Throwdown: Spicy Pickle Beers

HopFusion Ale Works’ El Gran Pepinillo pickle lager (left) and Martin House Brewing's Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer
HopFusion Ale Works’ El Gran Pepinillo pickle lager (left) and Martin House Brewing's Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer Kelly Dearmore
Here’s something few, and more likely, absolutely zero, North Texas craft beer lovers thought they would either utter themselves or read about only a few years ago: Not all spicy pickle beers are created the same.

Now, for those who have been paying close attention to what’s going on west of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in more recent times, such a seemingly zany sentiment is really anything but.

Pickles, not to mention, squid ink, barbecue, Easter candy and sugary gas station snacks are but a few of the palate-maligning tastes one has been able to sip from a Cowtown outpost.

In August of last year, a line of eager drinkers stretched for an unholy length under the typically brutal Texas summer sun outside of Martin House Brewing Company’s riverside facility to sample the refreshing first batches of its Best Maid Sour Pickle Beer. Using its popular Salty Lady gose-style brew as a base, Martin House added sour pickle juice from fellow Fort Worth icon Best Maid to offer an ideal heat-defeating beer.

But almost a full year before social media timelines were filled with mentions of Martin House’s pickle creation, another pucker-inducing brew had debuted just about three miles to the south.

HopFusion Ale Works’ El Gran Pepinillo pickle lager, a Mexican-style lager aged with Best Maid pickles and chile de árbol began as an occasional taproom favorite before finally rolling out to retail locations in six-pack can form in January of this year.

Not to be out-pickled, Martin House just recently released its Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer, which was one of the pickle-specific variants offered as samples during the sour pickle beer’s release party last summer. Available on draft and in canned four-packs, it’s now official — we have us a spicy pickle beer battle on our hands in Fort Worth. We boldly tried a can of each and here’s how the two brews stacked up.

click to enlarge El Gran Pepinillo - KELLY DEARMORE
El Gran Pepinillo
Kelly Dearmore

El Gran Pepinillo

5.8% ABV

Pouring a golden hue slightly deeper than a standard Mexican lager, the initial carbonated fizz propelled a bright hint of pickle and vinegar brininess. The first couple of sips yielded first a spicy pepper twinge in the throat before quickly giving way to the expected tickle of pickle on the tongue.

With a clean finish, the El Gran is a light, crisp experience. Rather than become so closely linked to Martin House’s pickle-based efforts, HopFusion’s pickle and pepper lager more closely resembles Rahr and Sons’ summer-ready pool pounder, Paleta de Mango, a German kolsch brewed with pequin peppers.

click to enlarge Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer - KELLY DEARMORE
Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer
Kelly Dearmore

Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer

4.7% ABV

Upon pouring the effervescent, dark pink beer into a pint glass, it’s immediately apparent this pickle beer offers a different experience from the El Gran. Looking more like a grapefruit beer than anything else, a salty aroma punch greets the nose well before the sip hits the tongue. Therein lies the sensory trick. Once sipped, this beer goes from sour to searing. Pickle? What Pickle? A little in the aftertaste, sure, but after only two or three sips, the Best Maid aspect is absent, being hidden by the heat and the Salty Lady beer base, which isn’t a complaint, for the record. It’s a fine beer, albeit an aggressive one hell-bent on bringing the heat.

With that said, this spicy version does take away the refreshing, crushable quality that made the original non-spicy offering so desirable to begin with. It’s a big beer in the way that an imperial stout or a double IPA is. It’s a sipper, not a quencher.

The Verdict

Both beers accomplish the goals each clearly has set for themselves, and seem to mirror the personalities of their respective breweries. El Gran Pepinillo is an inventive, well-balanced and delicately understated beer, not unlike HopFusion’s excellent Feisty Redhead Blonde with cherry and hibiscus, while Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer is every bit the raging china shop bull Martin House’s beloved Imperial Texan imperial red ale is or, especially, its Drive-In Sour Series, featuring cherry limeade and orange cream flavors.

What does it all mean? No matter how near one another they’re brewed, you just can’t judge a spicy pickle beer by its colorful can.
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Kelly Dearmore