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Why Werner Callebaut Left His Family’s Chocolate Business for Beer

February 05, 2019

By Stephanie Vermillion, February 05, 2019

Since 1911, Belgian-based chocolate producer Callebaut has dominated the world of sweets, with 1,000 tons produced daily. But for one member of the Callebaut family, confections alone were never enough. Trained chocolatier Werner Callebaut was on track to join the esteemed family chocolate business at age 19, then reality set in.

It was 2001 and Callebaut was close to finishing his “Chocolate Master” studies at the Syntra School in Aalst, Belgium, a curriculum that includes theory, chocolate-making, and a final project (Callebaut and his classmates turned in a handcrafted Cinderella Castle made of chocolate—and only chocolate). He could’ve easily entered the Callebaut chocolate business like his relatives.

Instead, he moved to Sweden.

“Growing up, I can’t remember a week without chocolate,” he says. “It’s part of our family upbringing, so we’re pushed to study it. But after two years, I knew I couldn’t continue. I needed to get out of Belgium and discover the world.”

After studying in Sweden and pursuing stints in politics, tourism, and aviation, Callebaut returned to Belgium in 2010 to tackle two simultaneous careers: air traffic control and zythology, the study of beer. He spent days working as a slot controller at the Brussels Airport and evenings becoming one of Belgium’s first beer sommeliers.

In a roundabout way, beer brought Callebaut back to his chocolate roots. It was in his blood, after all, and this became a business advantage. “When a fellow zythologist asked me to set up a beer-and-chocolate tasting for the class, I thought he was crazy,” Callebaut says. “I was convinced you could only pair a dark beer with truffles or dark chocolates, but then we tried all sorts of light and dark beers with a variety of chocolates and I realized, for the first time, that beer and chocolate are a perfect match.”

Belgium is by far the best place in the world to pair beer and chocolates, but it’s not because of the beer.”

At this point, Callebaut realized there was a hole in the chocolate pairing market. Wine and chocolate was a popular combination, but with a background in beer, he knew this barely scratched the surface. “Wine has far fewer complexities than beer,” Callebaut says. “I quickly learned that beer and chocolate have the largest range of flavor possibilities.”

With a background in beer and chocolate, this hole in the market became Callebaut’s calling. He quickly got to work trying as many combinations as he could to understand the art of pairing Belgium’s two major exports. “Over the course of three years, I tasted 800 beer and chocolate combinations,” Callebaut says. “There’s no science to it, so trying each pair is the only way to know if it works.”

Three years and an enormous intake of calories later, Callebaut launched Bierolade, a passion project turned tour business that offers workshops and “tasting walks” centered on pairings. Throughout the tastings, Callebaut incorporates his tourism training to regale guests with stories about Belgium’s history, such as the reason fries—which originated in Belgium—are called French. Spoiler: They were created in the country’s French-speaking region.

While Callebaut launched Bierolade in 2015, his studies were far from over. He travels around the globe in search of new beers and unique chocolates to keep his palette refined. Throughout his beer travels—including destinations from Oregon to Estonia—Callebaut’s learned one major lesson: When it comes to pairing beer and chocolate, there’s no place like home.

“Belgium is by far the best place in the world to pair beer and chocolates, but it’s not because of the beer,” he says. “Belgium has the highest standards for chocolate; any chocolate with less than 50 percent cocoa is labeled imitation chocolate. I’m not saying beer-and-chocolate pairing isn’t possible elsewhere, you just have to look for the purest chocolates from places like Vietnam, Costa Rica or Ecuador.”

During workshops, Callebaut urges his guests to think beyond matching favorite chocolates with go-to beers. He recommends looking for either perfect harmony or stark contrast. For example, the contrasting combination of a lime and cheesecake praline with a session IPA  generates two almost entirely new products, not to mention an extended cheesecake aftertaste with every swig.

While the flavors are complex, Callebaut’s tasting process is pretty simple. “First take a little beer, then take a bite of chocolate, then go back to your beer, and so on,” he says. “Don’t forget to smell your beer, too. Now, even if I smell a beer I can come up with a recommendation for chocolate pairings.”

Many of Callebaut’s combinations work, like his all-time favorites Verzet Oud Bruin, a Flanders-style sour,  and a dark chocolate praline with raspberry or beetroot filling, or the V Cense Saison from Brasserie Jandrain-Jandrenouille and a white chocolate praline with bergamot filling. Not all combinations are as successful. When testing a coriander-heavy beer with a lavender-filled praline, he noticed a distinct soapy flavor.

While tourists comprise Bierolade’s client base, Callebaut ensures locals benefit from the beer-and-chocolate experience, too. He buys solely from small, local chocolate shops, and collaborates with Belgian-based brewers such as Steven Bollion, owner at Belgian nanobrewery Malterfakker. Bollion offers Callebaut space at his M-café brewpub, located in the Leuven Museum), and Callebaut pairs chocolates with Malterfakker brews so guests can not only learn about Belgian beers, but meet the local brewer.

That said, the ultimate Bierolade beneficiary isn’t Bollion, nor is it his clientele. It’s Hannelore, Callebaut’s eight-year-old daughter who’s living every little kid’s fantasy: a childhood filled with chocolate. “I learned from the beginning that Hannelore should discover different flavors,” he says. “She started joining me at beer festivals at a young age, and I let her try nips of low-alcohol beers to help refine her tastes. Eating a bit of chocolate and nipping a glass of Lambic makes her smile, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.”

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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