All About Beer Magazine - Volume , Issue
March 1, 2018 By
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Chocolate’s long been a perennial favorite as a specialty beer ingredient, although the ways in which brewers make and advertise their chocolate beers has been gradually shifting. Part of it boils down familiarity. The Great American Beer Festival added a category for Chocolate/Cocoa Flavored Beers for the first time in 1999, when the since-defunct Watch City Brewing Co. took bronze as the only medal awarded in the category’s inaugural year. (Before then the key special ingredients warranting their own GABF categories were honey and raspberries.)

A “chocolate beer,” sans additional qualifiers, by no means carries the same level of novelty it did back then. The average person tends to know at least a little bit more about chocolate and its cacao origins, as the industry’s built up a wider discourse, encompassing organic and free-trade origins, cacao percentages, etc. Those language shifts eventually echo in our beer.

Certainly, one of the likely causes of any recent upticks in cacao-emphasizing beers has been the success of Cholaca, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that began national distribution of its liquid-cacao product last year. An April press release noted that more than 85 U.S. breweries were currently using the product, while by late 2017 a Cholaca representative indicated that figure had since eclipsed 300 breweries—showing estimated year-to-year growth of around 600 percent.

So, there’s that.

Having mentioned a recent bump in milk stouts in last issue’s Trending, I tried to steer these selections away from a stout focus when possible while still incorporating many of the newer cocoa/cacao releases. There’s a lot of attention on chocolate, today and for years now, and it shouldn’t be surprising to see narrative-minded breweries highlighting that cacao bean more.

More Noteworthy Options:

You’ll find various recently recommended beers, emphasizing cacao or cocoa additions, in the More Recommended Chocolate Beers sidebar. The newest Beer Geek Breakfast release from Mikkeller—for better or worse—happens to be a Vanilla Maple Cocoa Shake rendition. The Bruery’s Chocolate Rain, a bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout with fresh vanilla beans and cacao nibs from “luxury chocolate maker” TCHO (weighing in at a modest 19.5%), saw its first public bottle release in 2017 and is likely to reappear early on in 2018. And, since we’re already in big-beer terrain: Wild Heaven Beer in Atlanta recently debuted Gravitational Wave imperial stout in cans for the first time—featuring raspberries and smoked cocoa nibs.

The Boston Beer Co.
Boston; Cincinnati, Ohio; & Breinigsville, Pennsylvania
5.8% | Bock w/ Cocoa & Natural Flavors

Good for a quick cocoa fix. Brewed with nibs from Ghana, Ecuador and Madagascar, this chocolate bock is balanced and straightforward with caramel, cocoa and brown sugar.

Pelican Brewing Co.
Tillamook, Oregon
6% | Mexican-Style Chocolate Stout w/ Cinnamon & Tanzanian Cacao Nibs

Abuela’s Casita takes its inspiration from the winter beverage head brewer Jason Schlebach’s grandmother often made in Mexico called Champurrado, made with corn, chocolate and milk. (This beer uses corn and lactose, as well as the special adds above.) This lands dark and spicy to start but with a bit of time opens to rich milk chocolate, ample cinnamon and cocoa.

Indeed Brewing Co.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
6.5% | Winter Ale w/ Cacao Nibs, Raisins & Vanilla

The vanilla stays generally quiet until this warms up, otherwise focusing on caramel and soft spice. The cocoa’s a subtle presence alongside roast and milk-chocolate notes.

Heavy Seas w/ MadTree Brewing Co.
Baltimore, Maryland
8.25% | Wee Heavy w/ Coffee & Cocoa Nibs

This latest collab in the Partner Ships Series looks to special ingredients sourced near each of these breweries, including coffees from roasters in Baltimore and Cincinnati, and cocoa nibs from Cincinnati’s Maverick Chocolate. Once this warms, a smooth milk chocolate and deep cocoa lead, with those complex coffees smoothing over any overt sweetness.

Almanac Beer Co.
San Jose, California
9.2% | Wine-Barrel-Aged Sour Red Ale w/ Merlot Grapes, Raspberries, Cacao & Vanilla

For all the forces at play here, Almanac stays true to form—with the raspberries showing an exceptional vibrance. The aromatics land fruit-first, pulpy and lightly tannic, while the cocoa-nib and Merlot additions offer surprising depth in that first sip. Particularly vinous.

