemon-lime soda removed all the heat from a pepper, but it also removed a lot of the flavor as well, making a cayenne pepper taste like a bell pepper. This seems like a waste of a good pepper to me, unless of course you like hot lemon-lime soda.

It is possible to completely remove the heat by diluting and loosening the capsaicin in the blisters of the walls by rubbing it and then rinsing it off with an alcohol soak. This may give an idea of the actual flavor of the pepper without its heat.

Another sub-style of beer that has caught on in the craft beer world and among homebrewers in recent years are molé-inspired beers. Think of the long list of ingredients in a Mexican molé sauce with the chocolate, nuttiness, and umami as well as pepper and work that into your homebrew recipe. Sean Paxton, the Homebrew Chef, collaborated with Ten Barrel Brewing to make Sexy Mexy, an imperial milk stout with cinnamon, lactose, dos de leche, and then anchos added in the secondary. He points out that these chilis add a leather flavor and a bit of cherry when added and finds that heat should be considered one of the actual flavors of a beer in addition to sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. He adds that the temperature of the beer at serving directly affects its heat level, noting that it will get progressively hotter as the beer warms.

It all comes back to the balance of the beer. Light beers, both in color and strength, make a good background for both heavy and mild pepper heat. These styles allow the pepper flavors to be the star while the other beer flavors lend supporting roles or, just the opposite, they can let all the flavors play together as one. More aggressive styles, such as stronger ales or those with more complex malt profiles can stand up to and complement stronger pepper flavors and heat without distracting too much from the base style.

Ultimately, you can put any variety of pepper in any style of beer at any point in the process. It all depends on what you want. Just go slowly. You can always add more later.

Pepper Recipes

Poblano Wit

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.064  FG = 1.012
IBU = 15  SRM = 4  ABV = 6.6%

I’ve made this beer over a dozen times and most of the time it wins its category in competitions. It has two Best of Show trophies from the Pepper Extravaganza Competition in Florida, plus a Great American Beer Festival gold medal as the Pro-Am entry in 2013 with Cigar City Brewing Company.

Ingredients
6 lbs. (2.7 kg) Weyermann Pils malt
6 lbs. (2.7 kg) Weyermann light wheat malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) flaked oats
2 quarts (2 L) rice hulls
4 AAU Cascade hops (60 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Indian coriander (10 min.)
0.5 oz. (14 g) dried chamomile flowers (10 min.)
1 oz. (28 g) grapefruit zest (10 min.)
3 poblano peppers (about 7 oz./200 g raw, or 4 oz./113 g treated, per instructions) 
1⁄2 habanero pepper 
Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier) or White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit Ale) or
Mangrove Jack’s M21 (Belgian Wit) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash the grains at 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes together with 0.5 oz. (14 g) calcium chloride and the rice hulls for easier lautering. Although the rice hulls may not be necessary in some systems, it is good insurance in a fly sparge rig. 

Collect the wort and boil for 60 minutes, adding the hops at the start of the boil. At ten minutes left in the boil add the coriander, citrus zest, and chamomile. Chill to 65 °F (18 °C) and pitch the yeast. Ferment until specific gravity is unchanged for three days. 

When final gravity is reached it is time to prepare the peppers. Roast the peppers over an open flame until all of the outer surface is charred black. Set them aside, covered and allow them to steam until cool enough to handle. Remove the charred surface, cut off the stem and remove the placenta and seeds, then cut them into strips lengthwise and heat them in an oven for 10 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C). Once cool, add the peppers to the beer and rest for 5 to 7 days before packaging or add them directly to the keg in a hop sack or large tea strainer. Carbonate to about 2.5 volumes of CO2.

Poblano Wit

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.064  FG = 1.012
IBU = 15  SRM = 4  ABV = 6.6%

Ingredients
6 lbs. (2.7 kg) wheat dried malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Pilsner malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) flaked oats
4 AAU Cascade hops (60 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Indian coriander (10 min.)
0.5 oz. (14 g) dried chamomile flowers (10 min.)
1 oz. (28 g) grapefruit zest (10 min.)
3 poblano peppers (about 7 oz./200 g raw, or 4 oz./113 g treated, per instructions) 
1⁄2 habanero pepper 
Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier) or White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit Ale) or
Mangrove Jack’s M21 (Belgian Wit) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Place the grains in a large grain bag. Mash the grains in 3 qts (2.8 L) water at 152 °F (67 °C) for 45 minutes with 0.5 oz. (14 g) of calcium chloride. After 45 minutes, wash the grains with 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water. Top off the kettle to 6 gallons (23 L) and stir in the dried malt extract while off heat.  Once all the extract is dissolved, bring the wort to a boil. 

Collect the wort and boil for 60 minutes, adding the hops at the start of the boil. At ten minutes left in the boil add the coriander, citrus zest, and chamomile. Chill to 65 °F (18 °C) and pitch the yeast. Ferment until specific gravity is unchanged for three days. 

Follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe instructions.

Tribute Brewing Co.’s White Legs Jalapeño Wheat clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.052  FG = 1.010
IBU = 16  SRM = 3  ABV = 5.5%

This recipe was designed and brewed by Marc O’Brien at Tribute Brewing Co., Eagle River, Wisconsin. It won a gold medal at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival in the “Chili Beer” category. The spring seasonal is described by the brewer as “A clean, refreshing wheat ale with jalapeños added post-fermentation. Lightly carbonated to allow the pepper flavor to come through.”

