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.
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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 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 is debuting in six-packs and kegs and should last through year's end, assuming that the world continues after Dec. 21. (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, 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.
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 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, 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 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.
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 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."