The pairing of beer with chocolate seems recently to have gained a life of its own. Among other signs are reports from New York that hint this lovely combination is “the next big thing.” Actually, during the past year, our stout ice cream float made inroads in the Big Apple, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Why would anyone even think of such a bizarre combination? The answer is simplicity itself: because there is beer and there is chocolate.
In 1989, I suggested to Carl Simpson, owner with Kate Bullard of Portland’s (OR) Dublin Pub, that we do chocolate and beer for my February tasting there, since it fell on Valentines Day. Carl agreed, but he must have had his doubts, and in truth I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Indeed, I was forced to consider the question, why would anyone even think of such a bizarre combination? The answer is simplicity itself: because there is beer and there is chocolate. A marriage made in heaven, as it were. It had all started the year before when I was trying to devise ways to twist the IRS’s tail. What better way than deducting some chocolate from my taxes. I kept careful notes, of course—the IRS can be fussy.
I didn’t want to be the only arbiter of which beer would go with which chocolate, so I declared it a Chefs’ and Brewers’ Choice Chocolate and Beer Tasting, and called on local brewers for help. I pressed them for combinations of chocolate with their beer. Next I approached a couple of local Portland chefs, but it was Greg Higgins, executive chef at Heathman Hotel, who added the stroke of genius that has made me famous in beer and brewing circles. Greg suggested a stout float made with chocolate fudge brownies, vanilla ice cream, and Guinness stout. If left to my own devices, I would never have had the courage to try that.
The beers were ready, and the chocolate was, too. Although the crowd was fairly large, only a few hardy souls actually participated in that first tasting, but they made up for their numbers with their enthusiasm.
I next tried the idea in Houston at the Dixie Cup Homebrew Competition. It was different there; we had a captive audience. A hundred beer judges who had sat all afternoon and evening judging beer and were in no shape to be critical. More important, they were too drunk to drive home.
Since then, I have done similar tastings at venues across the country and in London and Tokyo as well. I have become quite well known in those circles for such madness. Although it was Michael Jackson who invented the beer dinner (one or more different beers served with each different course), I am having great fun with my format.
As I continued my research, I realized there was a lot more to the beer-chocolate idea than was on the surface. Perhaps I was becoming a Brewchocoholic! If so, there were sinister lupulin undertones to consider, and it was soon necessary to increase my swimming time to burn off all those dark calories.
How to Select the Samples
It has little to do with culinary expertise, because there’s almost nothing to it. Most of the beers we use are dark and heavy. In dark beers, the hops are more buffered by the malt, resulting in what might be called a mellower and maltier taste profile. This type of beer loves chocolate. Light or paler beers do work, but one must take care about the hop balance of the beer. Hoppy beers seem the least companionable with chocolate; which might explain why low-hopped wheat beers and Belgian brews fit so well.
With the exception of hoppy pale brews, no beer has failed in a union with one or another chocolate pleasure, although mint chocolate is highly problematic. Dark bittersweet chocolate seems a tad more compatible with beer than milk chocolate. We found that chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cups, and chocolate brownies are prime rib for the beer and chocolate aficionado. Ice cream is not to be shunned, either.
The only problem I have ever encountered in matching beer with chocolate is that one needs to wipe the lips carefully between bites and sips. Chocolate on the glass is very destructive of the beers head.
The Mayans and the Aztecs made a drink they called xocoatl, which sounds like the famous Aztec god of death and destruction. The Spaniards brought it to Europe in about 1519, but they kept it secret for almost 100 years before it was smuggled to Italy (1606), France (1615), and on to England, Denmark, Switzerland and Austria. Madam DuBarry gave it to her suitors, Casanova used it as a romantic elixir; but it wasn’t until it got to this country that people were able to pronounce it correctly: CHOCK-lit.
The cacao plant (Theobroma cacao), more a shrub than a tree, grows in tropical zones 20 degrees north or south of the equator. Most of our chocolate originates in Java, Columbia and Ghana, although now it grows in Hawaii, too.
The beans are harvested in pods, then are separated and dried in the sun for about 10 days. When dry, they are roasted and the shells are separated from the meat. These “nibs” are crushed and liquefied to form the chocolate “mass” or liquor.
Countries of origin make a difference in flavor, too (i.e., Indonesia and Madagascar, to name two contrasting sources). Other notable differences arise from the variable quantities of cocoa used in a particular blend.
Baking chocolate, dark and bitter with no sugar at all, is the basic ingredient in chocolate-flavored foods.
