If you're anything like me, your friend John once tried to convince you that pouring Frank's RedHot® into a can of Natural Light would make it taste better. "Like an IPA," he'd say, stupidly. And of course, you would do it to prove a point and discover it tastes nothing like an IPA and everything like bottom-shelf cayenne peppers floating in mop water. Thankfully, both John and spicy beer have come a long way since then.
Done right, a good spicy beer can mimic the chest burn of a good whiskey. Done wrong, it creates a nightmarish loop of trying to cool off a palate with the same substance that caused the heat (a "putting out the fire with gasoline" type thing). As with any powerful ingredient, brewing with spicy peppers is all about balance. On one hand, your customer has decided to drink a spicy beer with words like "atomic" and "burning" and "fever" in the name, so they know what they're getting into. Give them the heat they signed up for. On the other hand, they should be able to drink it without dying.
"Brewing with pepper is not much different than using some other vegetable ingredients – it's about proportioning and flavor," says Cary Shaffer, head brewer of Couch Brewery, who makes a habanero amber ale called Atomic Meltdown. "It’s also important to us to showcase the flavors of the pepper."
If that flavor combination sounds like your kind of thing, there's a handful of Pittsburgh breweries doing great things with spicy beer, none of which involve Frank's or Natty Light. Here are a few favorites:
Couch Brewery: Atomic Meltdown
1531 Washington Blvd., Larimer. couchbrewery.com
Couch controls the heat by blending this brew with its non-spicy forbearer, Atomic Clock amber ale, which allows them to pinpoint exactly how much heat gets through (which is still a lot). If you're the type to keep hot sauce at your desk and car, Shaffer says this beer is for you.
Full Pint: Chinookie En Fuego
5310 Butler St., Lawrenceville. fullpintbrewing.com
This is a special take on Full Pint's flagship Chinookie IPA, paring down its bitterness with habanero peppers. Probably the only one on this list that you can drink two of in one sitting.
Butler Brew Works: Tokoloshe Chocolate Habanero Porter
101 S. Main St., Butler. butlerbrewworks.com
Tokoloshe is a mischievous hairy dwarf in Zulu folklore who can become invisible by drinking water, and apparently, served to inspire this spicy, sweet porter. It's brewed with cocoa, molasses, and habanero peppers, producing a milder, but still formidable heat.
11th Hour Brewing Co.: Burning Phoenix Jalapeno Pale Ale
3711 Charlotte St., Lawrenceville. 11thhourbrews.com
Even the most amateur palates will be able to pick out the jalapeño from several blocks away, and that's not a bad thing. The jalapeño brings heat, but there's a whole lot of flavor there that has nothing to do with spiciness. Get a glass of water, too.