I MENTION “CHOCOLATE BEER,” and people roll their eyes. Many will admit to having had one tolerable chocolate stout or so in their lives, but as a category, my craft-brewery/beer-festival friends look askance at any beer that too closely resembles something you’d buy from Godiva. I get it; the concept has a faddish flavor to it, and it can seem like a departure from what many consider “real” beer.
But chocolate beer might actually be one of the oldest beers of all. According to a 2007 study co-authored by anthropology and archaeology professors at Cornell and Berkeley (so, not clown colleges), there’s evidence that pre-Columbian Mesoamericans fermented cacao fruit to make a beerlike drink called chicha.
Chicha is usually made from corn, but there are regional variations made from other new-world plants like potatoes, peanuts and cacao beans. As beer expert Martyn Cornell points out in his excellent beer blog, Zythophile, the process of making chocolate as we know it begins with fermenting the cacao fruit and seeds together. He quotes Cornell anthropology professor John Henderson in explaining that the virtues of chocolate qua chocolate was, according to his 2007 study, discovered as a byproduct of making chicha out of cacao fruit, suggesting, “The roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink.”
So really, we have chocolate only because of beer, making chocolate beer the ideal love-gift for Valentine season.
Shopping for modern chocolate beer, though, can cause some hesitation in the uninitiated. Some of the flavors can be off-putting — when one’s palate is expecting the bite of a nice frosty, slightly bitter IPA or lager, the concept of a beer rippling with notes of coconut, vanilla and milk chocolate can sound a little vomitous. I suppose there must be a good commercial reason for breweries to market their chocolate beers as drinkable candy bars, but anytime I ask actual humans what they think of a beer with notes of, say, caramel and marshmallow, they always make a face.
Some of the more egregious styles (which I will not specifically name-check, because I just don’t want the hate mail) describe their beers in terms of “truffles” or “cake” or even Oreo cookies. I can’t even conceive of eating an Oreo cookie while drinking a beer. I suspect in many cases, the marketing is a bit disingenuous, and the beers are not as candylike as they sound. But, really, it seems like some of these beers are winking — through the glass doors of the cold case — at kids. And the last thing we need is a bunch of kids running around drinking maple-caramel-flavored stout when they should be learning to appreciate fine red wine, like European children. (Just kidding! No hate mail!)
But die-hard beer enthusiasts continue to brew, drink and sell their chocolate beers, and it’s worth exploring why. If you consider malt, coffee and chocolate on a spectrum of similar rich, earthy, bitter flavors, the concept makes more sense. After all, chocolate really is quite bitter until you add a bunch of sugar to it.
Mesoamericans often drank their chocolate completely unsweetened, many times spiked with chile. Chocolate (or the barely-tolerable-but-apt word “chocolaty”) is also frequently listed as a tasting note in dark beers, ales or stouts, even when that beer contains no chocolate at all. Guinness sometimes tastes like downing a grown-up chocolate milkshake to me, despite containing zero chocolate. Beers made with “chocolate malt” are not necessarily chocolate beers, either — the “chocolate” in that case refers only to the color of the malt after roasting (although it often does, serendipitously, impart a chocolate flavor to the brew).
Actual chocolate can be added during any stage of beer-making, with variable results. Dry cocoa or cacao nibs can be included during malting, imparting a more subtle flavor, or later during the boiling stage for distinctively roasty notes, like a dark chocolate bar. For a more obvious chocolate punch, brewers can add it during the fermentation stage.
The Pacific Northwest is, of course, rife with craft breweries, and many of them have their own riffs on chocolate beer. They’re pretty enthusiastic about chocolate brews at Full Throttle Bottles in Georgetown (the ideal place to go if you want some beer guidance, from the mundane to the esoteric), where I picked up Trap Door Brewing‘s Interiority Stout, a heady, nuanced brew barrel-aged and then conditioned with vanilla beans and cacao nibs; Caldera‘s very chocolaty Toasted Coconut Chocolate Porter; and Icicle Brewing Company‘s Dark Persuasion German Chocolate Cake Ale, a milk stout that easily could replace an actual slice of birthday cake or even, perhaps, the usual box of heart-shaped bonbons.