Spicy food and beer are made for each other. Heat and hops can go together, too.
As a fan of chili-infused beer, I've sought out concoctions that infuse peppers into the brewing process. Recently, I came across what might be the ultimate mash-up of fire and water.
On a recent trip to my home state of Kansas, while perusing a Topeka beer and liquor store, I found Twisted Pine Brewing's Billy's Chilies, a brew touting the inclusion of five different chili peppers.
The packaging touted the inclusion of jalapeños, habaneros, serrano, Anaheim and Fresno chili peppers. I just had to buy a four-pack.
The golden America wheat beer is not subtle. After it's poured, the smell of green chiles -- perhaps the Anaheim and Serranos -- assault your nose. A warm, spicy swig becomes an even hotter swallow -- there's the habaneros! -- and I grabbed a handful of nacho cheese Doritos corn chips.
I drank two of the beers (5% alcohol by volume) and could definitely see serving this during a Mexican food extravaganza. But, typically, with pepper-infused beers, the chili essence is more subtle. So I contacted the Boulder, Colo.-based brewery to learn a bit more about Billy's Chilies.
The brewery's sales and marketing coordinator Justin Tilotta told me how, for each batch, nearly 100 pounds of fresh peppers are shredded by a food processor and tossed into a secondary tank ahead of cold already-fermented beer. Over the next week or so, the beer breaks down the peppers and the flavor infuses the ale.
"A lot of brewers that do chili beers are putting peppers into the boil, which will definitely break them down a lot faster, but you lose a lot of the heat that way," Tilotta said. "There's not that fresh you-just-snapped-a-jalapeno-in-half-under-your-nose aroma."
After making Billy's Chilies for several years, the brewery -- a winner of eight Great American Beer Festival medals since 1996 -- had some beer lovers "that would say, 'This is good, but can you make something spicier?'," he said. So brewery president Bob Baile decided "to turn the brewers loose and told them to make the spiciest beer they could," Tilotta said.
The result? A beer called Ghost Face Killah, which added bhut jolovia peppers (also known as ghost peppers) to the mix. At 1 million Scoville heat units, the ghost pepper surpasses the standard habanero, which tops out at about 350,000 units.
Ghost peppers are tough to get fresh, so Twisted Pine adds a combination of oven-dried and smoked ones to the fresh chilies. "We don't sell it in four-packs (as Billy's Chilies comes) because we think (Ghost Face Killah) is a little too intense for most people," Tilotta said. "We sell it just in individual 12 oz. bottles. It's almost a nuclear experience."
I happened across a bottle of Ghost Face Killah upon my return home, so I snapped it up. I shared it with a colleague and we quickly found ourselves munching on tortilla chips to lessen the effect. I honestly don't know if I could have finished the bottle solo, but it was fun to test my taste buds a bit.
Here's a few other chili-infused beers that I can recommend:
Dogfish Head Theobroma (750 ml. bottles and draft). The first chili beer I ever had, which includes ancho chilies and cocoa, is based on the remains of an Aztec beverage found by archaeologists. Still one of my favorite beers for its smoky chocolate character (9% alcohol).
Clown Shoes Chocolate Sombrero (22 oz. bottles). Like Theobroma, this 9% beer uses ancho chilies, but to create a smooth, slightly buttery chocolate stout.
Stone Smoked Porter with Chipotle Peppers (22 oz. bottles and draft). A well-balanced coffee-tinged porter (5.9% ABV) with a slow burn. On my Untapped wish list: Stone's Crime and Punishment, two beers released last year with Scorpion peppers, which are hotter even than ghost peppers.
Lips of Faith (22 oz. bottles). This collaboration between New Belgium Brewing of Ft. Collins, Colo., and Tampa's Cigar City Brewing uses Anaheim and Marash peppers for a yeasty, hoppy beer. Its subtle sweet spiciness warms you. (Note: this 8.5% alcohol beer will be tough to find, too, as it was released during the first quarter. But should you find a bottle, it's definitely worth a taste.)
Ballast Point Habanero Sculpin (12 oz. bottles and draft). For this limited release, the San Diego brewery added habaneros to its India Pale Ale to create a hoppy and fiery 7% alcohol beast. This and Stone's porter are in stock at beer retailer Craftshack. "Brewers continue to experiment with a number of ingredients, peppers being one of them," says Craftshack founder Julian Yakoo.