With the right search terms, you can find the video on YouTube. Standing in a small bathroom, some jackass in a skuzzy white undershirt takes a clear bottle of piss-yellow beer and decants it into a Corona-branded shaker pint. As the bottle empties, a middle finger-sized chili pepper plops out into the foam. Reluctantly, the young man takes a sip of the beer. He then immediately begins spitting up into the nearby toilet as his cameraman explodes with laughter.
That jackass was me.
It was the late aughts and I’d developed a weird fascination with trying the so-called worst beers on planet Earth—and having friends film my reactions. I’m not talking Natty Light or Milwaukee’s Best, but Bud Light Chelada and Mama Mia Pizza Beer. The lowest-rated beer of them all, and my white whale of awfulness, was something called Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer. It was, at the time, the lowest-rated beer on BeerAdvocate with a 1.69 star average; RateBeer scored it a perfect zero. And it was, and still is, the worst beer I’ve ever tasted.
“I thought, ‘Boy, did we make a big mistake,’” Ed Chilleen told Food Network in a 2000 segment of Extreme Cuisine, “because people would take a drink of it and they would go, ‘Oooooh, man, that’s the worst stuff I’ve ever had in my life!’”
A successful restaurateur and bar owner who had dubbed himself “Crazy Ed,” Chilleen opened Arizona’s second microbrewery in 1989 in the basement of his Satisfied Frog restaurant. Based in the small Phoenix exurb of Cave Creek, business at Black Mountain Brewing Co. rode the nation’s early clamoring for anything microbrewed. Chilleen originally made his bones with Black Mountain Gold lager and Frog Light until the fortuitous day when a local Mexican restaurant owner asked him to make a custom spicy beer.
“I thought about that for awhile—hmmm, maybe I could drop a chili pepper in, like the worm in a mezcal bottle,” Chilleen tells me over the phone. “On my way home, I stopped off at a supermarket and started looking for peppers. My criteria was only that it would fit in a bottle. A jalapeño wouldn’t fit. A serrano would. So I bought a can of those.”
At the time, Chilleen had a no-nonsense German brewmaster named Eric Schaltz. “‘What do you want me to do with those?’ he scoffed at me. Traditional Germans. You don’t do anything to their beer.” Chilleen told Schaltz to wash the peppers off and drop them into whatever beer he was bottling the next day, just to see what would happen. After a week, they had a tasting among friends. The beer was undrinkable.
“We had more remarks about the idea than the beer though. That’s what really drove this whole thing,” says Chilleen. “Nobody had ever done that before. And, everyone agreed, this was a great idea.”
Well, not everyone.
Roger Ebert once said it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one; Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer could turn anyone into a Shakespearian scribe. “Past experience and a few bumper stickers have led me to believe that beer is liquid proof that the gods want us to be happy. Oh, how I have been living in naivety!” wrote the Phoenix New Times’ Jonathan McNamara in his 2008 review. The online user reviews were even more brutal: “Definitely worth trying. Once. In a darkened room. With no witnesses,” wrote one BeerAdvocate commenter. “Looks like urine. Smells like stagnant urine. Tastes like burning,” wrote another. “[This] should be sold at Spencer’s Gifts.” “An excellent beer to get back at an enemy.” “Solo la compraría como suvenir.” (“I would only buy it as a souvenir.”) You get the idea.
It also turns out I’m not the only joker to have filmed himself chugging Chili Beer. There are dozens of YouTube videos, the most-viewed among them titled, simply, “Cave Creek Chili Beer Challenge *Vomit Alert*”
Even Chilleen didn’t seem to particularly like the beer, telling me, “I couldn’t drink a six-pack of it.” How, then, in a cut-throat beer market where once-beloved beers routinely die off with little ceremony, has Chili Beer stood the test of time?
At the beer’s first national appearance at Chicago’s National Restaurant Association Show, in 1992, most people would come by Chilleen’s booth, take a sip, “… and they’d tell me, ‘Ugh, that’s terrible.’ But two out of ten loved it. If there had been crowdfunding sites in those days, I would have probably raised $20 million,” he speculates. “I had more people wanting [to invest in the beer] than you would imagine.”
Before the beer’s debut, Chilleen had already spent a year trying to figure out how to make it stable so the pepper didn’t react negatively, working with Texas A&M capsicum expert “Dr. Pepper” on the task. Once the beer was made available to national and international distributors, they quickly sold through the tiny brewery’s entire capacity. “We couldn’t bottle it fast enough,” Chilleen tells me. So he had to make a deal with bigger breweries to handle the bottling, but few of them could quite manage the peppers. “All union guys,” says Chilleen of Minnesota Brewing Company, the first to take over production. “Reminded me off that old I Love Lucy episode with the chocolates.”
Chilleen eventually began buying peppers in Mexico, shipping them across the border, hand-dropping them in the bottles off-premises and then shipping the bottles to the contract breweries to be filled with beer. The logistics were adding $3 to $4 per case to his cost. By the turn of the millennium, he’d realized that it’d be more cost effective to just move production to Mexico. Chilleen then teamed up with Mexico’s Cervecería Mexicana and significantly increased production. Before long, he was selling hundreds of thousands of cases of Chili Beer per year in 32 states and internationally.
Several years later, Chilleen ran into some legal issues (“a bunch of circumstances,” he writes on his blog). Sales of Chili Beer had begun to decline, too, and as the aughts came to a close, he was shipping less than 50,000 cases per year. But the Chili Beer was still profitable, and attracted an offer from Grupo Modelo, who bought the brand in 2008. “It didn’t make me rich. But it made me some money,” he says of the deal.
Chilleen remained a spokesman for a couple years, until they renamed the beer Original C Cave Creek Chili Beer – Cerveza Con Chili. But like Famous Amos and Chef Boyardee, Crazy Ed is a man still intrinsically linked to the eponymous product that is no longer his. (In fact, Chilleen still runs the Chili Beer website, which looks like an internet artifact from the year the beer was created.) His beer eventually ended up in the hands of Constellation Brands, who maintains it to this day.
Perhaps Crazy Ed was ahead of his time, foreseeing that gimmicks and novelty would soon define the industry. “When we started, there were no flavored beers out there,” he says. “Now people are making everything flavored.”
At 79 years old, he is still a restless entrepreneur hoping to strike gold. Perhaps with his new restaurant venture in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico; or the anti-aging creams he now sells with his long-time wife, Maria; or his new Crazy Ed’s Chili Beer Hot Sauce. “The guy who invents the next biggest thing may not need it or even want it, but someone else might. You can’t stop. You gotta keep on keeping on,” Chilleen tells me. “Colonel Sanders started in his late 70s. And I still feel like I got a shot at hitting it really, really big.”