Ask ten beer aficionado’s their favorite style and you will likely get ten different answers. There are currently over one hundred officially recognized styles and sub styles of beer and they all have rabid fans. Occasionally, however, you will have a beer that ignores the rules of style and ventures out to forge its own path. Many of these beers end up disappointing, or even worse, unpalatable failures. But every once in a while you find a beer that breaks all the rules and ends up better for it. For a perfect example of this latter category you need look no further than Pepe Nero from Goose Island.
Pepe Nero bills itself as a Saison, and there is no doubt that this is where it began, but that is certainly not where it ends. The brewers of this phenomenal ale took a lot of chances and what they came up with is certainly not what was expected. The choice of rye as the predominant grain lends a heartiness and spice to both the palate and the mouth feel not usually found in traditional Saisons. The decision to roast the grains creates a dark mahogany beer with just a touch of coffee or dark chocolate bitterness. This interacts nicely with the sweeter notes created by the more traditional Saison yeast without overpowering them. Finally, we come to the decision that gives this beer its namesake, the addition of black peppercorns to the brewing process.
It is the peppercorns that give this brew its distinctive smoky finish while accentuating the rye that already leant Pepe Nero a sweet spice. What the drinker is left with is a well carbonated beer redolent of dark fruits and bittersweet chocolate with hints of cloves and a touch of cinnamon. It then finishes with campfire smokiness that serves to dry rather than overpower the finish. If a winter night were ever bottled it would surely taste like this.
This leaves us with one last question. What is Pepe Nero? Some have insisted on pointing to its inception and labeling it a Saison. This ignores the innovations it has accomplished. Others point to the result and label it a fine example of a Belgian Strong Dark. However this ignores the effervescence and lively yeast that hint at its roots. In the end it doesn’t matter what you call this beer as long as you enjoy it. What is Pepe Nero? Delicious.