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Oct 02, 2014

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Beer and chocolate

By Marty Nachel

What a wonderful time we live in - we beer drinkers, I mean. Never before in the history of this country has there been such a wide variety of beer styles, and made to such a high standard of quality. Because of this, we are in a very enviable position. Beer has become a darling of the media in the past couple of years and, as a result, has gotten plenty of attention from the press. In an effort to show its diversity, beer has been compared to wine in its ability to mate with various foods. And because beer has shown to complement food impressively, it is now being paired with everything from baseball to cigars to jazz music. Recently, I was asked to write an article on beer and chocolate (and I privately wondered how much I'd be charged for the privilege).

Beer and pretzels, beer and pizza, beer and bratwurst- these things we've come to expect, but beer and chocolate? Who would think of munching on Hersheys kisses while quaffing an ice-cold brew? Then again, what about those beers in the market that tout their use of chocolate malt? (The F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, New York has gone as far as naming one of its beers Saranac Chocolate Amber with its "deep, rich, chocolatey taste") And was it just a coincidence that the Pabst brewery in Milwaukee was only a short walk from the Ambrosia Chocolate Company? It became clear that before undertaking this ponderous assignment, I would have to do some investigating. I decided to start by learning more about this stuff we call chocolate.

By definition, chocolate is a preparation of the seeds of cacao tree, a small evergreen sterculiaceous tree (Theobroma Cacao- theobroma meaning "food of the gods"). These are grown primarily in tropical America, and are cultivated for their seeds which are the source of cocoa. Believed to be the the first product made from these seeds, chocolatl was a bitter, pungent drink made by the Aztec indians of north and central America. The natives mixed roasted and ground cacao beans with water and pepper and spices and the potion was drunk cold.

The beans of the cacao tree were first seen on the European continent when the explorer Cortez introduced Spain to a similar beverage made more palatable with the addition of sugar. After nearly a century of jealous protection by the Spaniards, the secret of chocolate preparation eventually spread throughout Europe- unfortunately, its wondrous taste remained an experience of the rich, since only they could afford it. It was the English who were first to add milk to the concoction, thereby making it softer in texture and less expensive to produce. Lower chocolate taxes, levied in 1853, made chocolate available to the working class.

The manufacture of chocolate and cocoa is identical up to the moment when the chocolate "liquor" is extracted from the hulled cacao beans, and molded into solid cakes. At that point, some of the cocoa "butter" is removed from some of the cakes, which become cocoa, and is added to other cakes, which become the bitter chocolate used for baking (with inferior grades of chocolate, a portion of the cocoa butter is often replaced by other fats). This "preparation" is often sweetened and flavored depending on its intended use. The best sweet chocolate is made by combining the melted bitter cake with additional cocoa butter, finely milled sugar, and ingredients such as vanilla and milk- depending on the type of chocolate desired.

Armed with this knowledge, I thought of all the various chocolate-flavored candies on the market, and tried to imagine which ones might best complement beer. I came quickly to the realization that chocolate flavoring was not limited to just candy bars, but also to a wide variety of confections, from syrups to cakes to ice cream. Though many of these are unlikely to inspire an exciting partnership with a malted beverage, I knew that some of their textural differences could not be overlooked. For the purpose of this tasting, I passed on the Godiva's and Frango's and chose six moderate-to-inexpensive brand-name chocolate samplings. These included chocolate covered peanuts, cherry flavored chocolates, the obligatory milk and dark chocolate bars, chocolate frosted brownies, and chocolate fudge (ice cream, or any cream product is a difficult match for any beer).

As for the beer, because I am fortunate to have access to a local beer purveyor that stocks over 700 brands of imported and domestic beer, my choices were virtually unlimited and yet, somewhat daunting. I knew from the start I would be looking for several high quality representative beers from various styles that cut across the ale/lager dividing line. They would have to be big, bountiful, malt-driven beers rather than light-bodied, pale and hoppy beers. Chocolate in most any form, has a creamy and chewy consistency that coats the tongue and teeth. It is also very rich and flavorful, which means that you need a fairly big-bodied beer with an equivalent malty richness and creamy mouthfeel to stand up to it. Thin and bitter beers just wouldn't cut the muster. Within these wide parameters, I found it difficult -but necessary- to limit myself to only 8 beers (with 6 varieties of chocolate, this already represented 48 different combination possibilities!). In the order of their suggested tasting, here were my choices: Paulaner Oktoberfest, Celis Grand Cru (spiced beer), Brasal Bock, Aventinus wheat doppelbock, Rogue Mocha Porter, Redhook Double Black Stout (made with coffee), Lindeman's Kriek (cherry) Lambic, and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (this smoked beer was thrown in for contrast).

Just so you don't think I am selfish enough to indulge in this beer-and-chocofest by myself, I enlisted the help of my wife and six admitted chocoholics- the fact that they all drink beer further ensured their focused participation. This cozy contingent of beer and chocolate lovers, I hasten to mention, was evenly divided along gender lines. Normally, this would not be brought to light except that in this case it bears significant analytical weight. Before initiating this post-meridiem soiree, I deputized one and all in the name of good beer; they would now be officially serving as product taste-testers on behalf of the consumer-at-large. Following a pre-tasting suggestion not to be influenced or intimidated by the opinions of others, I'm happy to say no one was. The results were as diverse as the people who supplied them.

Because I was looking for more than just spoken testimony on behalf of any successful beer and chocolate pairing, each participant was given a scorecard and was asked to score each beer and chocolate pairing on a zero to ten scale, ten being nirvana; zero, the equivalent of an emetic. Here then, is a glimpse into our little caffeine and alcohol induced frenzy: favorite individual pairings include Oktoberfest with M & M's, bock with brownies, kriek with milk chocolate, and stout with fudge. Because virtually none of the participants could agree on any one pairing in particular, it's much simpler to relate generally agreed-upon marriages between beers and chocolates. Judged the best overall chocolate with beer, was the chocolate frosted brownies. The fudge and the cherry-flavored chocolate also merited high scores. The best all-around beer with chocolate was split- the women overwhelmingly enjoyed the sweet-tart cherry lambic beer, while the men seemed to prefer the depth and richness of the porter and stout.

Unfortunately, all was not well in cocoaville. While all of the sweets were considered beer-friendly, a few of the beers were deemed by some to be out of place. The verdict on the Grand Cru was mixed - some tasters liked what the spice character did for chocolate and others detested it. The rauchbier, on the otherhand, elicited a universal response: put the chocolate away and bring on the sausages! Chocolate and smoke just don't get along.

Well, folks, there you have it. With the proliferation of high quality, hand-crafted beer in the marketplace, and in a profusion of styles, beer can complement chocolate quite splendidly. A little taste-testing is called for. Life just gets better.


White chocolate delight

White chocolate is not really chocolate at all. It is prepared from vegetable fats, colorings and flavors, without any benefit of the cacao bean. Thus, its absence from our tasting.

Despite this, the Dixie Brewing Company in New Orleans has just introduced Dixie White Moose, a White Chocolate Brew. Packaged in 7 ounce bottles, this concoction made with natural and artificial flavors is reminiscent of chocolate liqueur. While its effusive vanilla, butter and hazelnut aroma is strangely inviting, the palate is much the same in flavor -but cloyingly sweet- against a light and effervescent malt backdrop. I felt obliged to drink this beer from a cordial glass with my pinky finger extended.

1997 Marty Nachel

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