This is the hardened chocolate “mass” or the basic chocolate liquor (hardened). Very sturdy stuff. Oddest of all baking chocolates is Bakers Germans Sweet Chocolate. An employee (Samuel German, an American) of Walter Bakers chocolate company in 1852 added sugar to their baking chocolate to create Bakers Germans Sweet Chocolate. Naturally, they charged a hefty price for that added sugar. Indeed, it may have been the first time we paid through the nose for having sugar added to commercial products—most certainly, it is not the last.
Stouts and porters do well with such stark chocolate.
Sweet, Semi-sweet and “Dark”
Sweet and semi-sweet “dark” chocolate is made from 15 to 35 percent chocolate liquor, plus sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla. It varies in sweetness and color intensity, and the description on the label has little to do with sweetness. Chocolate manufacturers are just as reluctant to tell us what level of sweetness their products contain as are wine makers. One just tastes to decide.
As the level of sweetness rises, we can move to mellower beers such as dark lagers, bock beer and brown ales.
The New Gourmet Chocolates
According to some authorities, dark chocolate is becoming the new expensive gourmet concoction, much like coffee a few years back. In the manner of coffee companies, chocolatiers carefully blend the various basic beans. And there are single-origin bars, the chocolatiers chocolate.
There are three of these basic beans. Criollo, the rarest, is prized for aroma and flavor. The others, popular with chocolatiers, are Forastero, robust and plentiful, but less distinctive; and finally, Trinitario, a cross between Criollo and Forastero, which is easiest to cultivate. These go well with strong Baltic porters and imperial stouts.
Our FDA has dark chocolate requirements. The content of cocoa and cocoa butter must be 35 percent minimum, with the balance from sugar, milk solids, lecithin, flavorings and stabilizers (paraffin).
Matt Kramer, a local wine critic, once wrote of the health benefits of chocolate as they relate to wines generous antioxidants. He quoted a study comparing chocolates antioxidant compounds to those of wine. The health benefit of wine was first identified in the mid-1990s as the “French Paradox,” showing that the French live and love longer than Americans. Of course, we know now that dark beer has many of those same phenolic compounds. The small pieces of chocolate we suggest here provide one with about 205milligrams of these antioxidants, close to the amount found in a glass of dark beer.
Chocolate has very little caffeine and no cholesterol. The active ingredient is theobromine, which acts like caffeine—giving it zing—and, incidentally, is good for asthma. The ratio of theobromine:caffeine is 10:1, and there’s about as much of the two in a standard chocolate bar as the caffeine found in a bottle of Coke. There are other interesting elements, such as trace amounts of anandamide, similar to marijuana’s infamous THC!
Like beer, chocolate should be tasted carefully, using the same criteria. Remember?
Well, according to the Weihenstephan Brewing School, Munich Technical University, all five senses must be used in tasting beer: “to sight it must ring clear as a bell, it must snap in the ear, feel pleasantly sticky between the fingers, smell fresh and tempting and taste heavenly. The foam must be sprightly, upstanding and crackling; it is as important as the bead on old ale or wine. The connoisseur can tell much about the body of the beverage by the mere sight of the white collar. Exactly the right shade is as important in judging beer as in judging diamonds.”
Applying that to chocolate: How does it look? It should have an even, glossy surface. Lack of shine indicates staleness. It should “snap” on breaking; if it splinters, it is too dry; if it is slow to break, it is too waxy; if it folds, forget it.
It should smell clean and pleasing, with no off aromas—only the bouquet from the roasting of the beans, blending, etc.
The texture or mouthfeel (dry/gritty, moist/smooth) is an indication of how long it has been “conched,” i.e., made smooth by being moved around in shell-shaped copper vats. If it takes a long time in your mouth to coat your tongue, it hasn’t been conched long enough, and if it rushes down your throat, it has been over-conched or conched-out.
The taste is a factor of sweetness, mostly sugar; chocolatitude or chocolateness (mostly due to the percentage of chocolate liquor); and finally, the bouquet from the quality of the beans roasting time and the blending formula.
Specialty Chocolate Items
In our tasting below, one of the items (No. 7) is to match a good strong barley wine with “pepper fudge,” which is usually not available commercially but is very easy to make at home (see recipe box). If you can make or get pepper fudge made, by all means do so. The heat in this goes down ones throat surprisingly easily; it isn’t noticed until its on the way down, and by then it is a delight. The recipe box has two other simple chocolate dessert recipes that also do well with the heavier beers.
Adding music to the tasting will take it to another level entirely. Mozart or the Beatles make good companions. Match each beer with carefully selected pieces (see box.). If Mozart sounds like too much trouble, you can use the Beatles; they have a lot of “love me” type songs that work well with Valentines Day themes. A perfect ending for a perfect tasting.