Chili peppers, watermelon, and other oddities
Once upon a time beer was made with just four ingredients: malts, hops, yeast, and water. Today there's seemingly no limit to what can be thrown into the brew pot. For experimentally-minded brewers, the world is their oyster . . . which coincidentally enough is an option too!
Exotic ingredients often take their roots in exotic styles, which is true for the ever-creative Sam Calagione and DOGFISH HEAD BREWERY. Most beers in their profile incorporate something unusual, whether it is raisins (RAISON D'ETRE), lemongrass (NAMASTE), ginger (PANGAEA), or Chrysanthemum flowers (CHATEAU JIAHU). My favorite is SAH'TEA, a take on the Finnish Sahti, a style using juniper berries, chai tea, and almost an entire spice rack! The chai thankfully plays only a supporting role in the flavor, resulting in a very drinkable, original beer.
Another ancient style requiring unusual ingredients is Scottish Gruits, popularized by the pioneering WILLIAMS BROTHERS BREWING. Gruits utilized several natural ingredients before hops were widely available. FRAOCH HEATHER ALE uses heather flower tips to play on the mouth like a hop, creating a fruity, light, and lovely balanced beer. Similarly, ALBA SCOTS PINE ALE uses pine twigs and spruce buds for an herbal, even spicy brew. Even more ambitious (but less successful) is their KELPIE SEAWEED ALE, a dark, earthy and, yes, salty beer that tastes a lot like a thin Porter.
At this point spices are routinely used when brewing so it takes something pretty unusual to make an impression. SAMUEL ADAMS did just that in their most recent Longshot pack with HONEY B'S LAVENDER ALE, a pretty decent beer with only a hint of lavender. Subtly is often the name of the game when dealing with spices, which is why SAISON DU BUFF — a collaborative brew from STONE, DOGFISH HEAD, and VICTORY — fell flat for me. Victory's version of this brew incorporating parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme was not only gimmicky, but a clash between hops and spices.
Fruit Beers also seem old hat by now. I can think of beers using apple, apricot, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, orange, raspberry, and strawberry, off the top of my head. But some fruits still seem odd when you see them on the beer shelf. Take 21ST AMENDMENT'S HELL OR HIGH WATERMELON, essentially a watermelon Jolly Rancher in a bottle. MAUI'S COCONUT PORTER is an inspired idea that works pretty well for this dark, sweet beer. And WELLS BANANA BREAD BEER goes beyond the flavor of banana conjured in some European styles to actually brewing with bananas. Unfortunately, this tastes more like banana candy than real beer.
An ingredient that continues to capture my imagination is chili peppers. ROGUE'S CHIPOTLE ALE has a smoky flavor with the distinct taste of pepper (as in salt and pepper.) DOGFISH HEAD'S THEOBROMA took a more successful route with the heat of ancho chilis cut by taste of sweet honey and cocoa malt. I love how the spiciness of the chilis comes through but still fits into the beer, with the spice making your tongue tingle like a Double IPA might. That said I've avoided the infamous ORIGINAL C CAVE CREEK CHILI BEER, a beer with an entire Serrano pepper in the bottle.
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