Brewer’s Perspective: Bringing the Heat
Spice in beer is nothing new, but as farmers seek to create new chile peppers to bring to market, brewers are busy trying to figure out how to incorporate them into lagers and ales. Matt Brophy talks about the spicy inspiration behind Flying Dog Brewery’s
Spice in beer is nothing new, but as farmers seek to create new chile peppers to bring to market, brewers are busy trying to figure out how to incorporate them into lagers and ales. Matt Brophy talks about the spicy inspiration behind Flying Dog Brewery’s “The Heat” series.
WHAT SEEMS NEARLY
commonplace today—adding hot pepper spice into beer—started at the beginning of the modern craft-beer movement. In the 1970s at his New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, California, Jack Mcauliffe largely made three styles of beer: a porter, a stout, and a pale ale. Occasionally he’d get creative and drop whole hot peppers into bottles and mark the labels with a drawing of the peppers to signify the spiciness within.
Now, anyone who has ever brewed with fruits and vegetables will caution you against this method, but in the early days, it was revolutionary. Today, it’s safe to say that most of the country’s 5,000 plus breweries have experimented with hot pepper in one way or another. Pilsners with jalapeños, IPAS with habanero, and everything in-between. The annual Great American Beer Festival even has a Chili Beer category, which in 2016 had 112 entries.
There’s a correlation between chile peppers and beer. Both have devoted fans and makers who seek out new varieties and try to create new things from established styles. On the pepper side, there are farmers and scientists blazing toward making the hottest chile peppers in a race to beat the previous heat. On the beer side, brewers are looking to incorporate these flavors but have come to realize that subtlety leads to the sublime.
Some forty years after Mcauliffe stuffed a pepper into a 12-ounce bottle, capped it, and sent it off the market, Matt Brophy sat down with Ben Clark at the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland, to talk about some new beer ideas.
“I have this thing,” Brophy, the brewery COO says. “I make a black bean soup or chili once a week, usually Sunday, and eat it during the week. I’m always incorporating peppers, and beer. It’s a slow cooker thing. Amp it up with a habanero or get chipotle for smoke.”
So he brought up the concept with Clark, the brewmaster, to create a diverse group of chile beers. Both being guys with a culinary bent, the ideas started flowing.
To get a chile beer right means experimentation and being deliberate.
“I knew a brewer who basically when he had a batch that didn’t come out quite right, he’d throw pepper into it,” recalls Brophy. “Spicy, to me, is a broad term that has a lot under its umbrella. It’s hard to get the proportions right.” So that means time in the pilot brewery and lab. With the different beers the brewery has made in its “The Heat” series—there’ve been nine so far—they use dried pepper powder at different levels and let it sit for a few days.
When both the beer and the pepper are doing what the brewers want, the recipe is scaled up to the 20-gallon system, with more tests performed, then up to the 15-barrel system and finally to the 50barrel brewhouse. During the whole process, brewers are watching and seeing what they should do to keep the dosage just right to make sure the heat level is neither too much nor too little.
There are so many variables, says Brophy, because they are working with an agricultural product. This is one reason that powder, as opposed to a puree or the whole pepper, is usually preferable.
It’s also why beers are tested in a pilot bottling run and a shelf stability trial in different conditions over the course of several weeks and months to make sure the final beer goes to market in a good condition. Without these, an experimental beer could have an unhappy end-user experience.