Chili Peppers in Beer: How to Balance Spicy vs. Spiced Just Right

Published: May 17, 2024
A pile of red chili peppers

We’re continuing our coverage on adjuncts used to improve beers—honey, coconut, chocolate, fruit candy, and fruit purees—with chili peppers, which can give a nice kick to various beer styles.

We chatted with Casita Brewing and Kelly Brewing Company to learn what brewers hope to achieve with the adjunct, how best to use it, and which beer styles are best with chilis.

(Above photography courtesy of Ryan Quintal | Unsplash)

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What the Experts Hope to Achieve by Adding Chili Peppers to Beer

Bright red chili peppers on a white background

Photography courtesy of Tamanna Rumee | Unsplash

You can take a couple of avenues when using chili peppers in beer. Kelly Brewing Company Founder and Brewer Ross Kelly says they look for both flavor and heat when incorporating the adjunct.

“Different chili peppers have a huge difference in heat and flavors, so it depends on what end product you are looking for,” Kelly says. “[You can go with] burn-your-face-off hot or mellow heat with flavor, or anywhere in between.”

Casita Brewing Co-Owner Ryan Witter-Merithew says it really depends on what you want.

“In some beers, I want just heat like our Fiesta Fiesta del fuego,” Witter-Merithew says. “In other beers, I am looking to get flavor from the chilis over heat like in our Querido Y Perdido.”

Witter-Merithew adds, “It’s important to think of the desired final product and then pick chilis to suit the need.”

Different chili peppers have a huge difference in heat and flavors, so it depends on what end product you are looking for,
Ross Kelly - Kelly Brewing Company
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What Are the Important Considerations When Brewing with Chili Peppers?

When using any adjunct in beer, it’s imperative to have a solid plan. But unlike previous adjuncts we’ve covered, chili peppers bring a whole new element to the brewing process that you have to consider.

“Controlling the level of heat is the most important thing,” Witter-Merithew says. “Too spicy is not drinkable, and not enough spice will make people complain.”

Kelly says there are three things at the top of his considerations list.

“The rarity of the chili pepper is a top consideration for me,” Kelly says. “And then other things I look for are the peppers’ freshness and spiciness.”

Beyond the chili pepper itself, there has to be a level of care for handling the ingredients. Both Kelly and Witter-Merithew say it’s a must to wear gloves.

“You should always use PPE [personal protective equipment] when working with chilis,” Witter-Merithew says. “Don’t forget the goggles, because it’s all too easy to accidentally touch your eye when working with peppers.”

Witter-Merithew adds, “And don’t forget to wash your hands when you finish!”

Too spicy is not drinkable, and not enough spice will make people complain.
Ryan Witter-Merithew - Casita Brewing

Kelly echoes Witter-Merithew.

“Use gloves, at least with the hot chilis,” Kelly says. “Handle them with love and gloves.”

In terms of storage, that all depends on the pepper.

“You can usually store them in jars,” Kelly says. Dried chilis can be stored at room temperature in sealed jars. Fresh chilis need to be handled and stored like fresh produce.”

Kelly adds, “Be sure to clearly label your peppers. You don’t want to mix up your chilis because of the different flavors and heat levels.”

Witter-Merithew says he doesn’t need to worry about labeling because he’s the only brewer at Casita. Label considerations are only for packed cans, which list the ingredients consumers should know. The powdered ones he leans toward can be stored in room-temperature containers, while whole chilis he keeps in the freezer.

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What Is the Best Type of Chili Pepper to Use in the Brewing Process?

Red chili peppers and a container of chili powder on a taupe background

Photography courtesy of Towfiqu Barbhuiya | Unsplash

With chili peppers, numerous options can bring all sorts of flavor and aroma notes. In addition to choosing a type of pepper—jalapeno, serrano, habanero, scotch bonnet, or ghost pepper, among others—you can get the product in different formats, such as liquified, dried, smoked, flaked, pickled, or whole.

Powdered gives you so much control over adjusting flavor,
Ryan Witter-Merithew - Casita Brewing

While Witter-Merithew admits he loves all types of chili peppers for beer, he has one that he favors.

“I personally love dried smoked chilis the most, like Ancho and chipotle,” Witter-Merithew says. “But I use plenty others like jalapeños or habanero, depending on what I am after.”

Witter-Merithew notes that in the Querido Y Perdido, a Mexican hot chocolate stout, he blends a few smokey chilis, including ancho and chipotle. On the other hand, for Fiesta Fiesta del fuego, he says he is just looking for a touch of spice.

“I will use habanero [for that] as the flavor isn’t too big, but the heat is nice,” Witter-Merithew says.

Witter-Merithew says he prefers powdered chilis because they help him control the heat level.

“Powdered gives you so much control over adjusting flavor,” he says.

Kelly doesn’t think there is necessarily a “best” chili pepper. Flavor is subjective, and he says the best way to find what you want is to use a lighter or neutral-flavored beer.

“I don’t have a pepper I would recommend using exclusively,” Kelly says. “I think you could experiment with many varieties to determine which end flavors you like.”

Through his own trial and error, Kelly has found one he prefers.

“I personally tend to lean towards hotter varieties with good flavor,” Kelly says. “We did a Carolina Reaper pepper beer, and it was very popular but totally on the heat side of things.”

