Somebody had to set the record for world’s spiciest beer. Ray Parrish thought, “Why not me?”
The co-owner of Maltese Brewing Co. was astonished to learn the vaunted Guinness Book of World Records didn’t yet have a category for a cold brew that could make the drinker turn red with pain.
“I contacted them … around Christmas. I’m waiting for the wheels to turn with them, which apparently are very, very slow wheels,” Parrish said of the COVID-induced slowdown of the record book’s response to his query.
Considering that the Guinness book was birthed on a lark by the famous Irish brewery in 1954, it was indeed head-scratching that such a flush-inducing spicy beer didn’t yet have a yardstick already in place — let alone one Parrish could surpass. (The record book and the brewery became separate entities in 2001, when beverage giant Diageo bought the brand, according to IrelandBeforeYouDie.com.)
Signal One, the tear-inducing beer made by Maltese Brewing, infuses some 500 Carolina Reaper chilies into the brewery’s pineapple IPA. Maltese was started by firefighters Bobby Cook and Joseph Smith, so this emphasis on heat is unsurprising.
Last year, the business introduced a challenge, wherein if you can drink 10 ounces of Signal One in less than 10 minutes—and then abstain from any water for an additional 10 minutes—your name goes up on Maltese’s wall of heroics. Such fame can be yours for just $12.
“If you do finish it, you [also] get a T-shirt, which makes it well worth your while,” Parrish said, without even the hint of a smirk.
But his employees and patrons have done plenty of pointing and chuckling at unfortunate contestants, who writhe around in capsaicin-induced agony on the brewery’s lawn. Videos of Signal One-induced agony have made the rounds on social media.
Unsurprisingly, capsaicin, the active ingredient in the reaper pepper, is also used in pepper spray. The Carolina Reaper is the world’s spiciest pepper, and measures a hellish 2.2 million units on the Scoville scale. For comparison, a jalapeño clocks in at a frigid 8,000.
Fortunately, the burn of capsaicin is short-lived.
“Though it’s a very painful chemical, capsaicin is not going to provide lasting damage,” Parrish said, “just lasting entertainment value.”
Parrish graduated from the University of Mary Washington in 1991 with a physics degree, so he wanted to ensure that the science behind his attempt at the “world’s spiciest beer” would stand up to peer review. Accordingly, he reached out to fellow UMW alum Sarah Smith, a professor in the department of physics and chemistry. To accurately measure Signal One’s capsaicin content, Smith is employing what’s called high-performance liquid chromatography to quantify the spiciness down to the molecular level.
“We rank standards, so we know where the capsaicin [level] comes out, and then we can find out the concentration,” Smith said. “We have six standards [of measurement], so it’s going to take us a couple hours” to collect all the data, she added.
Sensing an opportunity to apply chemistry in a unique field experiment, Smith enlisted junior biochemistry major Valerie Ebenki for Parrish’s pet project. Neither Smith nor Ebenki describe themselves as beer connoisseurs, but Parrish provided an opportunity to apply the scientific method to the fun-yet-painful Signal One challenge.
“Under Dr. Smith, I’m gaining the experience of going hands-on with the instruments we learn about in class,” Ebenki said.
But because capsaicin is so irritating to the skin—to say nothing of the taste buds—its powdered form arrives at UMW’s Jepson Science Center labs, where Ebenki works, bearing signs screaming “poison” and “danger.”
“I’m gloved and I’m double-masked [but] sometimes you can even smell it through the masks,” Ebenki said. “It’s very, very pungent.”
Smith and Ebenki have still been taking measurements on Signal One version 2.0 to gauge its level of perdition. It just might earn Parrish that slot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“The concentration that they measure with a little bit of mathematics turns into the Scoville Heat Units, which is the common parlance for measuring how hot something is against something else,” Parrish said, adding he hopes version 2.0 of Signal One will top at least 300,000 units on the Scoville scale.
In the meantime, the brave and foolish alike can test the mettle of their tongues on the previous iteration of Signal One, which is available at Maltese Brewing Co., located on Tidewater Trail across from the Fredericksburg Country Club. Parrish says many more “traditional beers” are also on tap, for those who would rather not set their palates afire.
“We encourage people to go outside when they’re feeling it, and almost everybody is feeling it,” he said of those who pit their taste buds against Signal One. “[But] 15 minutes later, it’s all gone.”