Rust Belt brewer’s hot idea: beer flavored with jalapeno

There are a lot of gimmicky beers out there in this era of small-batch craft brewing.

The other day I had a peanut butter and chocolate stout. It tasted like a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup, which is good.

But not all are. Some are just a grab for attention. For a while, Rogue Ales of Oregon was brewing something it called Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale.

Rust Belt Brewing Co., which is Youngstown’s very own craft beer maker, generally doesn’t get too crazy with its specialty brews.

But it does get creative every now and then.

First came Southern Migration, a summer ale that incorporates orange peels and coriander seeds. The creation of Rust Belt brewer Dave Propri, it’s been their biggest beer of the season.

Now comes the Jalapeno Saison. A creation of Chris May, the company’s other brewer, it uses jalapeno peppers and Belgian saison yeast.

Judging by the early reaction, it will be the company’s next hit.

The beer is a summery thirst-quencher, with a crisp and lively flavor up front and just the mildest hint of fresh jalapeno at the finish. Just enough to let you know it’s there, but nowhere close to overwhelming.

You might expect to cringe at the taste, but after a pint or two, it’s more likely you’ll be hooked.

It might seem like adding peppery heat to beer will make you thirsty for more beer, thereby killing two birds with one stone. But the hint of jalapeno is just that: a hint.

Ken Blair, founder and chief of Rust Belt, said the Jalapeno Saison is a test batch, available only at the brewery’s Tap House, downtown. He’s waiting on the green light from state regulators before he produces a standard 10-barrel (roughly 17 half-kegs) batch, but it shouldn’t be much longer.

He can see the Jalapeno becoming a year-round brew, and not a seasonal beverage. It would be a natural in Mexican eateries and high-end restaurants that do food-and-beverage pairings.

If the demand is there, Blair said he will bottle the beer for takeout.

Those who’ve sampled it know it’s something special.

May, the brewer who created the recipe, said when he mentioned the idea to Blair earlier this year, Blair’s eyes lit up.

May had home-brewed the jalapeno beer, didn’t like it much, and then modified the recipe. He’s real happy with it now.

Raw, sliced jalapenos give the beer its unique flavor. As the wort (the stage in which the brew is not yet fermented) is boiled, hops are added first, and then — late in the boil — the jalapenos.

May said he didn’t know of any other brewery that is using jalapenos, although one in California is using habaneros, and others use chili peppers.

So now that the Jalapeno Saison is here, what’s next? A beer flavored with tortilla chips and nacho cheese?

May chuckled at that. He was at Rust Belt’s compact brewery in the B&O Station building Wednesday afternoon, working on a batch of Blast Furnace Blonde Ale, one of the company’s staples.

The 2012 graduate of Ohio University (his degree is in audio production) followed his heart into brewing. He took brewing classes through the Siebel Institute of Chicago and approached Blair about a brewing job in mid-January.

“It was the day that the downtown Tap House opened,” he recalled. “They were busy and the bar manager asked me if I wanted to tend bar now. I had never done that before. It didn’t go great but it wasn’t a disaster, either.”

May said that Blair lets his brewers get creative, so long as the company’s four main beers — Blast Furnace, Rusty River Irish Red, Coke Oven Stout and Old Man Hopper IPA — are produced.

“When we get something interesting, we brew a small batch,” he said.

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