Hot trend in craft beer: chili pepper infusions


Water, malt, hops, and yeast. Those are the four essential ingredients that make up beer. Lately, however, there has been a surge in infusing additional ingredients into craft beer that are more commonly found in the kitchen.

Beers brewed with fruit have come and gone over the years, but are back on the rise again. Blueberries, strawberries, or watermelon, just to name a few, are often infused with lighter beer styles, such as pilsners and wheat beers. But another ingredient is finding its way into beers as well: chili peppers.

Most people have an immediate opinion when the words pepper and beer are used in the same sentence. It typically goes one of two ways: “Oh that sounds interesting. I like hot things, so I’d like to try that,” or “Yikes, I don’t like spicy stuff, so no thanks.” There’s usually no in between.

No beer style or pepper variety is off limits either. Twisted Pine Brewing Company in Colorado is famous for a ghost pepper golden ale. Stone Brewing Company in California brews a smoked porter with chipotle peppers. Rouge Brewery in Oregon takes it a step further and brews a stout with sriracha hot sauce.

These beers are what you’d expect them to be: hot. The pepper flavor is quite noticeable, sometimes even painful. In the case of the ghost pepper ale, it’s more like a man vs. beer challenge to drink a full pint – then it is enjoyable. And that’s the intent. A lot of the pepper beers in the market today pride themselves on the high number of Scoville heat units from the peppers and how that translates to a noticeably spicy beer.

At Oconee Brewing Company, I chose to take a different approach. I can appreciate spicy things, food or otherwise, but I also appreciate balance and flavor. I developed a recipe for an American Pale Ale that is brewed with habanero peppers. To me, it was important to incorporate the heat from the pepper very subtly.

The pale ale base has a delightful citrus and floral aroma and I didn’t want to offset that with a strong pepper smell. I also didn’t want to detract from the smooth and slightly malty flavor of the beer. So I set out to artfully and subtly blend the heat from the habanero peppers into the background so that it would leave a noticeable, but not overpowering, burn on the back of the throat. Mission accomplished.

Some people will say it’s spicy. Others might note that it doesn’t have as much heat as they expected. That’s the beauty of craft beer – every brewer has the creative freedom to brew their own interpretation of a style, or add any ingredient they want. And the consumer is the real beneficiary. There are so many variations of beer styles in the market today that, if trying new and unique beers is your thing, then you’ve got many good days ahead.

  • Taylor Lamm is the co-owner and brewmaster at Oconee Brewing Company in Greensboro. He is a 2012 graduate of the World Brewing Academy with studies in Chicago and Munich, Germany. He worked previously as an assistant brewer at Triangle Brewing Company in Durham, N.C. and head brewer at Brewery 85 in Greenville, S.C.


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