By Julia Burke, Beer Editor

Whitelogo-for-indexLittle Horseheads Brewing, located an hour from Ithaca in beautiful Horseheads, New York, might be the state's hottest brewery — literally.

I made a visit for the first time last week after drooling for months over tales from my festival-going beer friends about an enigmatic “chili pepper beer” that was so balanced, so smooth, and yet so spicy it could please both session drinkers and spice fiends like myself. A sample at the charming brewery showed off Horseheads's brewing prowess, especially since it was just one of several oustanding beers on tap.

The brewery’s low-key and comfortable tasting room, complete with homebrewing supplies, was packed with a respectable Sunday crowd of growler-filling locals. The list of area bars and restaurants selling Horseheads products clearly demonstrates the brewery’s considerable following in the region.

As I tasted through a flight of balanced, high-quality brews, I was particularly impressed with brewer and owner Ed Samchisen’s even-handedness with styles that are too often polarizing for their extreme flavors. The pumpkin ale was slightly sweet and chewy with a cinnamon twang and orange peel notes — pleasantly complex rather than a one-trick pony. Black Horse Ale, the brewery’s black IPA, was another surprise; with its smooth, sessionable hop character and delicate malts — I never would have guessed it to be a double IPA.

Then I got to “Hot-Jala-Heim,” the chili pepper beer, and my socks were rocked. It’s brewed with a blend of chili peppers including jalapenos and anaheims — hence the name — explained our friendly server, Jeremy.

What amazed me was the slow burn of spice from nose all the way to the long, long finish; not once does the spice character become overwhelming. The clean, garden-fresh pepper character lingers for minutes with just enough kick to keep it refreshing through and through.

Lest you chalk my adoration up to my spice-addict tendencies, it’s worth noting my friend’s observation: “I’m not a huge spice fan, and I love this.” I brought home a growler.

I can’t imagine a better brewery for the beautiful camping heaven that is the Southern Tier; these beers are perfect for sipping with friends over a bonfire or after a hike. Expect to hear more from Horseheads. In this picturesque little nook in the middle of the state, they’re making some pretty hot stuff.