Oskar Blues Brewery
Longmont & Boulder, Colorado & Brevard, North Carolina
11% | Rum-Barrel-Aged Imperial Porter w/ Coconut & Cholaca Liquid Cacao

There’s all kinds of coconut here: unabashed, unrelenting, mellowed only by that underlying chocolate and rum. (Though it’s not like the beer name is pulling any punches … ) For all the coconut: the imperial porter base is beautifully built, that chocolate presence is seamless, and there’s a lot more going on here than just the coconut-heavy first sip.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Chico, California & Mills River, North Carolina
11.8% | Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Cocoa & Coconut

Sierra Nevada’s barrel-aging profiles often land on the over-assertive side of the spectrum, if engaging and well-matched to their base beers. This edition in their Trip in the Woods series is no exception, with a firm bourbon edge meeting dark chocolate and quite modest levels of coconut underneath (at least relative to that Oskar Blues example).

Tröegs Independent Brewing
Hershey, Pennsylvania
12% | Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Vanilla Bean & Cocoa

This is not a small beer. While this might not land in that tippy-top echelon of complex impy stouts, there’s a lot of good stuff going on here: the vanilla-bean addition is tempered nicely, there’s deeper cocoa and dark chocolate beside blackberries and dried fruit, and the bourbon barrels contribute a welcome char and spicy warmth.

The Bruery
Placentia, California
14.2% | Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Wheatwine-Style Ale w/ Cacao Nibs, Vanilla & Tart Cherries

Of the highlighted beers this issue, definitely one of the truest “chocolate beer” experiences. The underlying caramel and leather notes conjure oloroso sherry, and that warming bourbon heat tempers much of the sweetness. But, for those into this sort of thing, it’s still very much as promised: a massive hit of white-chocolate-ness flecked with candied cherry.

Also Tasted

Shmaltz Brewing Co.
Clifton Park, New York
8% | Golden Strong Ale w/ Cocoa Nibs

Brewed with eight different malts and eight hop varieties. The overall effect is quiet on the nib front, focusing instead on chewy core caramel and firm (if nondescript) bitterness.

New Belgium Brewing
Fort Collins, Colorado
8.5% | Imperial Raspberry Ale w/ Cocoa Husks & Vanilla

This special edition of Frambozen uses locally roasted and ground cocoa husks via Nuance Chocolate. The end result’s surprisingly hollow and sticky, its cocoa overwhelmed.

Ninkasi Brewing Co.
Eugene, Oregon
10% | Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Hazelnuts, Star Anise & Cocoa Nibs

This latest incarnation of Ground Control (using Ninkasi’s space yeast) is aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels, with 10% of the final blend being a fresh/unaged batch of the base beer. Hints of acetaldehyde and higher alcohols detract from an otherwise sturdy core.

More Recommended Chocolate Beers From our All About Beer
review archives:

Oskar Blues Death By Coconut
6.5% | Porter w/ Cacao & Coconut Sugar

Copper Kettle Mexican Chocolate Stout
7% | Stout w/ Cinnamon, Organic Chocolate & Chili Peppers

Stone Xocoveza
8.1% | Stout w/ Cocoa, Coffee, Peppers, Vanilla, Cinnamon & Nutmeg

Epic Big Bad Baptist
12.3% | Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Cacao Nibs & Coffee

Epic Double Barrel Big Bad Baptist
12.3% | Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Cacao Nibs & Barrel-Aged Coffee

High Water Break Apart
5.4% | Ale w/ Cacao Nibs & Orange Peel

Victory Deep Cocoa
8.5% | Chocolate Porter

New Belgium Cocoa Molé
9% | Spiced Chocolate Porter

Jack’s Abby Cocoa-Nut Bourbon Barrel-Aged Framinghammer
10% | Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Baltic-Style Porter w/ Coconut & Cocoa Nibs

Epic Big Bad Baptista
11.7% | Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout w/ Cacao Nibs, Cinnamon, Coffee & Vanilla