Bean to Beer: Brewers and Chocolate Makers Join Together in Pursuit of Flavor

The Business of Beer by | Dec 2015 | Issue #107

Neither beer nor chocolate are, strictly speaking, necessary to sustain human life or civilization. But for thousands of years, both have inspired such passionate devotion that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. And for some reason, the two just seem to go perfectly together.

It’s no surprise then that hundreds of chocolate beers are on the market today. What is a bit shocking, however, is that the same brewers who might bristle when asked why it matters where their hops come from, often simply turn to Amazon for the key adjunct in a chocolate Porter.

Luckily, craft brewers have begun to realize that a new breed of artisan can help them explore chocolate’s diverse range of flavor profiles. A good craft chocolate maker knows the difference between cocoa beans from different origins such as Ghana, Madagascar, Ecuador and Tanzania, and has probably visited the farms that grow them, too.

When Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford of Finback Brewery in Queens, N.Y., brew Lazy Ax, an 11 percent ABV Imperial Stout, they use a blend of cacao nibs—cocoa beans that have been fermented, dried and broken into smaller pieces—from Brooklyn’s Raaka Chocolate, a “bean-to-bar” chocolate maker that begins its process with virgin or unroasted beans.

“We have a broad assumption of what chocolate tastes like, but until you go and talk to the people making it and get the chance to taste some single-point-of-origin chocolates, you really don’t have a sense of the range of possible flavors. I would never have thought one bean was earthy, woodsy and has olive undertones versus having fruity, berry and more acidic characters. It’s similar to the wide flavors in hops.”

According to Raaka’s head chocolate maker, Nate Hodge, a bean’s flavor is heavily dependent on where it’s grown. “That’s one of the things that gets left out when talking about chocolate,” Hodge says. “The terroir and genetics are as important to cocoa beans as they are to grapes for winemaking or coffee beans.”

In addition to point of origin, brewers must also decide what form of chocolate to use and when to add it. Although options include the shell of the bean, cocoa powder, baking chocolate and chocolate chips, many brewers have a special fondness for chocolate’s most unprocessed form: the cacao nib.

Spike Buckowski, co-founder and brewmaster at Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Ga., consulted Scott Witherow, the owner of Olive & Sinclair Chocolate in Nashville, Tenn., when Buckowski created Moo-Hoo, Terrapin’s 6 percent ABV chocolate Milk Stout. Originally released in bottles in 2010, Terrapin offered Moo-Hoo in cans featuring the Olive & Sinclair logo this fall.

“It only took a phone call, and Scott was all over it,” Buckowski says. “We kind of kicked around a few ideas with cacao nibs and shells. I like dark chocolate personally, so I didn’t want a milk chocolate, milk-shakey beer.”

While the brewers at Finback prefer adding nibs (just under one pound per barrel) during the last minutes of the boil, Buckowski introduces them later, during post-fermentation, for around a week. This “dry nibbing” technique may help to extract additional flavor due to the presence of the alcohol that has yet to develop on the hot side. Of course, to cover all your bases, why not try hot and cold nibbing?

San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers uses nibs from TCHO Chocolate in Berkeley, Calif., at two stages during the brewing of Black Hand, a 6.9 percent ABV chocolate Milk Stout released annually in January. This year’s batch will be the third.

“We do a hot addition where we put nibs in a winemaking bag and throw them into the whirlpool, and then we also do a cold addition where we’ll have the beer fully ferment out, crash it, get it cold, drop the yeast out, and grind the nibs up,” says director of brewing Kushal Hall. “Adding it cold is where we get most of the aroma, but it also keeps it really fresh. If you’re just going to throw a lot into the hot side, you’re going to lose all the character.”

Brewers tend to agree that plenty of experimentation is key with chocolate beer, whether it’s as simple as drinking beer with a variety of chocolates or doing a few test batches in corny kegs to get the balance just right. Chocolate makers often learn from the collaborations as well.

“Brewing beer is probably 20 to 30 years ahead of chocolate making in terms of the scientific understanding of how flavor can be created,” says Brad Kintzer, TCHO’s chief chocolate maker. “So when I meet with brewers, I always feel like I’m getting a peek into the future of chocolate because they’ve been able to hone their craft so well.”

Which isn’t to say that brewers always have it all figured out in advance. At Speakeasy, for example, the brewers clogged up a port at the bottom of their conditioning tank by dumping in the nibs without grinding them up. “We had to blast it out a few times and pull the port and just let it dump all over the floor,” Hall says.

Such are the lengths the devoted will go to. Fortunately for Speakeasy, the batch had already been pulled off the nibs with a racking arm.