What Does Bitter Beer Do to Spicy Food?

By Noah Kaufman |

© Dennis O’Clair

Bitter beer. Spicy food. Anecdotally, they’re often described as a pair of warring siblings, egging each other on — hoppy bitterness extenuating a food’s heat. They elevate one another so well that San Francisco even launched a festival devoted exclusively to IPAs and foods on the extreme end of the Scoville scale. But ahead of National IPA Day on August 6, the Culinary Institute of America and the Boston Beer Company (the makers of Sam Adams) decided to undertake a study to prove it.

It’s the sort of study we’d be happy to duplicate. A panel composed of chefs and professors from the CIA along with Sam Adams’ head brewer Jennifer Glanville tasted identical Buffalo wings with IPAs of different alcohol contents and IBU (International Bittering Unit) ratings. What they found was the more bitter and boozy the beer, the more intense the heat. As one taster described it, “[The] wings and double IPA were a freight train of spice and hops.”

What makes for that intense feeling is likely twofold. The hoppy bitterness, which, unlike sweeter, malt flavors, does nothing to counteract the capsaicin (the active chemical component that gives heat to anything made with chile peppers). But the increased alcohol in the double IPA acts as a solvent for the capsaicin, more effectively releasing it in your mouth. 

The arms races to make the bitterest beer and the spiciest food have been going on for years now. But if you really want to give yourself a kick in the mouth, you should put them together. At least that’s what science says.

If you want to try the experiment yourself, here’s the wing recipe the panel used.

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