Of all the associations Utah may conjure, sinning ain't one of 'em. Yet the Beehive State is responsible for some of the tastiest and (dare I say) most indulgent treats in the country: not only is Utah now brewing incredible beer, it's cranking out top-notch chocolate, too. In fact, Utah currently boasts eight different bean-to-bar chocolate-makers -- each of which produce a unique lineup of products according to specific house styles.
Many in the community believe that the chocolate movement can be traced back to Tony Caputo, founder of Caputo's Market & Deli, an outpost that now carries over 300 different artisan chocolates (supposedly the largest selection of such in the country). Caputo became "deeply obsessed" with chocolate more than a decade ago, ten years after he first opened his downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, retail shop in 1997. He became the first customer of Amano, a Utah chocolate staple and America's most award-winning chocolate, and has since been promoting products made by local brands such as Solstice and Ritual. More recently, he's been teaching chocolate classes at Caputo's and the University of Utah, spreading his chocolate gospel to anyone with a sweet tooth.
For Caputo and the Utah chocolatiers he works with, chocolate isn't a mere commodity: it's a passion. “We’re not just a store,” Caputo claims. “It’s about engaging in the culture of food and sharing our genuine enjoyment and excitement for great chocolate with customers.” This is where he and the chocolate makers have much in common with brewers -- who have to be especially passionate artisans if they're resilient enough to brew in Utah. The state boasts some of the most stringent alcohol laws in the country, due (at least in part) to influence from the expansive teetotaling Mormon population.
“Even though we can make any beer style we’d like to, we are limited to how it is packaged and where it can be sold," explains Jon Lee, Head Brewer and Director of Brewing for Squatters and Wasatch breweries in Salt Lake City. "However, these local draft laws have helped us perfect session style beers -- nothing higher than 4% ABV -- which is one of the most strict requirements for draft product in this state. Flavor threshold for alcohol is at 4% ABV, and as such, many less skilled brewers hide behind elevated alcohol. Our decades of session brewing helped us to perfect all of our [bottled] higher-alcohol styles." Indeed, Squatters Hop Rising – a 9% ABV double IPA -- is Utah's top-selling craft beer.
Naturally, upon discovering the wealth of sweet and hoppy treats that Utah has to offer, I decided to partake in the ultimate extravagance: pairing them together. After an ungodly amount of experimentation resulting in alternating waves of bliss, nausea, and delirium, I have isolated the six greatest Utah beer and chocolate pairings attainable by mankind. Seek out the beers and bars below for a simultaneous sip n' nibble session that will titillate beverage adventurers and culinary explorers alike.
Vernal Brewing "Directional Smoked Porter" + Amano "Mango Chili"
As the first American brand to burst onto the international chocolate scene, Amano is considered old-school by Utah's standards – though it's only been around since 2006. Their hot and sweet mango chili bar is balanced wonderfully by the smokiness of Vernal Brewing's porter, which brings some of its own chocolate notes to the table, too. Despite its darker roasted malts (which counter the brightness of the bar) this "smoked porter" is actually quite light, cooling the heat of the chocolate for a truly harmonious pairing.
Epic Brewing "Brainless on Cherries" + Durci "Empyrean Sabor 70%"
Durci employs a new, quicker processing method that preserves more of the complex flavors of cacao that can be lost when over-roasted. Thus, this Venezuelan-sourced bar is a delicate delight, with mild notes of cherry and sweet tobacco smoke that are brought out beautifully by Epic Brewing's Belgian-style ale brewed with cherries and aged in oak barrels.
Squatters "Fifth Element" + The Chocolate Conspiracy "Wild Spice"
Chocolate Conspiracy founder AJ Wentworth has a background in holistic health counseling, inspiring him to produce raw chocolate with unroasted beans and raw local honey. This gives his chocolates a grittier, coarser texture – but they're just as tasty as any other you'll ever try. The Wild Spice bar, in particular, is equal parts sweet, salty, and (yup) spicy – the perfect companion for a Squatters' dry, tart, woodsy, peppery farmhouse ale, Fifth Element.
Uinta Brewing "Season Pass" + Solstice "70% Camino Verde Ecuador"
Solstice employs a fluid bed-style roaster, which exposes beans to lower temperatures than standard drum or ball machines do. The result is a lighter roast, as noted in their Ecuadorian bar, which is soft and luscious, rounded out with a touch of cocoa butter for creaminess. This smooth operator is perfect with the vanilla in Uinta Brewing's vanilla porter, a full-flavored ale made with real vanilla beans and chocolate malt. Like the Vernal beer above, at 4% ABV, this style is much lighter than you probably think, beautifully complementing the delicate caramel, banana, and cream of the chocolate.
Wasatch Brewery "Devastator Double Bock" + Ritual "Mid Mountain Blend"
Though a blend of all of the origins from which Ritual sources, the Mid Mountain bar ain't nothin' but cacao, cane sugar, and cocoa butter. And yet, my favorite chocolate of the tasting is bursting with strawberry and rounded out with subtler flavors of toasty graham cracker. It pairs particularly well with Wasatch's malty Devastator, a straightforward (but strong, at 8% ABV!) brew which -- when served just below room temperature -- displays notes of raisin and figs without overwhelming the chocolate.
Epic Brewing "Double Barrel Big Bad Baptist" + Millcreek Cacao Roasters "Chuno"
As the only chocolatier in the world producing aroma-infused bars, Millcreek pushes its niche to the limit with a Nicaraguan dark chocolate bar aged with charred barrel staves from nearby whiskey distillery High West in Park City, Utah. It's the only chocolate big and bad enough to stand up to Epic's Double Barrel Big Bad Baptist, a whiskey-barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with cacao nibs and barrel-aged coffee beans from Hotbox Roasters, in Longmont, Colorado. Pairing the two makes for a decadent grand finale that -- quite simply – just can't be followed.