Some beers are hot even when ice cold

Brews use chilies to accentuate the flavor of other ingredients


It's not ex­actly the cat­a­clysm that the doom­say­ers are pre­dict­ing, but the im­pend­ing end of the Mayan cal­en­dar (Dec. 21) seems to have trig­gered a new in­ter­est in brew­ing with chilies. An­heuser-Busch and Wid­mer Broth­ers Brew­ing in Port­land, Ore., have re­leased ales that use hot pep­pers to bal­ance sweet spices and dark spe­cialty malts.

Even if you re­mem­ber burn­ing your lips on Cave Creek Chili Beer, a pale yel­low la­ger with a ser­rano pep­per bob­bing in the bot­tle, you should give these beers a try. There's more at work than sheer heat.

Chili tends to ac­cen­tu­ate the fla­vor of other in­gre­di­ents, and it works best as part of an en­sem­ble cast. Shock Top End of the World Mid­night Wheat com­bines chili pow­der added to the mash ("a se­cret blend” of pep­pers, says An­heuser-Busch brew mas­ter Jill Vaughn) with crushed or­ange peel, wheat malts, and roasted bar­ley with the husk re­moved. Murky brown with a cream-col­ored head, this un­fil­tered wheat beer has a light co­coa fla­vor, a hint of cit­rus, and a dry, mildly spicy fin­ish that's not likely to jar any­one's pal­ate.

“You can find a lot of ja­l­a­p­eno beers out there that are re­ally, re­ally hot. But that's not what we were af­ter,” says Ms. Vaughn. “We like to look around to see what's out in the mar­ket. There's a lot of play­ing around with dark choc­o­late and spice. Yin and yang.”

Mid­night Wheat was set to de­but last week in six-packs and kegs and should last through year's end, as­sum­ing that the world con­tin­ues af­ter Dec. 21. (Ms. Vaughn says it will.)

Wid­mer Broth­ers’ SXNW, in­sists se­nior di­rec­tor of brew­ing Joe Ca­sey, wasn't in­spired by jer­e­mi­ads about the end of civ­i­li­za­tion, nor should it be pi­geon­holed as a chili beer. Rather, he says, it rep­resents a mar­riage of sev­eral ideas that were per­co­lat­ing around the brew­house.

A na­tive of Al­buquerque, Mr. Ca­sey wanted to brew with New Mex­ico-grown chilies and pe­cans. Other mem­bers of his staff wanted to ex­per­i­ment with Mex­i­can choc­o­lates. The re­sult (the name should be read as South by North­west) is a rich, al­most li­queur­ish des­sert beer, full of choc­o­laty and fruity fla­vor with a mod­er­ate af­ter­burn in the back of the throat.

Mr. Ca­sey and his fel­low brew­ers added ca­cao shells and pe­cans to the mash tun. Dur­ing the later stages of fer­men­ta­tion, they si­phoned por­tions of the beer into sep­a­rate ves­sels, then made “beer teas” by steep­ing chilies (whole an­cho and green pep­pers), ca­cao nibs and cin­na­mon bark in the brew. Those teas were then blended back into the main batch.

At 9.5 per­cent al­co­hol by vol­ume, this is a pow­er­ful brew, but “the beer is so vis­cous it helps smooth out the al­co­hol,” says Mr. Ca­sey. Wid­mer Broth­ers brewed a sin­gle 600-bar­rel batch, which should be trick­ling across the coun­try in 22-ounce bot­tles and lim­ited draft.

Pre­ced­ing SXNW by sev­eral years is Theo­broma, which Dog­fish Craft Brew­ery in Mil­ton, Del., re­leased in 2008. Brew­ery Pres­i­dent Sam Cala­gione per­fected the rec­ipe with help from Patrick McGovern, a bio­mo­lec­u­lar ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia who an­a­lyzes the res­i­due on pot­tery shards to de­ter­mine what the an­cients downed for their night­caps.

Ex­am­in­ing long-necked drink­ing ves­sels from 1400 B.C. that were un­earthed in Hon­duras, Mr. McGovern de­ter­mined that the in­hab­i­tants fer­mented the sugar-rich pulp of ca­cao pods to con­coct a drink that mea­sured 7 per­cent to 8 per­cent al­co­hol. When the Mayans ar­rived on the scene cen­tu­ries later, they im­proved on the rec­ipe by add­ing ca­cao seeds (used to make mod­ern-day choc­o­late), chilies, honey, scented flow­ers and other fla­vor­ings.

These sweet-and-spicy li­ba­tions were “the elite bev­er­age of the Amer­i­cas, like wine in the Old World,” says Mr. McGovern.

Theo­broma is an at­tempt to unite var­i­ous New World tra­di­tions, he adds. This “food of the gods” (that's what the name means in Greek) in­cor­po­rates ca­cao nibs (an earthy, bit­ter­sweet va­ri­ety from Askinosie Choc­o­late, a Mis­souri man­u­fac­turer of spe­cialty choc­o­lates), an­cho chilies, an­natto seed (which lends the beer a ruddy color), honey and corn. The al­co­hol con­tent is a wine­like 9.3 per­cent.

Mr. Cala­gione has used chilies in sev­eral other rec­i­pes. Pos­i­tive Con­tact, his lat­est mu­si­cally in­spired beer (Dan “the Au­toma­tor” Naka­mura of Del­tron 3030 col­lab­o­rated on the brew), con­tains a pinch of cay­enne in ad­di­tion to Fuji ap­ple ci­der, slow-roasted farro and ci­lan­tro. Last year, Dog­fish Head's brew­pub in Re­ho­both Beach, Del., served El Diablo Verde, an ale ag­gres­sively fla­vored with fresh-cut ja­l­a­p­e­nos and ci­lan­tro.

“I get e-mails from craft and home brew­ers ev­ery month ask­ing for tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion on how we use chilies in our beer,” says Mr. Cala­gione. 

“I think the rea­son this in­gre­di­ent is gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity is that, when used ju­di­ciously, chilies can have a hop­like pres­ence in the beer, add­ing bit­ter­ness at the end and com­plex ar­o­mat­ics up­front.”

He's work­ing on a spe­cial beer for a Decem­ber din­ner at the James Beard House in New York that will meld sev­eral fla­vors fa­vored by the mas­ter chef, in­clud­ing peat-smoked bar­ley — Beard was a whis­key drinker, Mr. Cala­gione says — fresh-pressed ap­ple juice and Cal­i­for­nia pep­per­corns.

“It's great see­ing the cu­li­nary world bleed­ing fur­ther into the brew­ing world,” he says.