Summit County brewers embrace chili beers as summer heats up |

Summit County brewers embrace chili beers as summer heats up

Story, photos by Krista Driscoll
Krista Driscoll /
Krista Driscoll / |

One of the best things about summertime is all of the great seasonal brews that are released for sipping in the sunshine. From saisons to fruit-flavored beers, breweries lighten up their stocks and peddle their sessionable, refreshing wares.

If you’re tired of throwing back the same old pilsners, wheat beers and lagers, try reaching for something a little different this summer: chili beers. The category is growing in popularity, and new brews are popping up all the time.

How it’s done: Twisted Pine

Justin Tilotta, wrangler of logistics, linguistics and statistics at Twisted Pine Brewing Co., said that when it comes to brewing their two popular chili beers, the process is a lot like making tea. The brewery originally used a bung keg to experiment with chili flavors. This old-style, oval-shaped keg is flat on both ends and has a hole in the side that is stopped with a wooden plug called a bung. A bag of cut chilies is shoved into the keg through the hole in the side and steeped in a base of wheat beer.

“The problem with doing it that way is that the flavor changes every day,” Tilotta said. “It’s like a bag of tea in a cup. It took a few tries before they got the proportion right and how long the chilies should stay in the beer.”

Once Twisted Pine had Billy’s Chillies dialed in, it was apparent that the beer wasn’t spicy enough for those lava-hot, heat-freak palates. So the brilliant minds in Boulder decided to play with a new type of chili: the ghost pepper. This beauty ranks at about 1 million heat units on the Scoville scale; as a comparison, your standard Tabasco red pepper sauce rates at a measly 5,000. Dubbed Ghost Face Killah and labeled the hottest beer this side of hell, this is the beer for that friend who douses everything with Sriracha, Tilotta said.

If the thought of mouth-burning beer is a little too far off the beaten path for you, four of the five Summit County breweries are currently pouring or pondering their own milder iterations of pepper beers.

Breckenridge Brewery: Mango Chili IPA

Jimmy Walker, head brewer at Breckenridge Brewpub, said making a good chili beer, just like any other brewing project, is all about balance.

“I prefer to put the chilies in the end of the boil because I think you get a rounder flavor, where as a lot of brewers will just kind of put it into the secondary fermenter or the serving tank,” he said. “You don’t get the roundness; you’re basically just putting chilies in the beer.”

Walker has taken a swim in the chili-beer pool twice in the past year, once with the brewery’s fall release, Uncle John’s Chili Autumn, a dark beer with lots of roasted malts that play well with the roasted chili flavors, and again this spring with the Mango Chili IPA.

“This is the second year that we’ve done it,” Walker said of the IPA. “Last year, it was a collaboration with Papago Brewing Co. in Phoenix. It was so popular we had to make it again, so it’s a little shout out to those guys.”

For this particular brew, the brewers started with their IPA, added the mango puree and then roasted three kinds of chilies in the brewpub kitchen. Walker said he thinks roasting the chilies creates a great flavor that complements the beer.

“My thing is, if you put chili in a beer, unless it’s super, super subtle, you really need to have a balance,” he said. “When people make a light lager and add a bunch of chilies, it tends to be out of balance and tastes like you are drinking carbonated hot peppers.

“I like the sweet and hot combination, which is why I decided on the mangoes and chilies together. The IPA is the malty backbone, so you have a lot of different things playing off each other, which is better than a chili lager, where you have chilies and nothing, unless you can do it subtle with a light hand.”

Breckenridge Brewpub saved some of the current batch of Mango Chili IPA and barreled it in bourbon casks from the Breckenridge Distillery. Walker said the tapping date for that beer is still up in the air.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t make it too sweet, but it could make it a little boozier,” he said. “Whenever there’s room for it, we’ll pull it out. Follow us on social media to know when we tap it.”

Broken Compass Brewing: Chili Pepper Pale Ale

When Broken Compass Brewing in Breckenridge celebrates its grand opening on Saturday, May 31, one of the six beers on tap will be the brewery’s Chili Pepper Pale Ale. Jason Ford, head brewer at Broken Compass, said they brewed a lighter pale ale to highlight the pepper flavors they are putting into it.

