Pepper descriptions courtesy Cayenne Diane
Chili beer is a (somewhat) recent addition to the craft beer experience. Brewers are experimenting with this craft beer by adding hot pepper juice, oils or even whole peppers to ales and lagers to create what is commonly becoming known as chili (or chile) beer.
Of the various adjuncts that can be added to beer, hot chili peppers are among the most unique, imparting flavors commonly associated with Southwestern cuisine along with a noticeable heat. Brewers use a range of chili peppers, from sweet all the way to ghost peppers, to get the balance of hot flavor and aroma they’re looking for.
A common and simple method for imparting chili characteristics in beer involves adding the chopped fruit directly to the beer, usually during fermentation similar to a dry hop addition. However, there are some who believe adding that much plant matter to the beer leads to undesirable flavors, and to avoid this, they use a tincture.
In general, tinctures are extracts produced by soaking a particular material, in this case chili peppers, in alcohol over a period of time, after which the material is separated from the liquid.
Commonly used in cooking to add the essence of a certain ingredient to a dish, tinctures offer brewers an easy way to experiment with different flavors that not only eliminates the addition of vegetal matter to their beer, but comes with minimal risk in that dosing can occur on a very small scale.
The Scoville scale is a measurement of the pungency (spiciness or “heat”) of chili peppers, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), based on the concentration of capsaicinoids, among which capsaicin is the predominant component. The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942), whose 1912 method is known as the Scoville organoleptic test.
The Scoville organoleptic test is the most practical method for estimating SHU and is a subjective assessment derived from the capsaicinoid sensitivity by people experienced with eating hot chilis.
In the Scoville organoleptic test, an exact weight of dried pepper is dissolved in alcohol to extract the heat components (capsaicinoids), then diluted in a solution of sugar water. Decreasing concentrations of the extracted capsaicinoids are given to a panel of five trained tasters, until a majority (at least three) can no longer detect the heat in a dilution. The heat level is based on this dilution, rated in multiples of 100 SHU.