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Beer Here: Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner from the Great Dane Hilldale

Credit:Robin Shepard

Ever challenged a few friends to see who can eat the most hot peppers in a single sitting? Well, the Great Dane has brewed a liquid version of a hot pepper that might take the competition to another level. The Dane at Hilldale recently collaborated with Community GroundWorks on a hot and spicy beer made with seven different types of peppers. The result is a brew that will challenge even the heartiest lovers of heat.

What is it? Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner from the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.

Style: Pepper-flavored beers are most often light-colored ales or lagers. They commonly range from 4.5% to 6% ABV. The makers of these brews select peppers based on their juice, oil and spicy heat. The level of hot pepper flavor can range from subtle to palate-staining depending upon the desires of the brewer. However, when judged competitively, such beers should offer balance and a blend of the pepper spice with the flavors of the base beer. The Great Dane makes this beer with Peck's Pilsner, its Czech-style pilsner (sometimes called a Bohemian pilsner). That style is known for its clear light straw to golden color and a spicy bitterness from Saaz hops.

Background: Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner is a new beer for the Great Dane. However, Hilldale regulars may be familiar with Tri-Pepper Pilsner, a similar brew made with poblanos, jalapeños and habaneros. However, this beer is made with seven varieties that include those three plus Bulgarian Carrot, Pasilla Bajio, Hungarian Wax and Carmen peppers.

Great Dane brewers Nate Zukas (Hilldale) and Eric Brusewitz (downtown) worked with Marge Pitts from Community GroundWorks to develop the recipe. It's a beer that's been in the works well over a year. Pitts grew most of peppers at Troy Community Gardens on Madison's north side. "I've been craving this beer since I started my seeds in February," says Pitts.

The peppers in this brew were freshly picked by Pitts, then brought to the brew house, where Brusewitz and Zukas put them to use. Wearing gloves and safety glasses, the two brewers chopped and diced about five pounds (total) of the seven different peppers, then blended them into a juice that was added to about 100 gallons of beer.

"I treat peppers as three tiers: heat, flavor and aroma," says Brusewitz. "Then I find the right balance that showcases the peppers, where heat and flavor come through without overtaxing the palate or overwhelming the pilsner." Each variety of pepper makes its own contribution to those three aspects: habaneros, jalapeños and Bulgarian Carrot peppers lend assertive heat. The Hungarian Wax and poblanos are hot while adding fresh pepper flavor. The milder Pasilla Bajio peppers also lend flavor, but of a slightly sweeter quality. And, while all of the freshly cut peppers contribute to aroma, explains Brusewitz, there is a distinctive garden freshness from the Carmen peppers.

Brusewitz and Zukas add the pepper puree slowly, tasting the blended beer to get the level of heat, flavor and aroma where they want it. While it's easy to overdo the pepper, they actually intend for the final beer to be on the hot side because it can be easily diluted to preference. Over the bar, customers have a choice of three levels of heat: mild, medium and hot, just like salsas.

The hot version is falls well beyond assertive to a level of outright aggressive heat. Medium is about two-thirds of that final pepper beer, with an additional one-third Peck's Pilsner filling the glass. Mild is made with one-third base beer and two-thirds Peck's Pilsner. It's best to start with a mild version and work your way up.

Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner finishes at 5.5% ABV. It's available only at the Great Dane-Hilldale, where it sells for $5/pint over the bar and $10/growler (refill).

If pepper beer isn't your thing, coming up in late October the Dane's Hilldale outpost will offer a farmhouse ale made with fresh whole-leaf Mosaic hops. Mosaic hops are known for a range -- or mosaic -- of flavors. Also, just in time for winter, there will be an even bigger version of that beer, which Brusewitz is calling a "Super Saison." Moreover, several of the Great Dane's brewers are currently on a late October tour of Germany, so watch for new twists in the brewpub's approach to making bocks and doppelbocks in the months ahead.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: The garden aroma of fresh-cut green peppers. If you go for the hot version of this beer, don't breathe in too deeply, because there more than a whiff of hot pepper spice and heat.
  • Appearance: Hazy, yellow golden, with a light greenish tint. There's also a medium, soft, off-white head.
  • Texture: Light to medium, bubbly and crisp. There is a lot of pepper warmth with the hot version of this beer, so much that you'll get a tingling burn on your lips.
  • Taste: The mild version of the beer has a spicy, garden vegetal-grassy tone to the pepper. That fresh pepper taste is mostly in the early phases of the flavor, and the stronger the version you choose (medium or hot), the more these garden tones are muted by the spice and heat.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: Mild, medium or hot, there is lingering warmth that remains on the palate. Be prepared: If you go with the hot version of this beer and you finish a pint, you be taking the heat home with you.

Glassware: The Great Dane will serve this in a pilsner glass. However, this is a beer to sip, so a snifter or small chalice is better suited to enjoying this beer over time.

Pairs well with: Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner is a beer for adventuresome beer enthusiasts and/or hot pepper fanatics. First try it on its own to get a sense of the heat and what you like (or can tolerate). For those who like cooking with beer and spices, consider taking home a growler. The heat from the peppers and the underpinnings of the Saaz hops make it well suited for seasoning a spicy dish like jambalaya or a hearty chili. I suspect that the hot version might also make a nice Beer Bloody Mary.

Rating: Mild: Three Bottle Openers

Medium: One Bottle Opener

Hot: One Bottle Opener

The Consensus: Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner has not received enough ratings to be evaluated at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.

The Verdict: After a couple of sips from the hot version of Great Dane Community GroundWorks Pepper Pilsner, I felt I'd fallen into an episode of the Travel Channel's Man v. Food (the one featuring suicide hot wings that bring Adam Richman to tears). It was an assault on the taste buds, the esophagus and lining of my stomach. I just couldn't bring myself to finish an entire pint without dilution by more Peck's Pilsner.

The mild version is pretty good. Its fresh green-pepper aroma was different from what I was expecting from a pepper beer, and it was definitely more inviting than the hot version. Cutting the heat makes it more palatable and allows the Czech-style pilsner to shine without the peppers burning your mouth. So start with mild and work your way up. If you have a strong constitution and limited sensitivity to pepper heat, then the hot version might be for you -- just don't say you weren't warned.

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