Craft beer in Los Angeles has been made with so many bizarre additions these days, we barely flinch when we come across an IPA brewed with Syrah grapes or an English mild infused with coffee. One increasingly popular beer ingredient that still stops our taste buds dead in their tracks, however, is the chili pepper.
That's right: some of the most popular types of chili peppers — from jalapeños to habaneros — which are usually used to bring spice or smokiness to food, are now being used as flavoring agents by breweries across Southern California. The results give new meaning to the term “firewater.”
To be fair, the trend towards spicy beers has been floating around San Diego for a while, with old guard names like Ballast Point and Stone Brewing experimenting with special draft-only chili-laden rarities since at least 2012. But it's a new day of acceptance for these once off-putting pepper beers. No longer mere novelties resigned to intense spiciness or off-putting heat, many chili beers are now more subdued (and more frequently made) brews, bringing tongue-tingling properties into a bizarre-yet-intriguing liquid form.
As a secondary home for some of the world's most spice-happy cuisines (is there such a thing as mild Korean tofu soup?), Southern California is the most appropriate place for this concept to flourish. Here are five beers that take one of the weirdest craft beer adjuncts to new, palatable heights.
5. Anaheim, CA, Bottle Logic Brewing, 4.7%ABV
It didn't take long after opening this February for Anaheim's Bottle Logic Brewery to make a beer using its hometown's namesake chili pepper. Appropriately called “Anaheim, CA,” this monthly-made takes She Shot First, their year-round pale wheat ale, and drops in enough Anaheim peppers to give it a completely different flavor profile. The catch? There's no spiciness in this pepper beer. Each Anaheim chili is scraped of its seeds and juice before it goes in the mix, giving you all of the flavor with none of the heat.
4. Shaolin Fist, Monkish Brewing Company, 7.0%ABV
Every beer that comes out of Monkish's Torrance brewery has a spice or herb in it — something to give it a different kick than others brewed in a similar style. Shaolin Fist (which conjures all sorts of Mortal Combat memories), however, is Monkish's first beer with an actual kick, thanks to the inclusion of Sichuan peppercorns. So what if Sichuan peppercorns aren't actually chili peppers? When used to spice this Belgian-style dubbel, they give off a tingling mouthfeel along with a peppery flavor that mimics what any chili would do. Originally brewed in 2013, a summer batch was making its rounds during L.A. Beer Week last month and more may be on the way.
3. DTSA Zing, The Good Beer Company, 7.5%ABV
Though it's still technically in its soft opening phase, The Good Beer Company in downtown Santa Ana already has a full line-up of interesting beers that showcase creativity and boundary-pushing potential. Most interesting of these is the DTSA Zing, a hoppy ale brewed with an assortment of nameless hot peppers. It only takes one sip of what otherwise looks and smells like a West Coast IPA to understand how it got its name; swallow the liquid and — ZING — an intense spiciness pops back up, coating your mouth like a good taqueria salsa. Drink a full pint and you may need a glass of milk to wash it down.
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2. Smoked Porter with Chipotle Pepper, Stone Brewing, 5.9%ABV
Every Spring since 2007, Stone has brewed and bottled this dark and spicy take on its basic smoked porter as an homage to the brewer who first invented it. Because chipotle peppers are just smoke-dried jalepeños, they make a fascinating addition to the smoked malts used in the roasty, heavy beer — adding not only more smoldering flavors, but also a glint of heat in the finish. Aging porters isn't as frowned upon as, say, aging IPAs is, so bottles and kegs of this annual beer tend to stick around well past its May release, but if you're antsy for a newer Stone pepper-beer fix, the San Diego stalwart recently released Xocoveza Mocha Stout, a one-off milk stout (brewed in collaboration with a Tijuana brewery and a local homebrewer) that's infused with coffee, vanilla, cocoa, peppers, cinnamon and nutmeg.
1. Habanero Sculpin, Ballast Point Brewing, 7.0%ABV
Though many chili beers came before it and Ballast Point even has a full line-up of other pepper beers it occasionally brews, it almost feels like Habanero Sculpin is the pinnacle of what's possible when beer goes spicy. Once a San-Diego-only draft offering, the habanero-infused version of Ballast Point's solid year-round IPA is so well-balanced that the brewery decided to start bottling it, so its brassy hop character and complementary lingering spice could continue to set the mold for all future chili beers. More widely available in bottles and on tap than ever, you can find it at specialty craft beer bars like The Daily Pint, Uncle Henry's Deli or 38 Degrees.