Chocolate, Theobroma cacao, the Food of the Gods, is, of course, one of the most admired and desired flavors on earth. Chocolate is an ancient material, but it has only used for eating for about 200 years. Prior to that, it was primarily used as a beverage.
Having created gold medal winning beers as well as being invited to judge beer competitions around the world, I’ve always felt that beer has been viewed as a distant second when people think of pairing chocolate with a beverage. Ever since I started my chocolate company in 2002, people told me to try red wines with my dark chocolate. This comes from the general “old saw” that red wine and dark chocolate go together. So I tried it, but found that something was missing. I didn’t get it and thought there was something wrong with my tastebuds.
I quickly discovered that the “old saw” was wrong, or at least, way too generic. There is no such thing as just a red wine; there are many varietals of red grapes and many blends of red grapes. There are many wine-maker techniques for fermenting and storage. In fact, there are almost an infinite variety of flavors in red wines. The same is true for dark chocolate. And the “old saw” ignores the fact that there are also white wines as well as milk chocolates. So it has taken a lot of energy and tasting for me to realize that most dark chocolates and red wines don’t work together!
It takes unique pairings to find ones that I call the “one plus one equals three” effect. That is, a great chocolate and a great wine combine to create a third flavor that is better than the sum of the parts. These pairings create the WOW effect. The WOW effect happen in less than 10% of the pairings I’ve tried, but it can occur with both red and white wines, as well as with milk and dark chocolates. Matter of fact, we were invited to sample our chocolates last Valentine’s Day at a Red Wine and Chocolate Festival. When we demonstrated that some white wines can work with chocolate, we were allowed to have white wine at the Red Wine Festival!
Beer is every bit as complex as wine, if not more so. There are well over 60 recognized styles of beer. Most Americans think Bud, Miller, and Coors are three styles of beer; in fact, they are but one style, with very slight variations on the theme. Add in other popular brands like Pabst, Strohs, Ranier, Old Style, etc., and you still only get more minor variations of the same style.
There are many more complex styles of beer such as Porter, India Pale Ale, Bock, Oktoberfest, Pale Ale, Amber Ale, and more. While each style is unique, most brewers create beers within the style guidelines for that beer type. While not identical, beers within a style are still recognizable cousins of each other. The same cannot be said to be true of wines within a wine varietal. Some winemakers will make the wine dry while other have a slight sweetness. Some are very tannic and tart while others are very smooth. Some are woody, and some are not. Because of the similarity within beer styles, I wanted to see if chocolate and beer can be paired, and if you can predict the pairings (as you cannot do with wines).
The answer to both is an incredible yes!
We have four flavors of chocolate, so I set out on a mission to see if I could find at least one beer style that would work with each chocolate. When this was proven true, I attempted to find two different beer styles to work with each of our chocolates, and again, I met with success.
The first chocolate we have is called Caramel Knowledge. This is a liquid caramel center with a touch of Italian roast coffee paste in it, all within our 61% cacao dark chocolate. Our dark chocolate is intensely chocolate, but without the bitterness of many high cacao content dark chocolates. I spent a lot of time trying to get the three flavors to meld with each other. In finding a beer style to pair it with, it was obvious to me where I should start. In the world of Ales, there are two styles that are very dark beers: Porters and Stouts. These styles generally use a good deal of roasted or burnt barley malt. In fact, one of the burnt barley malts is called Chocolate Malt. This is not because of the flavor, but the color of the liquid you get from using them. Brewers will also use a good deal of pale malt and some caramel malt in making these beers. The final flavors one usually gets; a burnt background with hints of coffee, chocolate and caramel. The flavors of our Caramel Knowledge seemed to line up pretty closely with the generic flavors of Porters and Stouts. When we tried this pairing, the overlap was incredible with all of the flavors melding together into a final mix, just bursting with yumminess. This was a WOW event!
I’ve found that most Stouts and Porters will work with Caramel Knowledge. Some of my favorites include Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout and Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. Exceptions include a very bitter Stout, like Guinness Extra Stout (there are two other Guinnesses in the US that do work well, Guinness on draught and Guinness in the can). Another that doesn’t work well is on the opposite extreme. It’s called a Cream Stout, and it’s extremely sweet because of the addition of lactose.
Our next chocolate is Maltimus Maximus. I always loved malt balls as a kid, but thought I could do better. If you look at the ingredient list of malt balls, they used a bunch of artificial flavors on the inside and the chocolate on the outside isn’t even real chocolate. I use two real brewer’s malts to make my own malt crunchies and then combine them with my custom 36% cacao milk chocolate. The combination of flavors is fantastic and we jokingly call this one a malt ball on steroids! In looking to pair a beer style with this chocolate, I figured a really malty beer might work.
