“A pepper is a fruit filled with air instead of juicy flesh. … The fruit gets its heat from capsaicin, a substance that appears in highest concentrations in the inner membrane of the fruit and in its seeds. While capsaicin doesn’t cause a physical burn, it does send a signal to the brain that something’s on fire. The brain responds by issuing pain signals in an attempt to persuade the body to get away from the fire – fast.”
– Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist
This week, I’m trying my hand at a new series I’m calling “Ingredient Study,” where (you guessed it) I choose an ingredient based on a personal whim and sample a few beers containing said ingredient.
This idea was inspired by author Amy Stewart’s beautiful book, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks. Stewart dives into the history and cultivation of alcoholic beverage ingredients ranging from yuzu fruit to barley to walnuts to apples, and for certain ingredients, describes a cocktail recipe or classic beverage that you can create with the ingredient at hand. Check out her “Blushing Mary,” a twist on the traditional Bloody Mary made with vodka, Worcestershire sauce, celery bitters, and one sliced pepper for garnish.
According to Stewart, chili peppers originate from a tropical plant found in Central and South America. “The plant produces tiny fruit, each about the size of a raisin and shockingly hot.” This plant is said to have been domesticated over fifty-five hundred years ago, and was introduced to Europe around the time Columbus was exploring. He called these fruits peppers (thinking they looked like India’s black peppercorns), but the Aztecs referred to them as chillis. And that’s how “chili pepper” was born.
Using chili peppers in beer has become an increasingly popular trend, as evidenced by the long list of beers that Beer Advocate maintains. However, contrary to what the website’s description states, peppers are actually being added to much more than just light colored ales or lagers. They’re in IPAs, barrel-aged imperial stouts, smoked porters, sour beers, and in concoctions that mimic pepper-infused culinary creations, such as molé stouts.
1. 7-Pot Douglah, 2. Douglah, 3. Scorpion, 4. Moruga Scorpion, 5. Caribbean Hot Pepper, 6. Red Ghost, 7. White Ghost, 8. Black Naga, 9. Ancho (dried Poblano), 10. Amarillo, 11. Fatali, 12. Jalapeño, 13. Habañero, 14. Giant White Habañero, 15. Super
In brewing, peppers can be added in a variety of ways; dried or fresh chili peppers can be pulverized and added to the boil kettle, they can be added after fermentation, or they can be incorporated as extract in liquid form to add flavor to the finished beer. This variety of methods creates an equal variance in the way pepper flavor manifests in the finished product. And as in cooking, if the brewer chooses to include the seeds of the pepper, this will dramatically increase the spicy component.
A pepper’s heat is widely measured in Scoville units, named after the man who invented the system of measurement in 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville (Smithsonian magazine). Currently, the World’s Hottest Chile according to Guinness World Records is called “Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper,” (made by The PuckerButt Pepper Company, hehehehe) and ranks at around 2.2 million heat units on the Scoville Scale. For comparison, a jalapeño has 2,500–8,000 Scoville heat units.
Here are the chili pepper beers I tasted (in that order), along with their specs and my reactions.
5 Vulture (5 Rabbit Cerveceria)
Style: Chili Beer/Vegetable Beer
Pepper: Ancho chili (a dried Poblano)
Appearance: Brownish-red with ruby highlights, clear, with a big head of tan foam that bubbled up and quickly fizzed away
Aroma: chocolate, cocoa, dark fruit, hint of cherry, caramel
Mouthfeel: slightly creamy, but light-bodied
Flavors: chocolate, subtle warming sensation from peppers, cinnamon, cocoa; pleasantly flavorful and mild
Barbary Coast (Almanac Brewing Co.)
Style: Imperial Stout
Pepper: Chili (unspecified)
Appearance: Dark brown with glimpses of red, clear, with a bubbly head that maintained a ring around the glass
Aroma: fruity aroma, like raspberry, cherry, that seems to hide a vegetal smell, coffee, roasty malt, boozy
Mouthfeel: very creamy, medium to light bodied, a building heat sensation
Flavor: sweet up front like chocolate with a cocoa dusting and toward the middle with a spicy, cinnamon, cherry, chocolate
Habañero Sculpin (Ballast Point)
Appearance: Crystal clear orangey gold with constant few towers of bubbles and a consistent head of soapy white bubbles
Aroma: Smells of grapefruit, juicy pine, slight lemon and orange and it stings the nostrils
Mouthfeel: crisp, clean, spicy and slightly painful
Flavor: Orange citrus flavors sneak in just before the pepper takes over and coats the tongue in a very warm heat that tickles the back of the throat, after the initial wave of pain subsides, a teensy bit of vegetal citrus sneaks through, but mostly my mouth just hurts a lot and the pain does not subside. (Bring on the milk.)
I greatly feared sampling the following beer due to some Stone propaganda I saw immediately beforehand:
Crime (Stone Brewing Co.)
Style: Bourbon Barrel Aged Ale with Peppers Added
Peppers: Green Jalapeño, Black Naga, Fatali, Caribbean Red Hot, Habañero, Ghost, Super, Moruga Scorpion, 7 Pot, Amarillo, Scorpion, Giant White Habañero, 7 Pot Douglah, and Douglah peppers
Appearance: red-orange-brown color with a slight haze and a full, tan, creamy head
Aroma: Sweet malts and a piney hop hint in the finish (similar to an old IPA or an American Barleywine)
Mouthfeel: Very creamy! Pretty spicy, but in a complex and flavorful way that builds gently to a high heat, then fades.
Flavor: Oak, vegetal pepper flesh, sweet malt, caramel, and oak which built slowly to a medium heat, then faded.
After reading the bill of peppers in Crime, I honestly thought my mouth would be on fire after drinking it, but nothing substantial happened with the heat; the Sculpin was much more intensely hot and I couldn’t finish it. Crime’s predominant flavor was sweet malt that tasted as if there had once been a large amount of hops to balance this sweetness out, but they’d long since fallen off. Considering that the 2013 version of this beer was rumored to be too spicy to drink, I imagine Stone dialed it back in fear that they’d create another undrinkable beer. Barbary Coast and 5 Vulture were both beers that I would enjoy again. They each had nice layers of flavor that would pair well with a variety of foods, spicy or mild.
Have you enjoyed (or been destroyed by) any pepper beers lately?
Cheers everyone, and thanks for reading!