This Valentine’s Day, give her the gift she really wants: Chocolate...beer. Chocolate stout has become synonymous with this time of year. It's the pumpkin spice latte of February. Despite its ubiquity, there's a lot more to chocolate beers than you might think. Brewers are not only turning to chocolate because it's a seasonal no-brainer, but also because of what it can add to a wide variety of beers' flavor profiles.
“People like chocolate. It’s a lot more approachable than some of the more bitter and hoppy beers,” said Brandon Jacobs, brewing manager at Great Divide Brewing Company. But brewers like Jacobs don’t simply toss chocolate bars into the tank and hope that rich, bittersweet flavor comes out the other end. They employ a variety of techniques and ingredients to capture the familiar chocolate flavor and keep it in your beer.
No Chocolate Here
Some of the most recognizable chocolate beers don’t have a speck of actual chocolate in them. When James Gentile, the director of brewery operations at Victory Brewing Company, set out to capture the rich flavors of black forest cake in the Black Forest Cake with Cherry Stout, he didn’t turn to chocolate or cocoa at all.
“We weren’t looking to make a beer that we actually added cake to,” Gentile says. “Like in the chocolate world, you can layer degrees of chocolate like dark and milk. We have pale chocolate malt and chocolate malt to layer the flavors.”
The chocolate flavors in the beer are achieved by using malts roasted to different degrees. After roasting for a short amount of time, barley displays similar characteristics to baking chocolate. The flavors are so similar that our pallets perceive the taste of the malt as the more familiar flavor of chocolate.
Brooklyn Brewery’s well-known Black Chocolate Stout is another example of a chocolate-less chocolate beer. In 1994, brewer Garrett Oliver was instructed to make a holiday beer people wouldn’t forget named Black Chocolate Stout. Oliver considered real chocolate ingredients for the brew, but the final product contains no actual chocolate.
“You can age beer on cacao nibs, you can add actual chocolate powder to the wort, or you can add chocolate extracts - there are many methods,” Oliver says. “We actually played with some of these ideas when we were working on Black Chocolate Stout, but it turned out that we liked the beer better on its own. It already had a great chocolate-like flavor.”
The first batch of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout sold out in just two weeks. It’s so popular that it is now a permanent part of Brooklyn Brewery’s seasonal line up.
The Flavor’s in the Nib
Sometimes, brewers want a chocolaty punch that can only come from using the real stuff. To do this, Brandon Jacobs, brewing manager at Great Divide, uses cocoa nibs in both the brewing and fermentation of Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout.
“Roasted barley, chocolate malt and a dark crystal (malt) combine to give you chocolate flavors. The cocoa nibs really accentuate the chocolate character that is already there,” Jacobs says. “With the nibs, roastiness and alcohol heat take a back seat and the cocoa nibs push forward sweetness.”
Unlike Great Divide, most breweries add cocoa nibs only on the cold side of the brewing process—also known as fermentation. Thomas Bleigh, innovation brewmaster at Widmer Brothers adds chocolate in the form of cacao nibs or cacao nibs and shell tea during fermentation to preserve the flavor and aroma.
At Thirsty Monk, vice president Norm Penn looks for cocoa nibs for dark fruit flavors. Thirsty Monk’s Brother Noah Chocolate Stout uses Belgian Yeast which isn’t typical in a stout. Penn finds that these ingredients work in harmony by “enhancing the dark fruit qualities of those cocoa nibs that complement its Belgian yeast character.”
Tastes Like Chocolate
In the same way that bakers add cocoa powder and chocolate chips to cakes or cookies for rich, real chocolate flavor, brewers add these same ingredients make beer taste like your favorite desserts. In the brewing industry, Cholaca has become the go-to ingredient for imparting chocolate flavor.
“It is a pure cacao product that comes in a liquid form, making it incredibly easy to add to our beer and allows us to ensure we get the exact amount of chocolate flavor we want,” said Dustin Darker, operations manager at Station 26 Brewing Company.
One of the chocolate-focused beers at Station 26 is part of their Milkshake Series. For this beer, the chocolate gets added post-fermentation. Yeast is removed, hops are added and then, finally, the Cholaca is blended into the batch. After, the beer is allowed to rest for several days, which intensifies the chocolate flavor, before it is moved into a serving tank.
Another brewer, Josh West of Lone Tree Brewing, uses a similar method for getting chocolate flavors in his Horchata Stout. “We add [Cholaca] directly into the fermenter once the beer is done fermenting and we have harvested the yeast.”
It All Comes Together
Like the icing on the cake, the complimentary bread basket dropped onto your dinner table, the bow on top of the shiny new car. Sometimes a chocolate beer needs a finishing touch to make the flavors shine. For Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti, cayenne pepper is the secret to rich chocolate beers.
“It’s there for an edge and a spice but not heat,“ Jacobs says.
Milk sugar, also known as lactose, is another secret chocolate enhancer. It adds the sugar sweetness consumers expect from milk chocolate varieties. At Station 26 Brewing, Darker uses a healthy dose of milk sugar to add body and sweetness to his Chocolate Milkshake IPA.
There’s only one thing missing from this romantic evening of sipping chocolate beers on a fur rug in front of a roaring fireplace and that’s the perfect pairing. According to Oliver, “There are few better things with cheesecake.” Happy Valentine's Day, indeed.