I stopped into Roots yesterday to see if I could rustle up either some Epic or the Chocolate Habanero Stout. Epic isn't out til Thursday, but the Habanero's pouring (or burning, depending on your palate). To refresh your memory, last year's version was a fascinating beer. The chocolatey stout was up front, not the chilis. At first, you didn't notice but a touch of spice, but then at swallow, the fire warmed up enough to kindle some sparks going down. It was a subtle background note. Over time, the spiciness would collect at the back of your throat, though, and it would slowly warm up.
In this year's version, the habaneros (100, including 15 donated by a proud guy sitting at the bar last night) are the first thing you notice, like a punch in the mouth. I braced, imagining that this was only the first wave, with pain and awe to follow. Remarkably, the heat died and the sweeter stout came forward. It didn't spark going down, and it didn't collect on my palate; but to the last sip, the first contact always brought a shock to my tongue like static electricity.
Habaneros are a dangerous chili to work with. They are many times more spicy than most other peppers--100 times spicier than a jalapeno. That makes the margin of error very small--too many and you have nuclear heat, but too few and you get nothing. In beer, spruce is like this--so easy to overdo. I think Roots has essentially got the recipe right. The chili-to-chili variation means that it's never possible to know if a batch is slightly hotter or cooler than the last. The brewers are aiming to heat up their beer (and, presumably, the chilly bellies of their drinkers), so they can't risk ratcheting back too much. (Though I think the fact that they steep the peppers in the fermenting beer, rather than adding them to the boil, helps minimize risk.)
It will be interesting to watch this beer in years to come. The unpredictability of the chilis will produce something a little different each time. I look forward to sitting down to each new batch, never knowning what will happen when I tip the glass toward my waiting tongue.
[Update: In case it wasn't clear in this post, Roots launches Epic on Thursday at 6pm at the pub. I suggest arriving at 6:30, so that you will allow me to have safely secured a couple 22 ouncers and a snifter of the elixir first.]