The chili pepper stout revolution began in Tampa, Florida at Cigar City Brewing. This beer was given its own festival starting in 2011 though notes show that this beer may have been produced as far back as 2008. While chili peppers have been featured in a variety of styles of beer, stouts seem to be the most successful. Imperial Stouts are the perfect vessel for adding chilies because they add another layer of flavor rather than being the highlighted feature. Below are some of the most popular examples of this a style that has really taken off in the past couple of years. In all cases, there are different additions other than peppers that make these beers sing and dance on your palate. A quick note about how the pepper presents itself. Most commonly the pepper is noticeable in the back of the mouth and in the throat with a bit of heat common to chili peppers, though it rarely shows up early or overwhelms the palate. The other note you can get from the pepper is a green or vegetal note. This can come through in the nose and in the mouth and presents itself more like a green pepper taste without the heat.
Cigar City Hunaphu is an imperial stout aged on cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, ancho chilies, pasilla chilies and cinnamon sitting at 11% ABV. They have released a variety of barrel aged versions of this beer including brandy, rum, and bourbon barrel aged. In 2014, they will be releasing a double barrel aged version that is half rum and half apple brandy barrel aged. Memories of this one are a little faint for me. Cigar City brews tend to be a little sweet for my liking, but I recall all of the other flavors, especially the cinnamon, really shining on this brew.
Perennial Abraxas is an imperial stout brewed with ancho chili peppers, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and cinnamon sticks coming in at 10%. The highlight of this beer is the mouthfeel. Thick, rich, dark chocolate, notes are present, but ancho was basically undetectable. I got to try the barrel aged version of this beer at the Great Taste of the Midwest and the chili came through on this version. Maybe a tiny bit of heat in the back with some green notes in front of that. Probably the most fulfilling of all the chili stouts.
Prairie Bomb! is an imperial stout aged on espresso beans, chocolate, vanilla beans, and ancho chili peppers. This beer has the highest ABV of the bunch at 14%. The mouthfeel isn’t quite as heavy as Abraxas or Huaphu, which is a positive for this beer. The coffee is the notable exception on this beer and it really adds a fantastic element up front in the nose. Also less sweet along with less thickness really highlights the heat of the peppers in the back. For me, this beer was the wildest ride of the bunch and definitely my favorite, coming in at number 11 for my Best Beers of 2013. They also recently released a rum barrel aged version of the beer called Pirate Bomb!
Central Waters Space Ghost is the most mysterious of the bunch. They advertise that this brew as an imperial stout with Anaheim and ghost chili peppers added. People at Central Waters have confirmed the ABV on this beer is 10%. This beer is much more straightforward from the others on the list. All Central Waters stouts have a thinner body to me and in this case it isn’t a bad thing. Lots of great stout notes in the mouth that don’t get lost by other additions. I was a little worried when they mention the use of ghost chilies, but the heat is on the slightly more prominent end and absolutely fantastic.
Westbrook Mexican Cake is the brewery’s anniversary beer. It is an imperial stout aged on cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks and fresh habanero peppers. Another notable deviation from the trend is the presence of habanero peppers on this beer. Also a little lower on the ABV coming in at 10.5%. This beer carried the most heat of the bunch, with noticeable warmth that lingers in the back. The other notes unfortunately didn’t have as much presence and the thinness really holds this one back.
We decided to jump on board with this new trend and try making a homebrew chili pepper stout. The idea came about when we were brewing our annual imperial stout, Ten. We ended up getting miserable efficiency and ended up with a 7.5% beer. We blended half of the 10 gallons into a second, higher ABV version, to brew our standard stout and were left with 5 gallons of 7.5% beer to experiment with. We started to experiment with blending until we ended up with a product we were happy with. First we added vanilla bean, cocoa nibs, pablano and habanero peppers. The pablano gave the beer an overwhelming green flavor that just didn’t fit. The vanilla didn’t seem to blend either, but it might have been because the low ABV didn’t support it. We then tried 1:1 ratio additions of cocoa nibs and habanero, which let through a bit too much pepper in the mouth. We then went to 2:1 cocoa and habanero and everything seemed to magically come together. We then tried 3:1 and things got out of balance again.
Third Tier Brewing Diez is our homebrew imperial stout with cocoa nibs and habanero added coming in at 7.5% ABV. Despite the low ABV, the creamy mouthfeel of this beer really brings the cocoa nibs to life. A good amount, but not overwhelming sweetness gives way to very subtle heat in the back. At really cold temperatures, it is barely detectable. As the beer warms, the heat comes through just a touch, which is amazing because it is there but doesn’t overwhelm. Overall a great product we look forward to brewing again down the road.