Ingredients
5.25 lbs (2.4 kg) Superior Pilsen malt
5.25 lbs. (2.4 kg) Canada Malting wheat malt
3.25 AAU Summit hops (60 min.) (0.2 oz./5.7 g at 16.6% alpha acids)
10 oz. (283 g) jalapeño pepper
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or SafAle US-05 yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Try to keep the chloride-to-sulfate ratio at 2:1. Mash the grains at 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes. Sparge and collect the wort, boil for 60 minutes, adding the hops at the beginning of the boil. 

Cool and ferment at 65 °F (18 °C) until specific gravity is unchanged for three days. Prepare the raw peppers by soaking them in brewery cleaner then sanitizing, removing tops, cutting in half, and removing the pith of some jalapeño halves to control the heat as desired. Add the prepared peppers after primary fermentation is complete.  When the desired flavor, aroma and heat level is reached (between three and seven days), package either in a keg to about 2.5 volumes of CO2 or in bottles with corn sugar.

Tribute Brewing Co.’s White Legs Jalapeño Wheat clone

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.052  FG = 1.010
IBU = 16.2  SRM = 4  ABV = 5.5%

Ingredients

5.75 lbs (2.6 kg) wheat dried malt extract
3.25 AAU Summit hops (60 min.) (0.2 oz./5.7 g at 16.6% alpha acids)
10 oz. (283 g) jalapeño pepper
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or SafAle US-05 yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Starting with 5 gallons (19 L) of water that has a chloride-to-sulfate ratio at 2:1, heat to 180 °F (82 °C) then remove from heat. Stir in the dried malt extract until the extract is fully dissolved. Return wort to heat and bring up to a boil. Add the hops and boil for 60 minutes. 

Cool to yeast-pitching temperature and transfer wort to fermenter. Top off fermenter to 5 gallons (19 L) and ferment at 65 °F (18 °C) until specific gravity is unchanged for three days. Prepare the raw peppers by soaking them in brewery cleaner then sanitizing, removing tops, cutting in half, and removing the pith of some jalapeño halves to control the heat as desired. Add the prepared peppers after primary fermentation is complete.  When the desired flavor, aroma and heat level is reached (between three and seven days), package either in a keg to about 2.5 volumes of CO2 or in bottles with corn sugar.

HolaMolé

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.080  FG = 1.016
IBU = 77  SRM = 36  ABV = 8.4%

The grain bill is a variation on Denny Conn’s proven Imperial Porter recipe. The hop schedule was chosen for a citrus and mint character, while the spices and peppers were chosen to mimic the flavor of Mexican molé sauce.

Ingredients
10.5 lbs. (4.8 kg) North American pale malt
2.5 lbs. (1.1 kg) Weyermann Munich II malt (9 °L)
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) Crisp brown malt (65 °L)
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Crisp pale chocolate malt (225 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Crisp crystal malt (120 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Crisp crystal malt (45 °L)
15.8 AAU El Dorado hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 15.8% alpha acids)
19.8 AAU Northern Brewer hops (10 min.) (2 oz./56 g at 9.9% alpha acids)
1 Whirlfloc tablet (20 min.)
1 small cinnamon stick (~0.1 oz./3 g)
4 oz. (113 g) Ecuadorian cocao nibs (crushed)
0.5 lb. (225 g) crushed almonds (raw or toasted)
4 ancho chilies
Wyeast 1450 (Denny’s Favorite 50 Ale) or another American ale yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash the grains together at 153 °F (67 °C) for an hour, then sparge the grains and collect wort. 

Boil for 60 minutes. Add hops and Whirfloc as indicated. After the boil, chill to 65 °F (18 °C), aerate, and pitch yeast. Ferment until completion (specific gravity unchanged for three days). Between day three and day seven of fermentation, pasteurize the peppers by baking in a toaster oven for two minutes at 150 °F (66 °C). Let the peppers cool and then add all the spices, herbs, and peppers to the fermenter. Sample for spiciness level and adjust to taste. When fermentation is complete, keg or bottle condition to 2.5 volumes of CO2

HolaMolé

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.080  FG = 1.016
IBU = 77  SRM = 36  ABV = 8.4%

Ingredients
3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg) extra light dried malt extract
3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) Munich liquid malt extract
1.5 lbs. (4.8 kg) North American pale malt
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) Crisp brown malt (65 °L)
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Crisp pale chocolate malt (225 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Crisp crystal malt (120 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Crisp crystal malt (45 °L)
15.8 AAU El Dorado hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 15.8% alpha acids)
19.8 AAU Northern Brewer hops (10 min.) (2 oz./56 g at 9.9% alpha acids)
1 Whirlfloc tablet (20 min.)
1 small cinnamon stick (~0.1 oz./3 g)
4 oz. (113 g) Ecuadorian cocao nibs (crushed)
0.5 lb. (225 g) crushed almonds (raw or toasted)
4 ancho chilies
Wyeast 1450 (Denny’s Favorite 50 Ale) or another American ale yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash the pale malt and the brown malt in 2 gallons (7.6 L) of water at 153 °F (67 °C) for 45 minutes. Add the pale chocolate and crystal malts and hold for 15 minutes. Sparge the grains with 1.5 gallons (5.7 L) of hot water. Top off the kettle to 6 gallons then stir in the two malt extracts. Stir until completely dissolved, then bring wort to a boil. 

Boil for 60 minutes. Add hops and Whirfloc as indicated. After the boil, chill to 65 °F (18 °C), aerate, and pitch yeast. Ferment until completion (specific gravity unchanged for three days). Between day three and day seven of fermentation, pasteurize the peppers by baking in a toaster oven for two minutes at 150 °F (66 °C). Let the peppers cool and then add all the spices, herbs, and peppers to the fermenter. Sample for spiciness level and adjust to taste. When fermentation is complete, keg or bottle condition to 2.5 volumes of CO2.