If you like chocolate and love beer -- or love chocolate and like beer -- there may be no more harmonious pairing than chocolate beer. Available commercially in the States since the mid-1990s (and in Europe before that), chocolate beer can be the stuff gustatory dreams are made of. But just like luscious, velvety cocoa (believed to have been developed by pre-Mesoamericans in Mexico as early as 1900 BCE and called “food of the gods” by civilizations that followed), chocolate beer guards mysteries that can confound the uninitiated.
“Chocolate beer doesn’t have to have chocolate in it,” explains Sebbie Buhler, the former longtime Rogue Ales & Spirits sales rep whose likeness appears on bottles of Rogue Chocolate Stout.
“Chocolate beer” (which official U.S. style guidelines file in the “specialty beer” category) can mean three very different things -- and can be brewed in many more ways than that. For one, chocolate beer can, and often does, contain real chocolate, cocoa, or cacao, whether melted right into the beer or added in liquid or powder form. However, a brewer can rightly classify her product as chocolate beer if she uses a darkly roasted malted barley called “chocolate malt,” or if she simply brews it with a combination of ingredients that blend to simulate the taste of the bittersweet real stuff.
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You won’t find too many of the latter type, but you’ll frequently stumble upon the first two, whether brewed year-round or as a winter or Valentine’s Day seasonal. Regardless of the recipe, chocolate beer is most frequently delivered in stout form -- though as with most guidelines in craft brewing, exceptions abound.
Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania, says his 21-year-old company has brewed two chocolate beers (both retired) in its history, and they bore little similarity to each other. In 2014, he and his team infused African cacao nibs provided by local chocolatier Eclat into a lager and called it Eclat Chocolate Lager. Then, in 2015, the brewery came up with Deep Cocoa, a porter that Covaleski says, “was a reference to chocolate flavors without the addition of chocolate as an ingredient.”
The quote-unquote chocolate essence came from the grains that formed the foundation of the brew. “Darkly kilned wet malt gets subjected to a high fire that contributes a lot of characteristics resembling baker’s chocolate or cocoa,” Covaleski says. “It’s right on that edge of what is sweet or overly roasted.” Typically, though not always, these chocolate beers taste more roasty and less rich or sweet than those that receive doses of processed and/or sugared cocoa.
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Meanwhile, Rogue Ales’ sumptuous Chocolate Stout -- a brew that builds on Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout and has given birth to Double Chocolate Stout and Hazelutely Choctabulous -- gets its loco cocoa flavor from chocolate syrup. “We think it gives it a creamier, rounder mouthfeel,” says Rogue’s general manager, Dharma Tamm. “One of the beautiful things about chocolate is that it disperses and coats the entire mouth.”
Rogue’s full body makes it an ideal choice to mix into a Champagne flute with a Belgian framboise (raspberry) lambic for sipping on special occasions. Impress your date by topping it with a fresh raspberry and a sprig of mint. (You’re welcome.)
The Oregon brewery’s stout also benefits from the fact that brewers add their Dutch syrup after fermentation –- timing that allows the sugars to remain mostly intact and lend their full flavor to the liquid. They could have chosen to pour in the syrup during earlier phases of the brew, but much of the sugar would ferment out, resulting in a more bitter, higher alcohol beer. In a similar manner, Mexican stouts can replicate molé sauce by incorporating hot peppers, vanilla, and a very late chocolate addition in the form of aging the beer on cacao nibs. Sweet and spicy, Mama!
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If this sounds delicious to you (and why wouldn’t it?), Buhler offers all kinds of pairing suggestions, recipes (chocolate stout brownies? Hell yeah!), and a deeper history of the style on her website. Considered a pioneer and foremost expert on consuming beer and chocolate together, she knows what she’s talking about.
And if you only have but 30 seconds for a history lesson? Buhler claims that British brewers at Wells & Young’s first brought the bittersweet treat to mainstream western culture by melting Cadbury into their Double Chocolate Stout. Brooklyn Brewery became America’s first chocolate beer brewers in the early ‘90s when they turned chocolate malts into the famed and limited Black Chocolate Stout. Rogue followed shortly thereafter with Chocolate Stout, initially bottled with the image of a pink-hearted teddy bear for export to Japan as a potential Valentine’s Day gift. And in 2012, Westbrook Brewing Co.’s Mexican Cake, an imperial stout aged on fresh habaneros, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, and cacao nibs, became the first modern cult Mexican beer.
But according to archeologists, early Central Americans may have discovered chocolate while they were using the pulp of the cacao seed pods to make beer, which means chocolate beer has possibly been around as long as chocolate has. I’d venture to guess that the Mesoamericans, with their own set of mind-blowingly complex chocolate flavors, would approve of the magical variations of their invention being brewed today.