There’s something deviant about taking a cold, refreshing, quenching beer, with its sweet and bitter balance, and pumping it full of intensely hot and spicy chili peppers. It seems wrong. On the other hand, since chili beers can so easily turn out terrible, one could argue that a chili beer done really well, with a balanced nuance of spicy heat or smokiness, is actually a testimony to a brewer’s skill. In any case, the idea of a chili beer is, in itself, polarizing and appeals to a small niche of craft beer drinkers that can handle the heat.
Most importantly, a chili beer should be a beer first, with chili flavors shining through and rounding out secondary flavors.
How hot, flavorful and aromatic a chili beer ends up depends on the amount and variety of chilies a brewer uses, as well as the point at which the brewer adds the pepper to the beer. Both of these factors can vary greatly. Brewers use a wide range of chili peppers, from the sweet and mild (like Anaheim and anchos that range from 0 to 5,000 Scoville Heat Units) to medium-level (like jalapeño and chipotles that range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU) to medium hot peppers (like serranos at 5,000 to 23,000 SHU) to super hot chili peppers like habanero (100,000 to 350,000 SHU) to the ghost chili aka bhut jolokia (over 1,000,000 SHU), one of the hottest peppers in the world.
Also vital is when, during the brewing process, the brewer introduces the peppers. A brewer can add chilies during the initial brewing period called the "mash," or the peppers can be mixed in while the brew is boiling. Another option is to steep the peppers in the beer after the boil, or toss them into the primary fermentation vessel, or even during secondary fermentation. Once the brew is finished, chilies can go into actual beer bottles, too.
So, what makes a chili beer actually good? Most importantly, a chili beer should be a beer first, with chili flavors shining through and rounding out secondary flavors. Unfortunately, the first string of such beers were, more often than not, spicier than most people wanted, and as a result some first time tasters resigned themselves to never try a chili beer again. Fortunately, now more and more brewers are experimenting with spicy flavors and creating more sophisticated, subdued and palatable spicy beers.
Chili Beers TO TRY
Smoked Porter with Chipotle Peppers
Stone Brewing Co., Escondido, California
When a Stone Brewing employee suggested that the company make a special beer for Cinco de Mayo in 2006, this 5.9 percent ABV hotshot porter was born. Expect dry notes of roasty coffee, light vanilla and cocoa, plus a very subtle pepper aroma. It is dark red in body with a light beige head and smokey, cocoa flavors. Spicy Chipotle notes lingering in the finish.
Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego, California
This 7 percent ABV gold-medal winning hoppy West Coast India Pale Ale has been a favorite in craft beer circles for years. Ballast Point's decision to add super hot habanero to this five times hopped beer results in a copper colored brew with big grapefruit rind in the nose and notes of apricot, peach, mango and lemon. The finish packs a spicy sting.
Lips of Faith Cocoa Molé Ale
New Belgium Brewing Co., Ft. Collins, Colorado
Chocolate, cinnamon and chilies combine for a sweet and spicy balance in the return of this 9 precent ABV cult classic chocolate stout. Brewed with caramel, dark chocolate and rye malts, plus ancho, guajillo and chipotle chilies, Cocoa Molé pours midnight black and starts with a malty chocolate sweetness followed by a bite of pepper flavors.
Ghost Face Killah
Twisted Pine Brewing Co, Boulder, Colorado
Six chili pepper varieties go into the hottest beer on this list, including the infamous million Scoville Heat Unit ghost pepper, as well as serrano, jalapeño, habanero, Fresno and Anaheim. This 4.5 percent ABV unfiltered light-bodied beer pours cloudy golden with wafts of smoke and spicy peppers. Expect a long, intense burn. Not for the tepid of tongue or faint of heart.
Rogue Sriracha Hot Stout Beer
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
A 5.7 percent ABV stout that isn’t brewed with chilies exactly, but with sriracha sauce, the famous hot "rooster sauce" by Huy Fong that's made with chili pepper paste, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. The result is a savory beer with dark roasted coffee and smoke in the nose and notes of bitter chocolate and Thai chilies. This beer finishes dry and hot with a good 20 minute afterburn.