Few of life’s simple pleasures are as evocative and savored as chocolate. Everything from strength and health to aphrodisiacal prowess has been attributed to this magical mana. Though much of this is pure legend, perhaps it is the very power of suggestion that has elevated chocolate to such lofty status throughout history, and no one can deny the mood-altering authority that chocolate so lustily induces.

In Mesoamerican history, chocolate was a gift from the gods, an offering to same, and in a secular sense, parsed carefully among the classes. This is akin to the role that beer played in Middle Ages Europe. In these heady times of microbrew culture, beer stirs no less passion.

Not surprisingly, adventurous brewers are finding a way to include cocoa and chocolate in some of their more inspired recipes. Dogfish Head’s Theobroma (named for the cocoa plant genus) is reverent homage to Mesoamerican culture by madcap artisan Sam Calagione. Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout from Foothills Brewing Winston-Salem, NC, is one of the most coveted and scrumptuous brews in the South. Few beers accompany a chocolately dessert better than Young’s Double Chocolate Stout or Rogue Chocolate Stout. Beer and chocolate pairings are divine in their own right, but the marriage in the brewery is equally transcendent and rewarding.

There are a couple of considerations when using cocoa in homebrewing. One, cocoa is not a timid contributor, so tread lightly. Two, not all brews will stand up to the intense flavors that cocoa offers. In fact, the character and nuance is not unlike that of dark grains like chocolate malt, black patent malt or roasted barley.

The very descriptions of robust and Baltic porter, all versions of stout, and even brown ale often sound just a chocolate confection: bittersweet chocolate, cocoa, mocha and malted milk are frequent descriptors in reviews. The similarities between the two media are uncanny and, at times, downright sublime.

Cocoa also blends superbly with malty flavors, honey (especially orange blossom), fruit (cherry), extracts (vanilla and hazelnut) and, for real historical cocoa authenticity, spices (cinnamon and hot chili peppers or powder). From that list, it should be easy to come up with a themed combination or a simple cocoa brew provided you stay within a reasonable margin of adventure. Really though, the possibilities are limited to your own imagination. Any savvy brewer knows that experimentation is part of why we do this thing of ours, but well-laid plans are always better. Back off on the dark malts at the same rate at which you add the cocoa and the results should be favorable.

Cocoa Basics

Essentially, cocoa can be delivered in four different forms: chocolate syrup, cocoa powder, bar chocolate and cocoa nibs. All four forms are relatively trouble-free and can be used at different junctures of the brewing process.

Commercial chocolate syrup is both an easy and effective way to get the cocoa goodness into a beer, and not only is it fat-free (advantageous for brewing), but already sterile. Pour a 12-ounce can directly into the primary or secondary fermenter prior to racking. It readily dissolves and the sugar will ferment away. Brewing legend says that the secondary is best for aromatic retention. Hershey’s makes both a regular and special dark version of their famous syrup: both work excellently, are convenient, and can even be used to prime, at a rate of about one cup per five gallons.

If you are interested in making your own syrup from cocoa powder, which is quite simple and quite versatile in the kitchen, refer to the recipe below. It will deliver a concentrated, mellow chocolate flavor. Light and dark Dutch-processed cocoa powder, even in organic form, can be purchased on the Internet from numerous sources (My choice is www.cocoasupply.com).

Cocoa powders can also be used directly, but bear in mind that their high fat content makes them harder to dissolve directly in the kettle than prepared syrups and, depending on the variety, can impart harshness. They are nothing more than pulverized raw or roasted cocoa beans. Dutch-processed cocoa is mellower than natural cocoa powder, and is the better option for experimentation and tweaking.

Cocoa powders are perfect for mashing, where they can be evenly distributed without problems and still find their way into the kettle. Start with about two to three ounces in a five-gallon recipe and work your way up―you can always augment later with syrup if desired.

Chocolate or cocoa bars will need to be melted before adding to the kettle to avoid scorching. Baker’s chocolate, which is unsweetened, and bulk chocolate bars, sweetened for ready consumption, can be equally useful. They should be dissolved in a small amount of hot wort prior to use.

This brings us to cocoa nibs, the most raw, and hence, most intense of cocoa products. Nibs are essentially crushed cocoa beans that are either raw or slightly roasted. Raw nibs are lighter in color and don’t have the burnt edge that roasted nibs do, so pick your appropriate confection. Taste them before using and trust your instincts, which is often the homebrewers’ best directive. Raw nibs would fold nicely into a brown ale or porter, with the roasted nibs more at home in a stout. Each unaltered nugget is roughly the size of a barleycorn. They can be used directly in the mash, the boil, or suspended in conditioning beer like hops or spices.

As they are the precursor to cocoa powder, nib character is just as concentrated and powerful, and should be used with restraint. Three ounces in a five-gallon batch is a good starting point. To get maximum effect in the mash or kettle, mill them as you would your grain. I have found that the flavor is fully extracted in the mash, adding another roasted dimension to the brew. If used in conditioning beer, simply fill a small mesh sachet with the desired amount and suspend in the beer with a string. Since the extraction will be lower and mellower than if it is mashed or boiled, you will find that this approach will give a softer edge to the finished beer. Nibs are this brewer’s preferred choice for most brewing additions, as they are relatively unaltered, and can be sampled in their natural state prior to use.

How to Make Your Own Syrup from Cocoa Powder
(compliments of foodnetwork.com)

Dissolve 3 cups of sugar in 1½ cups of water, then whisk in 1½ cups dark Dutch-processed cocoa, 1 tbsp vanilla extract, ¼ tsp salt, and 2 tbsp corn syrup until smooth. Heat and reduce until slightly thickened, cool and store in the refrigerator.