"I have a future beer-column request," one of my editors began. "Spicy beers. Like, chili-pepper-infused beers. Are they frowned upon?"
"Yes, they are. And now, by extension, so are you," I handsomely replied.
In fairness to Kelly Davis, that's not entirely true. I just can't resist the urge to snark. The reality is that spiciness is just another dimension of beer that's not inherently good or bad. At worst, chilis trend more as an ungraceful addition, prone to dialing the heat where most fear to tread.
My journey with spicy beer began with Cave Creek's Chili Beer, a bottle probably most recognized for the actual chili buoying within. It was, in no uncertain terms, a massive turd. It paired an unrelenting burn with a lifeless, yellow swill. It was a perfect storm of failure, one that would reasonably end the fascination with chili beer for most. Even amoeba instinctively know to recoil from painful stimuli, after all. However, I've long had a weakness for spicy flavors, especially those that bested me at one point or another. My walk with spicy beer had only begun.
It was quite a while until I came upon a spicy beer that really delivered, namely Ballast Point's Habañero Sculpin IPA. It had all the characteristic citrus IPA flavors I so cherish and a sizable blast of heat roiling just beneath it. The heat was hardly startling given that the habañero is one of the hotter peppers, but I was surprised by the depth it added to the flavor. As described by Colby Chandler, Ballast Point's director of R&D, "We had a feeling that the aromas of the habañero (pink grapefruit, cantaloupe and plumeria flowers), [would] bridge great with the aromas of Sculpin India Pale Ale (mango, peach, apricot and pine). It seemed like a perfect fit."
I loved that beer for the same reasons I love most Quentin Tarantino flicks: For what it lacked in subtlety, it was explosive and different. The heat intimidated, but it had a ton of personality. Personality goes a long way. I had to have more.
I've had a few different chili beers since that watershed moment, but not many that I'd casually recommend. Most of them were a smidge too hot for the untrained palate. That's why I was so pleased with a recent find: Aztec Brewing's Chipotle IPA is a great option for those wary of stepping up to the habañero. The nose subtly telegraphs the flavor with a light smokiness and citrus notes. The first sip brings a bit more of a flowery character to the mix and a spiciness on par with a pinch of cinnamon. The heat magnifies slightly on subsequent sips, but not to the point of distraction. If that doesn't sound sufficiently punishing to you, note that Aztec is going to be bottling a habanero-infused version of its Noche de los Muertos (an imperial stout) very shortly.
I understand people's hesitation with chili beers. We've all been burned by beers we didn't love, but at least they don't usually double up on that burn. Still, I say grab some Maalox and face the heat.