All Up In Your Ale: Jalapeo Beers

Photo by Emily Walsh Perkins

Sick and tired of bland cheese dips? Is your nacho party full of no-shows? Do you want to hurt yourself just a little bit on the inside? Then you need jalapeños. That’s right, say goodbye to uneventful bowel movements, and say hello to a new way to compare yourself to people you barely know. Wanna spice up that burger? Add jalapeños. Kick up that cornbread? Peño. Turn a beer into a sinus cleanser?

Eh, maybe that’s taking it too far.

At least, that’s what good sense would tell you. But consider brewing in historical terms, during times when a beer could only be crafted from, for the most part, local ingredients. Odds are jalapeño beers were being done centuries ago where brewing was commonplace and jalapeños were plentiful. JustBeer suggests South America, particularly in places where people brewed chicha de jora (corn beer). Were the jalapeño iterations any good? I mean, probably…sometimes.

More importantly, are jalapeño beers good today. Well…sometimes. Though there’s a lot of subjectivity involved in what constitutes a desirable beer, most beer drinkers can agree on when a brew is undrinkable. Kind of like Da’Bomb, a hot sauce that catches everyone off guard in the YouTube web series Hot Ones. In the show, Sean Evans interviews celebrity guests while eating hot wings of varying heat, and nobody enjoys Da’Bomb. It only seeks to be hot—taste be damned, at least, that’s the impression the show leaves.

When I first noticed jalapeño beers hitting the mainstream a few years back, I bought a few six packs with no expectations. Most iterations came off as an answer to “can we?” rather than “should we?” The answer to both questions is a yes, but ignoring the second question often results in some unimpressive IPAs centered around heat with barely a nod to the fact that there’s a beer in that bottle.

That’s really the risk taken with rushing to be among the first to put out something—you might come off as a gimmick. Sarah Ferree, assistant brewer at Ooga Brewing Company in Beaver Dam, says “I think there’s something to be said this day and age for just something simple and clean and crisp when everybody is doing something crazy.” With so many more blurred lines on the liquor-store shelf, are we crossing into a craft-brewing reality where brewing novelty beers is no longer a novelty? I don’t think so. There are still some Cream Ales and Amber Ales buried in the avalanche of IPAs, but those novelty beers sure do make a lot of racket.

Photograph by Emily Walsh Perkins

To put Sarah’s point into context, using an ingredient that might be considered crazy doesn’t have to equate to a crazy beer. In fact, Ooga’s jalapeño Cream Ale, Holla!, finds a way to highlight the jalapeño while staying true to its Cream Ale roots. Jeff Scanlan, head brewer at Ooga, believes step-one was designing and perfecting his Cream Ale recipe before even thinking about introducing jalapeños to it.

When the time came for Jeff to do a jalapeño beer, “I would try different variations, different hops, but I’d always come back to a very simple recipe.” The recipe was something Jeff received from Victoria Bennet, a fellow homebrewer, in 2009. “It was the perfect thing for the fresh jalapeños to lay over. And that’s the key for us—I chop jalapeños for it.” What happens is a clever transition from the crispness of the Cream Ale to an extended sparkling of heat.

Shift that mentality over to the jalapeño IPAs. There are some just plain dumb IPAs out there, again, addressing what can I do with this beer over what should I do. Add jalapeños to the mix, and the party is over before par. But there are also a lot more really well-thought-out IPAs available today compared to a few decades ago. With the minds behind some of those beers still going strong, it’s only a matter of time before we get something that sets a new standard for the jalapeño beers we’ve seen thus far. Heck, some beers out there right now are already upping the ante.

I’m looking forward to stretching the range of jalapeño beers. Sure, you can take a juicy pineapple IPA, maybe something with BRU-1 hops; tweak the bittering hops so the alphas are in check; add jalapeños in the secondary; and in a few years, something fantastic might come out the other end. But we may only be months from a jalapeño-popper beer (maybe a jalapeño Cream Ale with lactose), a jalapeño banana-bread beer (something with a Hefeweizen), or a jalapeño pastry beer (should we?).

“My idea of the jalapeño is Americans, or at least people in Wisconsin, perceive the jalapeño as fun,” says Jeff. “And that’s why Mexican restaurants always serve jalapeño poppers. But most people, when they eat jalapeños, they don’t want to be blasted with heat. They want to enjoy a party atmosphere. For beermaking, I think beer should be refreshing. Save the heat for your tacos—save it for your chicken wings. Beer should be refreshing and crisp or refreshing and good.”

Novelty beers are great in their own right, but they can feel like throwing darts at the idea board and hoping something sticks, forgoing drinkability tomorrow for today’s wow factor. Still, risky rarely equates to enjoyable. When legitimacy is added to a novelty, I like to think that’s where the real work comes in. What’s going on right now with jalapeño beers are sincere attempts to create beers people want to drink. Much like the beginnings of my personal journeys with pastry beers and, going way back, sours, I’m convinced there’s reason to do more and go further with this style. There’s potential worth tapping.

To those putting out the fire with gasoline. Thanks for trying to blow our minds.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Make the trip to Ooga for some crowlers of Holla! and other great beers.

Jeff didn’t have any jalapeño beers in mind from other breweries, but wanted to shoutout:

Working Draft Beer Company
One Barrel Brewing Company
Delta Beer Lab
Nate Warnke of now-closed Rockhound Brewing Company
Others who’ve been sharing their knowledge and resources to get Ooga to where it is now.