Trend spotting when it comes to beer is not as easy as it sounds.
With nearly 1,800 breweries in the U.S. (up from 42 when I reached legal drinking age in 1978) and countless imported brands, beer companies are constantly engaged in “look at me” marketing. This is the process of announcing the latest imperial this, double that or oddball ingredient that makes the beer “unique.” The brewer is trying to make the best beer possible, but what the marketing folks really are hoping for is news coverage, social media buzz and word of mouth among customers.
The first sign of any success in the market usually brings out the copycats. This makes it almost impossible to determine if it is a genuine trend or just a passing fad. A legitimate trend brings with it a group of beers that have staying power. Only time will tell.
A couple of years ago the “Your Next Beer” column looked at coffee and chocolate beers after it was clear a number of craft brewers were doing more than making experimental batches with these ingredients. Both categories have flourished, with some very nice beers built around these flavors. And if Great American Beer Festival medals are any indication of trends, both coffee and chocolate now have their own categories—chocolate graduated this year from the “Herb and Spice” division.
The history of chocolate goes back around to 4,000 years ago when the Mokaya people in Central America made chocolate beverages. The Aztecs and Mayans were making a spicy drink from the ground beans of cacao tree for hundreds of years before Spanish Conquistadors arrived. Aztecs actually used cacao to pay tributes to their rulers. Pueblo peoples also had a history of using cacao seeds long before any European had ever tasted chocolate. These were not sweet drinks, since refined sugar was not added. But they clearly started our almost instinctual craving for chocolate.
Craft brewers are increasingly experimenting with chocolate. The flavor swings can be pretty dramatic, from something sweet like a Hershey’s Kiss to a more bitter experience like Baker’s chocolate.
“It’s by far our best selling seasonal,” says Doug Smith, production supervisor at Fort Collins Brewing in Colorado, of their Double Chocolate Stout. “It is a phenomenal beer, but when you put the word ‘chocolate’ on the label it makes it just jump off the shelf.”
Fort Collins has been making its Double Chocolate Stout for four years. While the beer was originally meant to be a winter seasonal, they sell it for about six months of the year. They use a significant amount of chocolate malt in the grain bill, adding Dutch processed cocoa along the way.
“We’re not looking for any sugar. We’re looking for a high cocoa content and high fat content, which serves as a nutrient for the yeast,” Smith says. “Sugar will give you either a wine or sour character. We are going for a rounded mouthfeel.”
At Southern Tier Brewing in upstate New York, head brewer Paul Cain uses chocolate in two of the brewery’s Blackwater Series of high gravity stouts.
“We’ve never brewed a normal gravity stout,” says Cain. “We add chocolate to our imperial stout at the end of the boil when you would typically add the aroma hops.”
Cain makes two stouts, Choklat and Mohka, which are blended with coffee. Southern Tier uses a custom-made Belgian chocolate, but has a confidentiality agreement in place so it does not discuss the maker or what state the cocoa is in when it arrives at the brewery.
“Our Imperial Choklat Stout is the most popular of the Blackwater Series,” Cain says. “It ferments for about a month. We have to be sure the yeast is healthy and viable, but that is pretty typical when you are making a high gravity beer. Choklat ends up being 11 percent ABV.”
While nearly all of the chocolate beers on the market tend to be stouts, there is a fairly wide range to the weights and flavor profiles. Stout makes a logical choice for the base since it has the dark qualities we associate the most with quality chocolate. But brewers have taken flavors into their own hands. Bison Organic Chocolate Stout from California takes a straightforward approach, with chocolate notes dancing subtly throughout. While Viking Hot Chocolate is a winter seasonal stout that is brewed in Wisconsin with Fair Trade organic cocoa and cayenne pepper.
With the wide range of flavors, which mirror the breadth of chocolate styles, there just might be a chocolate beer that meets almost every beer drinker’s taste. That means your next beer might just be something the Aztecs would recognize.
Rick Lyke is the founder of the Pints for Prostates men's health awareness campaign. www.pintsforprostates.org.