Temperatures don’t have to dictate booze choices, especially since “fall” varies across the country and climate funkiness is seeing to it that none of us really know what to wear most days (best advice: always carry a sweater vest). But spicy beer does seem kind of seasonally appropriate, maybe a way to zing things up as we say goodbye to summer and look forward to a season of (maybe) renewed productivity.
Not that chili beer will be everyone’s seasonal go-to (and since they’re kind of a newish/finicky trend, they won’t be as widely available as, say, barrel-aged or even single hopped beers). From a beer perspective, it’s actually a bit polarizing—people seem to either love it or hate it. Of course, what “it” is varies, since craft breweries like to play around with styles and methods of heat application. And there’s plenty to play with here, since sweet, toasty malt and bracingly bitter hops could do a lot for (or against) the levels of smoke, fruit, earthiness, and sharp, sharp heat you’ll get from the peppers (brewers use everything from Anaheim to jalapeno to habanero, and even the dreaded ghost chili pepper).
Other variables include carbonation, which tends to amplify the sensation of heat, and alcohol, which can temporarily relieve the burn by absorbing some capsaicin—but it can also nullify our ability to know better when someone puts a few hundred thousand Scoville units in our glass. Drink with caution, and some bread nearby.
1. Rogue Sriracha Stout
With its heavier body and typically richer palate, stout might not seem like the best vehicle to showcase heat. Fortunately, the folks at Rogue thought of that and pumped this stout with Sriracha, which slashes through the deeper foreground notes like a fire machete. Nothing to tip the Scoville scale, but noticeably hot. Think seriously spiked chili pepper chocolate.
2. Ballast Point Habanero Sculpin IPA
Naming your chili beer after a spiky, freaky looking fish (sculpin, aka “sea scorpion”) isn’t a bad idea at all. Nor is using the bright, palate shocking bitter notes of the IPA style as a kind of trampoline springboard for habanero. At 7% ABV, the beer’s not really timid in any way, though it holds notes of floral and citrus, even if they can’t quite sing while the habanero’s doing its thing.
3. Twisted Pine Ghost Face Killah
They pulled out all the stops, or chilies, for this one, with six chilies total (Anaheim, Fresno, jalapeno, serrano, habanero, and ghost chile) making up a kind of in-your-face bouquet of hot, hot heat that leaves most of the other sensations of the 5.2% ABV beer behind. To be fair, Twisted Pine’s pretty honest about the outcome, calling it “utter agony for most,” only fit for “true heat freaks.”
4. Night Shift Brewing Co. Viva Habanera
This one’s less about disruption-by-chili; it’s actually a rye beer with habaneros added after fermentation and even some sweet agave nectar added to balance out the heat and lighten the overall body of the beer. The idea is a slightly more balanced brew, with heat coming in at the back end, but the small batch nature and brewer changes based on heat-loving customer feedback means there could easily be variance in heat level from bottle to bottle. So don’t chug (even on a dare).
5. New Belgium Lips of Faith Cocoa Mole
The depth of a porter is kind of the perfect place to incorporate spicy mole. The major notes you’ll get here are cinnamon and cocoa, with a subtler, earthier heat from ancho, guajillo, and chipotle chilies. If you’re looking for subtler spice embedded into some darker, rich complexity, this is definitely the way to go.
6. Dogfish Head Theobrama BEST OVERALL
Part of their “Ancient Ale” line, Theobrama takes analysis of some very old Honduran pottery shards (that showed evidence of the earliest alcoholic chocolate drink) and puts it into a bottle, complete with Aztec cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, chilies, honey, and annatto seeds. Pouring out at 9% ABV with a surprisingly light for a chocolate-inspired beer, it’s got plenty of integrated complexity, dry cocoa, light malts, chili and spice notes.
7. Piney River Brewing Co. Hot Date
Chipotle lends a distinctly earthy heat to anything it graces, which makes it a good match for an amber ale. Here, it balances against the slightly fuller maltiness of amber ale with some help from the brown sugar depth of sweet dates. Other claim to fame: single hopped (meaning only one variety of hops was used), and brewed with limestone-filtered Ozark spring water.
8. Burnside Brewing Co. Sweet Heat
Burnside is pretty up front about Sweet Heat, noting heat levels will vary from batch to batch. But the chilies here—Scotch bonnets—are brewed into the beer along with apricots, providing a nice, almost tropically fruity match to the dry blast of heat you’ll get from the chili. At 4.9% ABV with a relatively light body, the heat level matches the crispness, with the fruit providing a mild sweetness.
9. Westbrook Brewing Co. Mexican Cake
Already an imperial (basically an extra, sometimes doubly strong) stout, Mexican Cake gilds the beer lily by adding some cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon, and raw jalapeno peppers. It pours rich and dark, but don’t be fooled—some pepper notes on the nose should warn you, there’s heat in the glass (which the not-to-be-trifled-with 10.5% ABV should play up).
10. Stone Brewing Co. Crime/Punishment
No surprise Stone developed their chili beer by basically dumping a frightening load of home grown chilies into their Arrogant Bastard Ale (actually “Crime” was created by mixing chilies in with the Lucky Bastard 13th Anniversary edition, and “Punishment” did much the same for the Double Bastard). The chilies themselves are a variety pack, some with names we don’t even know: red and green jalapenos, Caribbean red hots, naga peppers, Moruga scorpions, and fatalis. Both beers are aged in bourbon barrels and both are significantly high alcohol and IBUs, so brace your palate. This ain’t no casual sipper.