CRAFT BREWERS THRIVE on experimentation. For many, it's why they got into the business in the first place.
Unable to find beers that excited them on store shelves as amateur home brewers, they broke new ground searching for bolder flavors. Transferring that passion to the professional world, it's probably more appropriate to refer to them as chefs than simply as "brewers."
Recipe creation is a tricky art. For every great idea, there are a hundred missteps. As wide as the range of ingredients can be for meal planning, with different styles and ethnic variations clamoring for completely different spicing additions, beer can seem surprisingly blasé by comparison.
The consistency of ingredients and base brews in mainstream beer owes a huge debt to the German beer purity laws, or Reinheitsgebot. Brewers following that strict tradition find themselves without the ability to vary their recipes past the requirements of only water, barley and hops.
That mindset of simple, "pure" beer came across the Atlantic Ocean with immigrants and dominated the early beer culture of the United States. But now, freed by generations to follow their own muse, our country's craft brewers are having more fun with what goes into brew kettles and fermentation tanks.
Developing alongside the continuing melding of Latin and tropical food flavors into American cuisine, pepper beers are becoming more common.
There are spicy beers that wear their influence proudly, like the highly sought after Hunahpu's from Tampa's Cigar City Brewing. That extremely complex imperial stout mixes Mexican chocolate, vanilla beans, cinnamon and stacks of ancho chilies. Its popularity even warrants its own one-day festival where eager beer aficionados line up hours in advance for the opportunity to buy an allocated bottle or two before it sells out for the year.
There are other beers that are carving completely new paths, devoid of direct cultural precedent, like Founders' latest Backstage Series release, Mango Magnifico. Billed as a 10% ABV fruit beer, it has the tropical notes you'd expect from rich sweet mango fruit; but those flavors are countered with a nice bite of heat from an ample addition of habaneros.
Local brewery Southbound has gotten in on the act by adding roasted jalapeño peppers to casks of its Hoplin' IPA for special beer tasting events. Affectionately dubbed "Hotlin'" by fans, this variant puts the spicy profile of the pepper at the fore of the tasting experience. While the bright hoppiness is still there along with the base beer's milder combination of malts, this is a beer for lovers of the hot and spicy thrills that only the fresh green peppers can provide.
As an avid home brewer, I've attempted my own take on a jalapeño infused malt beverage. I started with a cream ale recipe built on 2-row malt with CaraPils, flaked barley and flaked maize. The relatively subtle bittering and hop flavor comes in the form of US-grown Cluster hops. A neutral yeast keeps the beer strictly in the guzzler camp of easy-to-drink crowd pleasing brews.
But this isn't your grandfather's Genesee style cream ale. With 15 minutes left in the boil, I add a few handfuls of slit, de-seeded oven-roasted jalapeños. The black-charred skins may not look that appetizing floating in the wort, but a quick taste before going into the fermenter lets you know that you're on the right path.
The final step comes after primary fermentation has taken place and you've moved to your clarifying step in secondary fermentation. At that phase, a few more roasted jalapeños are thrown into the batch for good measure. Those fresh peppers sit and slowly release their spicy juices into the vessel over a week's time.
The end result isn't as complex as Hunahpu's or as unique as Mango Magnifico. Instead, it is a simple, refreshing beer that has the recognizable burst of jalapeño meant to be consumed right away to get the biggest pepper flavor.
For this recipe and information on how to make many other specialty beers in your own kitchen like a four-peppercorn orange saison, a coffee and cream stout and a lemon coriander weiss, visit brewdrinkrun.com.