It's just after the lunch rush at Sakaya Kitchen, but the Midtown Miami eatery is still busy. Chef/owner Richard Hales emerges from the kitchen when a customer makes a realization: "That's you on the beer tap." Hales acknowledges the discovery. "That's my beer!"
It's called Comfortably Numb, a collaboration between the chef and Wynwood Brewing Company. The beer is a 5 percent ABV American blonde ale infused with fresh ginger, Tianjin chili, and Sichuan pepper flowers. The tap handle shows an image of Hales wearing a general's uniform in an elaborate gilt frame — a playful nod to the portraits of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris on the walls of the chef's restaurant Blackbrick.
The name of the beer is inspired by the rock music on Hales' playlist (Pink Floyd released the classic in 1979) and also refers to the beverage's play on your senses.
"I want you to get a tingle on your lips and experience the numbing aspect of Sichuan peppers," Hales says. Unlike, say, ghost-pepper- or habanero-infused beers that can burn your taste buds, this beer is designed to be paired with food.
The chef was very careful not to make a novelty beer. "This is a beer that reflects the flavors in my food. I approached it the same way I approach my dishes. The Tianjin peppers are the same that we use at Blackbrick."
Hales says the collaboration with Wynwood Brewing began about four years ago when he was opening Bird & Bone as a pop-up at the Wynwood Yard. "I spoke with [Wynwood Brewing's] Luis Brignoni and David Rodriguez about a collaboration. We played around with seven or eight versions until we made the final batch." The beer was a success — so much so it sold out almost immediately, and demand grew too much for the brewery to handle. "They came in and said they didn't have the bandwidth at the moment."
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A year ago, the brewers reached out to Hales. With an expanded operation, they now had the capacity to revisit the beer. Hales says he jumped at the offer. "We tweaked the recipe and went for it." The beer starts with an American blonde ale made with Czech and American hops. The base, he says, is reminiscent of the brewery's popular La Rubia. Then the beer is steeped with fresh ginger, Tianjin chili, and Sichuan pepper flowers. "The blonde ale is a good gateway to small-batch beers, and it really lets the ingredients shine."
For Hales, though, the proof is in the drinking. "It's all about the balance. When you take that first sip, there's an experience, but where are you at the end of the glass? Do you want a second one?"
The answer is yes. The beer has a fragrant aroma of subtle five-spice. A first sip gives you a burst of fresh ginger before transferring to a slight tingle of hotter peppers. Halfway through a pint, the flavors change again, with the peppers leading and the ginger cooling the senses. The lightly carbonated beer would pair well with Sakaya's wings, Blackbrick's Dan Dan noodles, or Bird & Bone's hot chicken. Better still, try it with a burger at Kush.
Comfortably Numb is available at all of Hales' restaurants, including Sakaya Kitchen Midtown and at the Citadel, Bird & Bone, and Blackbrick. It's also available at Kush in Wynwood for $9 a pint.