Most people would rather eat their chili than drink it. Mention the term “chili beer,” and your memory dredges up images of a novelty brand called Cave Creek, with a serrano pepper bobbing in the bottleneck, imparting enough heat to render the beer undrinkable.
Two leading craft breweries, however, are using chilis to a much subtler, and better, effect in limited-release beers just hitting the local market.
The Vixen is one of four new Boston Beer Co. “Single Batch” releases in 22-ounce bottles. The company has taken its Chocolate Bock, an occasional release over the years, and inserted cinnamon and chipotle and ancho peppers to add a moderate bite to the earthy, bittersweet flavor of the cocoa nibs and specialty malts.
The peppers are suspended in the beer during fermentation in a process “sort of like dry-hopping,” says Boston Beer chairman Jim Koch. “They’re a little mild, not at all like Scotch bonnets or habaneros,” he assures. “I’m not a big fan of dumping flaming chilis into food.”
“We enhanced it with cinnamon, which has its own heat and spiciness,” he adds. “These are flavors that I grew up with and that I’ve always enjoyed.”
Specifically, Koch mentioned Cincinnati chili, a Midwestern take on chili con carne that can include a variety of sweet flavors such as cinnamon, chocolate and cloves. (Koch grew up in Cincinnati and in the 1990s purchased the Hudepohl-Shoenling brewery there, where his father once worked.)
On Nov. 8, the Vixen and another Single Batch release (an oak-aged barley wine called Griffin’s Bow) were part of a marathon, nine-course Sam Adams/Dogfish Head beer dinner at Thunder Burger in Georgetown. Chef Ryan Fichter paired the new brews with an assortment of pineapple slices that were grilled, caramelized with goat cheese or dipped in a chocolate-and-chili sauce. The Vixen served its purpose well as a palate perker-upper for a four-hour meal that stretched past 11 p.m.
Depending on how well they sell, the Vixen, Griffin’s Bow and two other beers in the Single Batch series (a red IPA called Tasman Red and a double IPA dubbed Third Voyage) might or might not return.
But Stone 11.11.11 Vertical Epic Ale, from Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif., is a one-shot beer. The brewery produced 22,000 cases (some kegs as well), and after that’s gone, it’s not returning.
The beer had its genesis when Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele was browsing a spice shop in Temecula, Calif., searching for some peppers to give an extra oomph to his annual Super Bowl chili cookoff. The clerk had a single bag left of a green Anaheim chili from Hatch, N.M, a variety more noted for flavor than sheer heat.
“So I bought that last bag, and rather than cook with it, I decided we should try it in a pilot brew,” Steele recounts in his brewing notes. “We also added a touch of cinnamon to that pilot brew, giving it a bit of a Mexican flair, and found the flavors worked amazingly well together, even better than I had hoped for!”
The 11.11.11 Vertical Epic contains no chocolate, but it’s fermented with a Belgian yeast strain that imparts a slight banana flavor and even a subtle smoky character. The chilis, added in crushed and dried form before fermentation, contribute an earthy vegetable flavor but little heat. The beer also contains a fair amount of hops. It’s an odd amalgam, but somehow it works.
And why the name Vertical Epic? Stone adds another beer in this series every year when the numerals in the day, month and year line up. The recipes differ from year to year, but the Vertical Epic beers are always strong (11.11.11 clocks in at 9.4 percent alcohol by volume) and suitable for cellaring.
You can find descriptions of the nine previous Vertical Epic ales in the book “The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.: Liquid Lore, Epic Recipes, and Unabashed Arrogance,” penned by Stone founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, along with the brewery’s public relations coordinator Randy Clemens.
The series will end with the 12.12.12 release, since there is no 13th month. When that happens, Koch anticipates uncorking all 11 entries and conducting a vertical tasting “that promises to provide the beer connoisseur with the flavor equivalent of a Mozart symphony” (so he writes in his book).
If you haven’t been collecting the Vertical Epics from the beginning, it might be a little late to prepare for that apocalyptic tasting. Only 300 cases were sold of the original 2.2.02 beer, and a bottle recently appeared on eBay with an asking price of $1,100, Clemens reports.