You can no longer push the boundaries of craft brew artistry with the standard water, hops, and yeast mixture alone.
Since the very beginning, brewers have sought unique ingredients to shake things up a bit. Whether these are locally grown foods such as the colonial pumpkin ales, or simple experimentation, adjuncts, and the mastery of their application, have become integral parts of every brewer’s tool belt.
This week, I’d like to discuss one of the most ambitious and potent adjuncts I’ve had the privilege of tasting: the chili pepper. Your typical chili-infused beer braces itself with a robust base into which the chili flavors are delicately weaved. The properly brewed chili beer will balance the sharp bite of the chili peppers against the malty and sweet backbone of a stout or porter.
Having mentioned the ‘properly brewed’ chili beer, I’ll give an example of a laudable brew and subsequently, a beer I found quite lacking.
First up is Ska’s Molé Stout. The first in a series of four seasonal beers acknowledging their southwestern heritage, Ska released the Molé Stout on Sept. 21 of this year, the Autumnal Equinox. This is a beautifully crafted beer, and it may take an entire can to explore all its subtle flavors.
It pours a deep brown/black color with a light-caramel head hinting at the molé waiting inside. The nose is well balanced with Mexican chocolate and nutmeg as the most predominant notes followed by a subtle spice indicative of southwestern heritage. At this point, I become noticeably excited to give it a try.
The first sip blew me away. It was everything I’d hoped for and more nuanced than I’d expected. As it first graced my mouth, I noticed espresso and chocolate right up front, distinctly stout-based characteristics.
Next, as I began to experience the full flavor range, the subtle complexities became apparent. This beer is big and bold. Vanilla, nutmeg, caramel, espresso, chocolate, and, of course, chili spice are all discernable. As this explosion of flavor peaked, the chili flavor began to slowly dominate. I wouldn’t quite call it spicy, but definitely present in an almost ethereal way. The pepper lingered pleasantly and then faded away into the chocolaty espresso of the stout. This beer is an absolute must-try, possibly my favorite of the year. Ska’s brilliance continues to shine through, even in the trickiest of flavor combinations. It serves to show not only how to brew this beer properly, but how to do it improperly as well.
This is why I present this next beer, Twisted Pine’s Ghost Face Killah. It can be argued that this beer has its place among the many shelves of tasty beer available today. This I would classify as more of a novelty drink, not so much a pursuit of brewing genius as a ‘lets put a bunch of peppers in this and name it after the Wu-Tang Clan’ – perhaps not as bad an idea in theory as in practice.
It pours a yellowy-orange and, with such a pungent nose, I could hardly finish looking at its color. Its smell is that of peppers. Anaheim, Fresno, Jalapeño, Serrano, Habanero, and Ghost Chile were all used in the brewing process. There is almost no head on this beer. Presumably it has been chased away by all the pepper oils lying dormant, waiting to destroy your mouth like some nuclear Hot-Pocket.
The Ghost Face Killah tastes as though someone took perfectly reasonable amber ale and poured a bottle of Frank’s Red-Hot inside as an April Fool’s joke. That’s exactly what most people take away from this beer, it’s some novelty to be tried once and then left alone forever. I’m really not sure what Twisted Pine was aiming for with this one, but if it was an artfully made chili brew, they missed.
A drinkable chili beer is a tough thing to make happen, but when it’s done right, it can be something to cherish. Hats off to Ska for such an ambitious brew that puts beers like Ghost Face Killah to shame.