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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Beer Here: Benji's Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter from Tyranena Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

On a recent visit to the Tyranena Brewing tasting room in Lake Mills, I watched as the first bottles of the 2013 release of its chipotle porter were being offered. So many were being sold over the bar that it looked like a takeout restaurant offering a sought-after, limited daily special. After watching this for a while, I too was caught up in this beer-infused frenzy, and ended up with a four-pack of Benji's Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter. A little pepper spice in a beer can go a long way -- it's an acquired taste, even when it's done well. This is a smoked pepper porter that gets it right and deserves the excitement over its release.

What is it? Benji's Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter from Tyranena Brewing Company of Lake Mills, Wisconsin

Style: The Imperial Porter is a bigger and bolder version of the porter style. Expect it to be dark, full-bodied, with a thicker mouthfeel and more maltinesss. Depending upon the amount and types of malts used, the flavor and aroma may offer smoky, roasted and even dry bitter qualities. The Imperial Porter is a strong beer with an alcohol content that can exceed 7% ABV. The style can sometimes be confused with the Baltic Porter, but "imperials" are brewed as an ale while the Baltic is sometimes brewed as a lager.

Background: Benji's Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter is part of the Brewers Gone Wild Series of special releases from Tyranena. The beer was the final batch made by brewer Benji Orcutt as he was preparing to leave Tyranena and move out of state in 2009. Brewery owner Rob Larson gave Orcutt some flexibility ii designing a going-away beer. The 2013 release is just the third time this brew has been offered. Orcutt moved to California for a short time, but has recently returned to the region, and now occasionally helps out as a bartender in Tyranena's tasting room.

While the peppers seem to get all the attention in a decision to try this beer or not, it's actually the Weyermann smoked malt that is at the core of its recipe. There is a light touch of smooth smoke in the flavor, and the chipotle peppers give a nice accent to the finish. Dried peppers in packaging akin to tea bags are added to the beer at two points: following the boil, and then again while the beer conditions in the fermenter. Peppers can be a little unpredictable, as depending upon when they're harvested and how they're handled, processed and stored, the levels of heat and spice vary. Larson describes this recent release as having just a "twinge" of heat compared to previous versions.

Larson brewed about 80 barrels of the beer. It takes about three weeks to make and finishes around 7.5% ABV. Benji's Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter is sold in 4-packs for around $8.50-$10. At the brewery it's also available in 12-ounce snifters for $5. This beer is not sold in growlers.

The next release to watch for in the Brewers Gone Wild series will be Shaggin' in the Wood Bourbon Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale. And take note, fans of black IPAs: Tyranena is currently offering one on tap in its tasting room.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: A light roasted chocolate maltiness to the nose. There is a hint of spicy pepper.
  • Appearance: Very dark black, with a thick soft brown head.
  • Texture: Medium to full bodied, soft and round mouthfeel.
  • Taste: A firm dominance of chocolate malt that lends a soft sweetness and light roasted smokiness. The smoke isn't harsh, but it's up front in the flavor profile.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: The pepper comes in late, more as a spicy dryness with just a light amount of heat. It's there, but it's almost coy.

Glassware: If you want to experience the light smoked malts and hint of chipotle pepper, try it in a Willi Becher -- its inward flare to the lip focuses the aromatics of the beer.

Pairs well with: This is a nice beer to pair with chocolate. Its hint of pepper in the finish goes nicely with a dark semi-sweet truffle, especially ones with touches of raspberry.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: 90 (exceptional) at BeerAdvocate and a 98/79 (overall/style) at RateBeer.

The Verdict: Tyranena first offered a chipotle porter a few years ago. I gave it a try then, but found its pepper personality just a bit too spicy for enjoying more than one at a sitting. The 2013 version is right on target for what I look for in a pepper beer. It has a hint of spice and warmth, yet the focus stays on the malt. Benji's Smoked Chipotle Imperial Porter is indeed about the malt. It's not excessively roasted or burnt; rather, that light smokiness from the Weyermann specialty malt blends very well with the touch of the chipotle that only comes out late in the finish. Don't let the "chipotle" in the name scare you away.

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