Bring the pain

Armed with a takeaway and rings of steel, Alaster Phillips and Callum Strewart taste-test a range of chilli-packed brews.


When you talk about a ‘fire in your belly’, it generally means your blood is up and you’re ready for the fight. We certainly have a fire in ours tonight, but it is slow and uncomfortable; more like the onset of indigestion and the curry sweats.

Six beers vs two men. A man vs food style showdown between us mere mortals and the mighty chilli, brewed by a sadist with a direct line to hell.

The editor has decided it would be fun to supply a food pairing for our chilli beers. Maybe something to balance the fire, and compliment it to a cornucopia of heady flavours? No, we’re presented with a lamb vindaloo that becomes the benchmark against which all inferno was measured.

First up is 1251 Jerk Stout, a collaboration between Brick Brewery and Great British Menu winner James Cochran, taking the same name as his Islington restaurant.

The malt was hand-smoked on applewood chips by James, then when you add his secret spice mix it is pretty subtle – you taste the beer first, then the spice creeps up on you. Warming rather than hot, with a fruity nose a bit like cola cubes and a smoky palate. Washing down a piece of pakora suddenly livens it up from a from a fairly middle of the road stout, to one with a warm depth of spice that tingles rather than burns. On the vindaloo scale, it’s not even in the same ballpark, but this is just the start of an interesting journey.

Next we have Atom’s Fission, an orange and chilli IPA. This is a decent orange IPA in its own right, with a citrus tingle and green chilli on the nose. The habanero comes back warming the throat, but again there isn’t the full-on fireball assault you might expect in a chilli beer. Orange and chilli is a tried and tested pairing, so the only risk here would have been going overboard with the chilli or making a crappy IPA – this is neither. A pleasant surprise on the beer front.

Dirty Sanchez Chipotle Porter was the second beer ever made by Fierce Brewing Co back in their homebrew days, and won Best Porter at the 2018 Scottish Beer Awards. There’s just a hint of chilli in there – you can actually taste the chipotle with almost no heat. If you were in a hurry to catch your bus and didn’t want to leave it behind, two or three big gulps will give you the warmth you need to brave this British spring time. It’s a classic mellow chocolate porter taste with the chilli warmth added in for good measure.

Fierce MD, Dave Grant confirms: “The chipotle is not there really for heat, but for flavour first. The heat is a secondary boost. Sanchez is not supposed to be in-your-face offensively hot, more a great beer with a touch of chilli.”

Dave makes an important point. While we’re definitely looking for a face-melter tonight, the majority of chilli beers use spice as a way of accentuating and enhancing tried and tested flavour combinations. As Douglas Rowe, head brewer at Tempest tells us, “All beer, regardless of style, should be trying to achieve balance. Setting out to make a beer as spicy as possible would be like trying to make an IPA as bitter as possible – out of balance and more or less undrinkable.”

Tempest’s Mexicake is an 11% Imperial Stout, inspired by a love of Mexican cooking and enjoyment of making food flavour concept beers.

“We tend to use a blend of ancho, chipotle and pasilla, which lend not only heat, but also flavour and complexity that work well with the other ingredients in the beer,” says Douglas.

“The spice builds up gradually, but it’s all at the back of the throat, like your tongue is getting a chance at some of the flavours before the fire. The strength of the beer means you aren’t just going to chuck it back, so the heat grows gently.”

Next up is another restaurant collaboration, this time between Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and the good folk at Beer52. Ghanaian Spiced Porter is a sneaky one. Take a gulp and it’s not too spicy; pretty light for a porter, not too complex – and then, before you know it, you have the hot breath of an erupting volcano. Just before the spice tears your soul a new one, the curry and the beer bring out an amazing subtle fruitiness like peaches and nectarines that’s mellow, soft and really exciting. It works, then it hurts!

By now we have achieved our goal, we’re on fire but with one still to go. Black Death by Fallen Angel, which specialises in making brews with chilli.

This one looks like liquid chilli. You think you’re going to be okay, but then the naga chilli comes back from the belly like a belch from the cauldron of hell. The whole time our mouths hang open, trying to breathe in as much cool air as possible to temper the fire. This is hotter than the vindaloo, and now I’m just feeling sadness.

In the end it, becomes a juvenile game of dares, goading your buddy to go first, and watching the regret tsunami across their features only spurs you on to join the self-inflicted painfest. At 4.5% it is the lowest in strength, but it packs a devil of a punch.

We went into this showdown expecting a sliding scale from warming spice to raging inferno, and we were not disappointed. Chilli and spiced beers aren’t the work of leftover R&D budgets and a brewer’s sadistic whimsy, but in many cases are well thought-out flavours and ingredients that can come together in a great beer.

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