Episode 8: Chili Beer

Fri 11 Jul 2008 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Michael

I admit I had to sweat to uncover any “literary” justification for the use of hot chile peppers in beer. I’m always on the lookout for something to top that fragment of Egyptian myth about beer-as-blood and the transformation of Hathor. Trouble is, belief in the mystical power of chiles originates with the Inca, who never bothered writing their myths down. So the best I can find in these latter days are third-hand retellings of the legendary founding of Cuzco, the Inca capital, by an ancestor god known as Ayar Uchu, Lord Chile, or vague hints that Inca priests forbade the use of chiles during funereal rites and initiations, doubtless out of fear that the warding power of chiles would prevent dead souls from reaching the next world.

None of which particularly deters me, the stubborn literary homebrewer, from doing as I darn well please. I like chiles. I like beer. Ipso facto.

This was entirely a beer of opportunity: to wit, I threw it together out of what I had lying around the house. The extracts and grains were unused leftovers from my last two brewing experiments, I reused the yeast from the post-fermentation dregs of my annual summer kolsch, and the dried chiles came from last year’s garden. Which is not to say I didn’t strategize (or at least rationalize) before embarking on this dangerous and fiery venture.

The obvious style for introducing chiles to beer would be ye Corona/Land Shark yellow Mexican beach lager. However (and as verified by the worst ratebeer.com review I’ve ever read, and this hilariousness), obviousness is not always the way to go. It seems to me that to avoid having all beer flavor utterly killed by the spicy, you’d want significantly more body than the obvious style would provide. It so happened that the ingredients lying around my house included some dark crystal malts, which I thought would answer nicely.

I was also curious about the way hops would interact with chiles. Both chiles and hops have an underlying fruity character prone to being overpowered by a much more potent primary flavor. Would chile spiciness and hop bitterness play nice together, or cancel each other out? I’m a big fan of beer as an accompaniment to spicy foods, because the hop bitterness relieves the sensation of heat without actually dissolving the capsaicin which causes it, allowing the flavor of spice to linger on the palate. I was hoping I could accomplish something similar.

The recipe:

  • 13.5 oz 80L cracked crystal malt grain
  • 6.5 oz 40L cracked crystal malt grain
  • 1.4 lbs liquid pale malt extract
  • 5 oz munton’s amber dry malt extract
  • 1/3 oz Williamette hops (bittering – add at beginning of boil)
  • 1/6 oz Williamette hops (aroma – add near end of boil)
  • 1/6 oz Williamette hops (dry hop – add during secondary fermentation)*
  • 15 assorted whole dried Thai dragon and super chiles
  • Ale yeast
  • Water to 2 gallons*Dry hopping means adding a small amount of uncooked hops to the wort anytime after the boil and before bottling. This contributes more to hop aroma than to bitterness in the finished product.

As with the mead experiment, I made two gallons of wort, then divided it between two one-gallon glass jugs, in order to vary the results a bit and test different methods of pepper introduction. I allowed both jugs to go through an initial fermentation of four days, then racked the contents off the lees into two clean jugs. For the secondary fermentation, I added seven Thai chiles and 1/12 oz. Williamette hops to one of the jugs. The second got 1/12 oz. hops, but no chiles. After one week, I removed the chiles and racked off to clean jugs a second time, in order to clarify out the sediment of dry hops and any loose seeds from the chiles.

After another week (a total of two weeks and four days since brewing), I was ready to bottle. First, though, I had a bit of a taste to see how spicy things had gotten. Pretty spicy, thought I. Better not go overboard.

I had been planning on four levels of spice, thus:

  1. The control group: no chiles, just hops.
  2. Dry “hopped”: chiles added to the secondary fermenter.
  3. Bottle-conditioned: one chile placed in each bottle at bottling time.
  4. A combination of levels 2 and 3: BOTH dry ‘hopped’ AND bottle-conditioned.

Following the taste test, however, I began to suspect that level 4 spiciness would be atomic hallucinatory insanity. So I only made one of those.

The Verdict?

¡Caliente! Dos: Not bad! Good, even! Surprisingly good. The aroma includes notes of both hop and chile. Hop is stronger at first, but as my nose gets closer to the brew, the chiles take over. They smell…a bit smoky, actually. Even though they were dried, not smoked. I wonder if that’s the 90L crystal malt I’m getting. Flavorwise, I get a little bit of hop bitterness and bouquet right at the beginning, then taste the chile flavor with only mild-to-medium hotness, then a bit more hop and the flavors of the malts…and then, after swallowing, the fire comes back medium-hot. Color (which I will doubt will change) is rich red-brown, cloudy but not opaque. Carbonation similar to an ESB. Actually, I bet the control beer (no chiles) will taste a lot like an ESB. Won’t that be exciting.

¡Caliente! Uno: Actually makes me wish it had a little hotness to it. Yeah, it’s an ESB, or thereabouts. The hops outbalance the malts a wee bit, which makes me want either less hops, more malt, or, well, some hot pepper. Amazing–who would have thought I’d ever crave the taste of hot pepper in beer?

¡Caliente! Tres: This is the one with a chile in the bottle, but no chile infusion during fermentation. First sampling, only two weeks after bottling, was subtle, much less hot than numero Dos. My preference is for the spicier one. No doubt these will get hotter with age–and that element of surprise is somewhat appealing, but overall, I think the controlled addition of flavor during fermentation is the better way to go.

¡Caliente! Cuatro: I haven’t tried yet. I want to save it for a special occasion, age it until it has leeched all possible heat out of that pepper and gone supernova. Perhaps this is the means by which I shall achieve nirvana!

If you never hear from me again, well, you’ll know what happened.


If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry, and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck!

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