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SO Bad, It’s Good: Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer

Feature by Martin Cizmar | Feb 2012 | Issue #61

It was a junky little joint, tucked out in the Arizona cacti and trimmed with all manner of tacky decoration. Stuffed jackalopes, rusty license plates—you get the idea. It was definitely not the sort of bar where you’d expect to find the world’s greatest beer writer. But, sure enough, one hellishly hot summer night in 1990, Michael Jackson stopped by “Crazy” Ed Chilleen’s brewery north of Phoenix.

American craft brewing was young then. Chilleen’s place was only the second brewery in the state, a dusty outpost brewing traditional lagers and Bocks under the tutelage of a green-carded German brewmaster. And their very traditional approach—Bavarian yeast smuggled over in carry-on luggage, straight Saaz hops, open fermenters—didn’t endear them to the Brit.

“He drank the beer, and I could tell he didn’t like it,” Chilleen says, imitating disgust and miming a spit-out. “You shoulda seen him—he looked like he’d slept in his clothes for a month. … The German brewmaster was standing behind me cursing, and I said, ‘Guys, don’t read anything into that, our beer isn’t for guys like that,” Chilleen adds. “I don’t think he ever wrote about us.”

It’s been 20 years, and Ed Chilleen still doesn’t brew beer for “guys like that,” guys he simply calls “The Snobs.” In fact, shortly after Jackson’s ill-fated visit, Chilleen concocted possibly the most despised beer of all time: Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer.

That Chili Beer—a standard Mexican lager with a pickled serrano pepper floating in the bottle—is legendary among reviewers. It’s forever ranked in the worst-rated beers on BeerAdvocate.com, where contributors seem to take particular pleasure skewering it in the most colorful language they can muster, calling it “recycled Carta Blanca that’s harvested from various urinals across Tijuana” with a finish “like a thousand fire ants swarming down my throat.”

The version of the journeyman brew with the most ratings has a score of 46 with 267 reviews. It’s not just that people loathe this lager, which gets its strong spiciness from the addition of a longneck-thin hot pepper; it’s that they actually seem to enjoy hating it.

“At first, it used to kind of bother me, but nah,” says Chilleen, a short, gray-bearded man with a restaurateur’s belly and a gruff bark. “I don’t pay much attention to it.”

Believe it or not, Chilleen wasn’t interested in “the bottom line” when he started brewing. His love of beer began on a bicycle trip through Germany where he encountered real lagers for the first time. He wanted that beer back home. When laws changed in 1987 to allow brewpubs in Arizona, he had a German system shipped overseas and started Black Mountain Brewing Co. He went on to win a bronze for his Pilsner at the Great American Beer Festival, and might have kept on happily refining his Bavarian styles if fate hadn’t intervened in the form of the owner of a small chain of Mexican restaurants.

“He said, ‘Can you brew a hot and spicy beer?’ The moment he said that, my brain flashed to the worm at the bottom of a bottle of Mezcal, and I said to him, ‘What about if we drop a chili pepper in it?’”

The German brewmaster wasn’t happy (“With Germans, you don’t screw with beer. He swore something in German, but he tossed the peppers in”), but an informal tasting panel approved. “Everybody took a drink and said, ‘It’s hotter than shit,’ but then everyone said, ‘Wow, you have really come up with something here. This is a million dollar idea,’” Chilleen recalls.

“We did the Great American Beer Festival five years in a row, and we were the most popular booth in that whole place—literally—we ran out of beer every time,” he says. “It was unbelievable. A guy from Texas comes up and says, ‘I want a truckload.’ Well, this little brewery, we couldn’t do a truckload.”

That’s about when the trouble started. Making mass quantities of beer with an actual chili in it is not as simple as merely inserting said pepper. Untreated, the pepper will turn the beer cloudy within six weeks. Developing a special brine—a trade secret, he says—was hard. Getting a contract brewer to not screw it up has been damned near impossible.

Turns out, making Chilleen’s much-hated beer takes nearly as much effort as nailing a Brett. He’s trudged through fields to find a farmer to grow his peppers properly, exploded bottles in pasteurization experiments, pissed off union labor and had the Siebel Institute on speed dial. He once had to drain-pour $2.5 million of beer because of a truck driver’s error. He’s been counseled by the world’s top capsicum man, a Texas A&M profesor nicknamed “Dr. Pepper.” Chilleen has gone through a half-dozen contract brewers now. Several have folded. Others have told him his beer, while profitable, is just too much hassle. Reviews have been the least of his problems.

Chilleen has had some successes, too, like being featured on the Food Network. His beer has also been distributed in Europe and Asia, though Colorado has always been his strongest market.

Crazy Ed’s beer is now made in Tecate, Mexico, by Cervecería Mexicana. Recipe-wise, it’s just their flagship lager, plus a pepper. (Mexicali has a comparatively good 67 grade on BA.) “They do a really good beer—their base Mexicali—and drop the peppers in,” he says. “But everyone says the beer that came out of Cave Creek was the best beer we ever did.” That’s hard-won pride. “I have a legacy. I’m the guy who invented this, and I struggled through it, through one thing then another, through hell and high water,” he says.

Incidentally, the late Michael Jackson did write about Crazy Ed—very briefly—in a note dated September 1st, 1990: “I had meant to tell you about Crazy Ed’s Black Mountain Brewery, and Electric Dave’s (he makes a beer called Electric Light),” he wrote. “They are in Arizona. … That will have to be another day.”

Jackson never returned to the subject … but hordes of others have taken up the slack.

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