Beer, whether you seal it with a cork stopper, or pour it into crystal steamware, is not the sexiest beverage. Few people get engaged over pints of pilsner or toast to a romantic dinner with a couple IPAs. Apparently, no one informed brewmaster Jared Rouben of this fact.
“We're on a fur rug, looking at a library, next to a fireplace, drinking barrel-aged chocolate barleywine and eating 12-layer German chocolate cake,” Rouben observes from the comfort of Moody Tongue brewery’s Chicago tasting room.
This is no ordinary tasting room, with the distressed wood bar lined with tap handles and chalkboard menu one might expect. No, this is a white-brick beer sanctuary, complete with leather couches, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf surrounding the aforementioned fireplace, and grey-stone bar illuminated by 16 orb sconces suspended from the exposed rafters. It’s a pretty place to throw back a few. “Our life is pretty good, before noon.” Mr. Rouben, are you trying to seduce me with this 9% stunner?
Mr. Rouben, are you trying to seduce me with this 9% stunner?”
We swirl the tawny-amber liquid in our oversized goblets as he admires its rich color. Sultry is a way to describe this beer, the second annual batch of which was released on February 11. It’s a classic English barleywine — with all the caramel, toffee and fig notes you would expect from the style, yet a distinct aroma of chocolate — aged in Woodford Reserve barrels and finished with Oaxacan cocoa beans. It’s a little weird, especially considering conversations about chocolate and beer are usually limited to stouts, but as Rouben puts it, the chocolate works not so much as a flavor component on its own, but to bring out the undertones of the already well-balanced beer.
This beer, like many of Moody Tongue’s “culinary brews,” starts in the kitchen. Specifically, back when Rouben was a culinary student alongside Moody Tongue’s current pastry chef Shannon Morrison. They would taste-test cookies for class while sipping on beer. The experiments in dessert pairing lead them to expand their horizons to cakes and all things chocolate. Chocolate and beer quickly became one of Rouben’s favorite pairings; the only problem was he often lacked the patience to wait for dessert to enjoy it.
Flash-forward a couple years to when Rouben was the brewmaster at Goose Island’s brewpub and suddenly beer didn’t have to fit in a box. Here, he took his culinary education and applied it to the brewing process. Baby carrots in a Belgian wit? White truffles in a sour? Why the hell not? You can probably guess where this story is going. Yes, he decided instead of just pairing chocolate and beer, he wanted to combine them.
He tapped another culinary-minded friend, with expertise in baking and all things sweet, to break down the finer point of chocolate. Or rather, literally break down chocolate into every way, shape and form it can be consumed and throw it into beer. They tested cocoa nibs, whole beans, crushed beans, toasted and more in the same base beer to find out which method extracted the purest chocolate essence. The results influenced the two chocolate beers on Moody Tongue’s menu — the Caramelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter and the Bourbon Barrel Aged Chocolate Barleywine.
That’s the best thing you can do when you’re creating great beer, or great food, is draw people in through the nose and then satisfy them with flavors.”
It wasn’t enough for Rouben to just have the right process of getting chocolate into his beer, he also needed to have the right chocolate itself. The journey for the ideal cacao took him from Chicago to Peru and finally Mexico.
That's the source for the whole Oaxacan cacao beans that get incorporated not once, but twice in the brewing process — pre-fermentation for the palate and post-fermentation for the nose. “I like our Oaxacan cacao because it provide a beautiful chocolate aromatic without imposing heavy chocolate flavors on the beer,” he says. “It lets the beer speak from a flavor standpoint and the chocolate is woven into those caramel toffee flavors. I think you’re drawn in aromatically by that rich chocolate. That’s the best thing you can do when you’re creating great beer, or great food, is draw people in through the nose and then satisfy them with flavors.”
Alcohol content was another element of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Chocolate Barleywine that Rouben took into considering. He had to treat it like another foundational ingredient in this beer’s equation. At 9% alcohol by volume, the Barleywine is certainly a potent brew, but by no means as overwhelming as some of its bourbon-barrel-aged cousins.
Like most of Moody Tongue’s beers, this is one you can return to for seconds, so most will consider it good news that the Barleywine is currently on tap in the tasting room as well as available in four-pack bottles. That too is by design. “We don’t want alcohol to be a flavor profile, so once we achieve the caramel and toffee, the next thing we think about is the bourbon barrel,” he says. He opted for Woodford Reserve barrels, because of the residual caramel notes as well as the residual sugar, which help balance the higher alcohol content.
The final product is a full-bodied yet easy-drinking barleywine that pairs perfectly with one of the two food items served in Moody Tongue’s tasting room. “Chocolate is really indulgent, dessert is very indulgent, and so is beer,” Rouben says. “So when we opened the tasting room, I jumped at the opportunity to showcase a dessert.”
The dessert is a massive, 12-layer German chocolate cake. These layers include, but are not limited to, chocolate cake, espresso cheesecake, mousse and glaze on a chocolate-graham cracker pretzel crust, and pecan and caramel filling. Unlike your typical chocolate and stout pairing, Rouben insists the barleywine brings out the cake’s coconut (yes there's coconut, too), while not weighing the drinker down. Can’t say the same about this giant piece of cake.
Overall, it’s a paring Rouben would like to see more of. “I can’t wait to see other people to take chocolate and incorporate it into barelywine,” he says, while digging into he frosting-laden bottom corner of the cake. (It’s his favorite part.) “I think they’re perfect together.”