As for the format, Kelly says, “I like to use dried chilis.”

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When Do You Add Chili Pepper in the Brewing Process?

Kelly says they add the chili peppers by infusing them in a finished-product beer.

“They were packaged as flakes in a keg during packaging,” Kelly says.

Witter-Merithew says he mostly adds chili peppers to the beer post-fermentation.

“For some, I add them to the fermenter so they drop out before I transfer,” Witter-Merithew says. “I do this with dried chili powders.”

He adds, “For others, I add them into the brite tank and then let the beer rest on the chilis for a few days.”

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How Much Chili Pepper Should You Use?

Side-by-side- photos of Rupee beer, premium craft beer brewed with chili peppers

Photography courtesy of Rupee Beer

Witter-Merithew says Casita sources chili powders from a company in Asheville, North Carolina, and uses considerably less than if he used whole peppers.

“Maybe about one-tenth of what I normally would of whole,” Witter-Merithew estimates. “With something like the Busy Gettin’ Fizzy Jalapeno Margarita hard seltzer we have on, I took fifteen pounds of fresh jalapeno, de-seeded it, removed the membrane inside, and added that to ten barrels of seltzer.”

He adds, “I’ve been making chili beers for about fifteen years now, so much of it has just come from trial and error.”

Witter-Merithew says that because of varying spice levels, it’s easy to overuse chilis, so he advises starting with a restrained amount, knowing you can add more later.

“Also, you want to remember that different people taste spice at different levels,” he says. “What might not seem too spicy to you could be super hot to someone else.”

Witter-Merithew ran into an issue with a chili pepper beer that went awry when he made an IPA that featured habanero, mango, and coconut.

“When I put the habanero in it, it didn’t taste that spicy,” Witter-Merithew says. “But when I transferred it, suddenly the heat was way more than I expected because I hadn’t mixed the chilis around enough or given the flavor enough time to develop before adding more.”

He adds, “Luckily, a couple of days of conditioning on coconut really balanced it out.”

His message from that experience: “Don’t go too heavy-handed. Take your time and add a little bit at a time. You can always add more, but you can’t take it away once it’s been added.”

While it's cool to offer as a challenge to drink, the average consumer would most likely go no further than a small sip,
Ross Kelly - Kelly Brewing Company

Kelly says the amount varies based on the pepper, and you can figure that number out through testing.

“Do some different tests using varying amounts and forms of peppers, and dose into a control volume of beer to get your desired flavor and heat,” Kelly says.

Like Witter-Merithew, Kelly says you must be careful not to overdo it with the heat.

“While it’s cool to offer as a challenge to drink, the average consumer would most likely go no further than a small sip,” Kelly says. “Undershooting is possible, too, if you can’t get any flavor or heat coming through.”

Kelly says you can blend the spicy beer into a non-pepper beer to reduce the heat if something goes awry.

Witter-Merithew adds, “I have added mango and coconut before as I think the sweetness in them helps bring a balance back to a super-hot beer.”

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Which Beer Style Best Showcases Chili Pepper?

“I think the peppers themselves are best over a clean-profile beer such as light lagers, ales, or pilsners,” Kelly says. “Much like you wouldn’t want to use a lot of hops in something that didn’t have a clean starting profile.”

Witter-Merithew feels the adjunct can be incorporated in much more.

“I have put them in stout, lager, IPA, seltzer, brown ale,” he says. “They can be lovely in all styles if used correctly.”

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Three Great Examples of Chili Pepper in Beer

A photo of Kelly Brewing craft beer brewed with chili peppers, ghost peppers, and scorpion peppers

Photography courtesy of Kelly Brewing

Witter-Merithew points to both Querido Y Perdido, an 11% ABV imperial stout, and Fiesta Fiesta del fuego, a 4.5% ABV American lager.

“They both showcase peppers in very different ways,” Witter-Merithew says. “With Querido, the peppers mix with chocolate and cinnamon to add smoke, leather, and dark fruits to the imperial stout. With Fiesta, the beer has lime, black pepper, tajin, and chilis. And in that beer, the chili is a subtle kiss in the back of the throat that just makes you want to take another sip.”

Kelly Brewing has Go Nuts, a 5.2% ABV cream ale with 13 IBUs and ghost pepper added to the finished beer.

“I think the coolest thing about our chili pepper beer is that it is made from chilis I personally grew,” says Kelly, who is brainstorming ways to improve it for the next batch.

“Next go around, I plan to decrease the heat level and filter out any pepper flakes,” he says. “This will make the beer more palatable and decrease any ongoing heat increase, as the peppers will thus be removed.”

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Ollie author headshot for Giovanni Albanese, Jr.

About The Author

Giovanni Albanese

Giovanni is a content writer for Next Glass, contributing to the Ollie blog. He is a writer by day and a brewer/business owner by night, owning and operating Settle Down Brewery & Taproom in Gilroy, California.

Giovanni is passionate about a number of things, including history, documentaries and sports, but none more than reporting/writing and brewing beer. After receiving a radio broadcasting degree then a journalism degree from Salem State College in his home state of Massachusetts, he relocated to California in 2008.

Then, his writing career kicked off – covering sports, business, politics and more along the way – while concurrently dabbling in home brewing. The home brewing turned pro in 2021 when he launched SDB Brewing Company. Settle Down Beer officially opened in February.

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