“It’s a fairly simple pale, a recipe that my wife, Jo, developed,” Ford said. “She uses it for a pomegranate pale that she makes in the summertime, so I tweaked that a bit and added all the different peppers, five different peppers.”

Poblano, Anaheim, habanero, Serrano and jalapeno peppers are all added to the pale ale during secondary fermentation to create the flavor and aroma Ford is looking for.

“We’ve got a little bit of that heat, but it’s got that really big nose for the fresh pepper smell and flavor,” he said. “It’s not too much heat; it’s not going to burn your face off, that’s by design. It’s a little more drinkable. It’s designed so that you can drink more than one.”

In order to keep the heat low, Ford and his crew remove 90 percent to 95 percent of the pepper seeds, he said, leaving all the pepper body but only a little bit of the heat, which hits the back of your throat on the way down.

“We cut them up and roast them because we’re looking for all that flavor,” Ford said. “You want more surface area to expose. If you chop them up, it’s more efficient at extracting all the flavors and aromas. We don’t roast them like you go buy roasted peppers. We’re not looking for all that smoky flavor. We just give them a little bit of roast; heating them up helps bring out the oils.”

Ford said he plans to number the batches of Chili Pepper Pale Ale he makes, since peppers are so variable from crop to crop, season to season and year to year.

Dillon Dam Brewery:

Playa Nieve Chili Lager

The Dillon Dam Brewery has been producing its Chili Lager for quite a few years, and this summer’s iteration took on the Spanish moniker Playa Nieve, which translates to “snow beach.”

“It comes out a little differently every year due to different pepper crops, so the heat is going to be different every year,” said Mike Bennett, head brewer at Dillon Dam. “The peppers that we use are Anaheim, Serrano, jalapeno, habanero and poblano. We’re not going for a big, heavy spice on it, more of a good chili flavor with a hint of spice at the end, something that’s a little more drinkable.”

Though the pepper bill looks similar to that of Broken Compass’ chili brew, each uses a different fermentation process and a different ratio of chilies of each variety.

“We do have a little bit of malt complexity to it, but it is a light beer,” Bennett said. “The lager keeps it a good, smooth, light beer, so we do ferment at about 55 degrees.”

To make the beer, Bennett adds peppers to the boil at four different times to get different qualities out of them, such as flavor and aroma. He said adding them to the boil, rather than during fermentation, allows him to have a little bit more control and get more of that good chili flavor. For the brewery’s next Tap It Tuesday on June 10, Bennett has made a couple of variations of the Playa Nieve.

“We’re doing a spicier version of our chili,” he said. “We added more chilies in one keg and another one that we added a little bit of peaches to, as well: a sweet and spicy and a spicier version of our chili for people who like those spicier chili beers.”

Pug Ryan’s Chili Stout

Rather than brewing an entire batch of chili pepper beer, which ties up the brewery’s tanks for a long time, Pug Ryan’s Brewing Co. head brewer Dave Simmons takes a micro approach.

“I love chilies, heat and spice; I’m a heat freak,” he said. “I found a new way to do it, which works better for us. What I do is I have my kitchen roast jalapeno peppers for me, I pull the stem out of the keg, and I set like 12 of those roasted jalapeno peppers in the keg, in a keg sleeve.”

The sleeve is a 2-inch diameter, 12-inch-long nylon bag that fits neatly into the empty keg once the stem is removed. Simmons said he wraps the string of the keg sleeve around the inside of the stem, replaces the stem, pressurizes the keg and fills it up with stout — a keg of specialty beer without creating an entire batch.

“Within a day, it’s perfect,” he said. “I can do any pepper I wanted to, but the roasted jalapenos have been perfect for it. It’s a new approach that works really well, so I’m going to keep doing that.”

Simmons said the beer has been very popular in the past, and he’s not sure exactly when he’ll do another keg of it, but it will be sometime soon.

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