Alcoholic warmth and spicy heat make hot pepper beers a satisfying choice in the depths of winter. Often available only in small batches due to their palate-polarizing nature, pepper beers come and go quickly on Twin Cities menus. Fans would be wise to pursue them now; current choices include Surly’s Fiery Hell, Bent Brewstillery’s El Guerrero, and HammerHeart’s Thor’s Habañero Smoked Porter.
The last of these is a smoked Baltic-style porter with habanero peppers and is available now on draft at local beer bars. The beer’s description cites a late addition of smoked hot peppers, “some of the hottest peppers in the world” as well as 9 percent alcohol by volume.
The stage seems set for a potent beer filled with heat and smoke. Far from overwhelming, however, the aroma contains only mild smoke and astringent notes. The incredibly deep-black color is reflected in the resilient head, which is a dark khaki. On first sip, smoke overwhelms, along with robust, rich malt. By second taste the tongue is entirely coated in the viscous liquid, and the coffee and toast flavors quickly build. Smoldering in the glass is the prominent smoke that reads as natural; despite its intensity, it never turns chemical.
Comparing the actual beer with its asserted style is where the let-down occurs. There was no detectable heat in the glass. In fact, the only pepper note is something mildly vegetal, likely enhanced by the power of suggestion. I had to talk myself into believing the brewer had forgotten the peppers in order to enjoy the beer.
Perhaps the technique, aimed at avoiding terrible heat, stripped too much flavor: “Don’t worry, the seeds and membranes of the peppers have been removed after the peppers were roasted and smoked, so the beer has a bit of bite and flavor, but no overbearing heat,” reassures the beer’s description.
For comparison’s sake: Surly’s Fiery Hell packs a bit more heat. The brewery’s usual Helles lager is made with puya chilies and is aged in red oak, striking the balance between complex heat and a mellowness enhanced by wood aging. The lager style, with its cracker notes and bright carbonation underscores the heat rather than competes with it.
HammerHeart Brewing Company, 7785 Lake Drive, Circle Pines, MN 55014