My first thought was an Indian Pale Ale (IPA), but this would also have some disadvantages. Indian Pale Ale was created in the 1820’s for the voyages between England and India. The three month voyage would cross the equator twice, and both time and high temperatures are bad for beer. The beers sent to India arrived in very poor condition. But an enterprising Londoner combined his knowledge of two factors in beer to make his fortune. Alcohol is a natural preservative, of course; the higher the alcohol level, the longer beer will survive. So he made his beer with a lot of barley malt, recognizing that the increased starches would become sugars and then ferment into alcohol. The other factor is that hops is the only spice with a natural preservative. Hops is a flowering cone on the hop plant; they make the beer bitter and impart a lovely aroma. The more hops you use, the longer the beer will survive, but it will also become more bitter. The London brewer put these two facts together and developed a beer that could survive the long voyages. Strong, malty, alcoholic, and bitter are ways to describe this style.
I was leery of using this style in any pairing because of the extreme bitterness. But when I tried pairing Maltimus Maximus with Indian Pale Ale, the magic happened again. This time, the two were contrasts in flavor. The malty flavors paired well together and although the bitterness of the beer and sweetness of the malt crunchies were opposites, they ended up working together. They were an intriguing twosome, a “one plus one equals three” event. Yup, another WOW factor! I discovered that just about all IPA’s work with Maltimus Maximus, and some bitter Pale Ales will work as well.
Our next chocolate is called Nuts So Serious. This is a minor variation on a recipe I found in a 1949 Swiss cookbook. The center is a paste of roasted hazelnuts and chunks of roasted, salted pistachio in our 36% cacao milk chocolate. The flavors are so yummy together! My wife can’t stop eating this chocolate. I wasn’t quite sure where to start in the pairing process. There was some trial and error, but I quickly found that beers on the sweet side worked very well with this confection. You may have heard of styles like Bock or Double Bock, which are sweet. There are also sweet Barley Wines. My particular favorite is a style from Belgium called a Tripel. This style is light golden in color, but packs a punch, as it can be about 8% alcohol. Candy sugar (rock candy) is added to the barley malt to give a higher alcohol level without darkening the color, or making it too malty. Coriander seeds are added for a little extra flavor.
This combination is another one of complementary flavors. The beer style, while being one of my favorites on earth, is not overbearing. It’s flavorful, yet smooth. The slight sweetness helps it work with the slight saltiness of the nuts in the paste, and the flavors meld creating yet another WOW factor. Some of my favorites include Tripel Karmeliet from Belgium and La Fin du Monde from Quebec.
Our fourth flavor is called Berry Berry Dangerous. This is simple, but pretty incredible. It’s dried organic strawberry chunks in our 61% cacao dark chocolate; these two flavors are amazing together. The slight tartness of the strawberries works well with the not-too-bitter dark chocolate. This chocolate goes beautifully with a bold Cabernet or Zinfandel wine, but I was puzzled about trying to pair it with a beer. Randomly trying beer styles, one of the first I tried was an Amber Ale (like a Bass ale). Amber ales are made from a barley malt that, in some cases, is called caramel malt. This malt doesn’t really taste like caramel, but it does have an inherent sweetness. More importantly, it gives off a nutty flavor. Grape Nuts Cereal ™ is made from this barley malt.
This combination was interesting, but not great. I found the slight bitterness of the style took away from the melding of the flavors of the chocolate. I then looked for amber colored beers but ones that were more sweet/ less bitter. The ultimate to me was a style called a Trappist or Abbey, from Belgium. These are bold, amber to brown, highly alcoholic, very fruity in aroma, and in my Top 5 of beer styles. Chimay Blue from Belgium or Ommegang Abbey style from Cooperstown, NY are fantastic examples.
This was absolutely the most mind-blowing pairing of the four chocolates. It was WOW WOW! I use this combo just about everywhere I go. Even people who hate beer are among the most fanatical about insisting how well chocolate and beer can go together after they try this duo.
It has amazed me how much easier it has been to pair chocolate and beer than chocolate and wine, and how much more predictable it is.
For grins, we’ve even extended the pairing to soda! We’ve worked with Jones Soda from Seattle and have gotten the following terrific combinations: Cream Soda with Maltimus Maximus; Strawberry Lime Soda with Berry Berry Dangerous; Chocolate Fudge Soda with Nuts So Serious; and, (and even I admit this is strange, but try it!) Green Apple Soda with Caramel Knowledge.
So please go try the pairings. Here’s to “one plus one equals three!”Stephanie’s Note: Thanks so much, Pete, for all your great information! Again, you can find out all about Pete’s chocolates at www.cocoapete.com. Pete’s chocolates are fun to try when pairing chocolate with beer, but note that you can experiment with other brands and types of chocolate, as well.