A Flavorful History, Served by the Glass: The Enduring Appeal of Mole Beer

Feature by | Dec 2016 | Issue #119
photos by Danielle Webster

Depending upon which legend you are partial to, mole sauce might be attributed to an Aztec king out to woo a Spanish deity or Catholic nuns in Mexico seeking to impress an archbishop. While these origin stories of the complex, flavorful Mexican sauce often made with chocolate and chili have their doubters, legions of foodies—and now beer drinkers—are more than willing to make a pilgrimage for a taste. And for some brewers, this can mean trouble when their popular mole-inspired, chili-chocolate, dark beer runs dry.

“People bring out the pitchforks and torches demanding our Mexican Chocolate Stout,” says Jeremy Gobien, owner and head brewer at Copper Kettle Brewing Company in Denver. His take on a mole ale was a gold medal winner in the Herb and Spice Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011.

One woman who made the trek over an hour up the Front Range for a taste was particularly disappointed to leave empty handed.

“The day she visited just happened to be the one day out of a hundred it wasn’t on tap,” he recalls. She got so angry we had run out she started swearing at me,” he adds, sounding a little in awe at the power this riotous flavor combination has wrought on craft brewing culture.

But the fact remains: A growing number of brewers are producing beguiling mole beers, ranging from Porters and Brown Ales to barrel-aged Imperial Stouts. And the beer that arguably launched a thousand imitations is Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, first released by Florida’s Cigar City Brewing in 2009. Clocking in at 11 percent ABV and brewed with cinnamon, cacao nibs, and vanilla beans, plus pasilla and ancho chilies, it made a big impression when it debuted. While many of the currently available examples are seasonals or annual releases, Gobien has chosen to feature the recipe in Copper Kettle’s year-round lineup.

In the highlands of south central Mexico, there are numerous variations on mole sauce, which can contain up to 20 different ingredients including spices, chilies, nuts, seeds, and thickeners, such as tortillas. Its consistency ranges from thin and smooth to barbecue sauce thick. Yellow, green, red, or black, the common denominator is that mole sauces feature a combination of chilies that lend varying degrees of heat and a whisper of smokiness from the charred peppers.

While the culinary origins of mole recipes are usually attributed to Mexico, at least one food historian makes the argument that it was actually a transplant from the Roman and Islamic empires. “Some [recipes] go back to pre-Hispanic times, others I believe come from the world of Islamic sauces and were brought by the Spanish,” says Rachael Laudan, author of Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History.

Laudan, who writes a blog on food history and food politics and is often cited in the mainstream and scientific press, believes that given the Spanish domination of Aztec culture and spirituality in pre-modern Mexico, it is unlikely that mole was a local recipe adopted by the Spanish. In her opinion, it is much more likely that it originally made the trip to the new world with the marauding conquistadors. The region’s evolving Hispanic culture then put its own spin on mole over time.

This history adds up to opportunity for boundary-pushing craft brewers, who have gravitated to mole negro, or black mole, which blends an herbal bitterness with earthy, warming chilies, spices like cumin, cloves, and cinnamon, and a touch of sweetness contributed by chocolate (and occasionally fruit). Searching for depth and balance, brewers often like to use “hard” cinnamon, the raw version of the aromatic bark from the Southeast Asian tree of the same name, that comes across as spicy, rather than sweet. Coastal Empire Beer Company in Savannah, Ga., took home a bronze medal from the 2014 GABF for its Dawn Patrol Imperial Breakfast Stout, a beer that’s aged for a month on coffee, raisins, cumin, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and two types of chilies. Five Rabbit Cerveceria in Chicago incorporates toasted pumpkin seeds. And The Bruery in California collaborated with Chef Anne Conness to design the recipe for one of its newest beers, Share This: Mole.

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“I’m not at all surprised that [mole] has been taken up by craft brewers,” says Jeffery Pilcher, a food history professor at the University of Toronto and the author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. “There seems to be an affinity between beer and Mexican food that wine just doesn’t capture. Partly that’s because the powerful flavors of craft brewing are particularly akin to chilies, chocolate, and the like.”

In spite of the affinity between beer and Mexican food, however, brewers agree that it takes trial and error to find the right balance for a mole-inspired beer.

“We have a 4-barrel pilot system to get the mix of peppers and chocolate right,” explains Josh Lampe, chief operating officer at Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, Pa. In late September the company released its Sunday Mole Stout, which Lampe describes as a “one-off” variant of Sunday Morning Stout, a bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout that has been a big hit for the brewery. “We want a sense of heat, but we don’t want it to be overly spicy,” he adds.

According to Lampe, Weyerbacher initially made two test batches to serve in its taproom, which was a good way for the brewers to get customer feedback. The final version of Sunday Mole Stout has a distinctive lead riff of richness that arises from a mixture of coffee, chocolate malt, cacao nibs, and cocoa powder. Underneath, four different chili peppers combine with cinnamon to contribute a smoky, spicy bassline. It isn’t as hot as some Mexican food can be, but very even. And at 11.3 percent ABV, one 12-ounce bottle is plenty to finish off in a single sitting.

Steve Gonzalez, senior manager of small batch brewing and innovation at Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif., attributes some of the newfound interest in mole recipes to other beverage crossovers, such as Mexican hot chocolate and chocolate martinis. He went so far as to draw parallels to his own experience drinking Mexican hot chocolate at his grandmother’s restaurant, Morgan’s. “It was the one alcoholic drink I was allowed to have as a teenager,” he says.

Gonzalez also thinks the explosion of food culture in recent years has been a boon for brewers. “People are more familiar with these flavors now,” he argues. “This beer style is incredibly popular. People initially think they are going to be put off by a beer with chilies, but are usually surprised at how smooth these beers drink.”

Not a company to shy away from intense flavors, Stone had been brewing innovative dark beers for some time. Then, in 2014, as part of a homebrewing rally and competition that Stone sponsors every year, a contestant named Chris Banker brought something new and unexpected to the table—a mocha Stout. It stood out from its peers and impressed the judges. With some further recipe tinkering, including experimenting with coffee, lactose, vanilla beans, and even nutmeg, the brewers at Stone hit upon the now popular Xocoveza. This winter-spiced mocha Stout features cocoa, pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and milk sugar, as well as Mostra coffee roasted in San Diego (not to mention a dose of Challenger and East Kent Golding hops).

It’s no surprise that this brew is described as a take on Mexican hot chocolate, given Gonzalez’s experience, and Xocoveza is a clever seasonal. It greets the palate like a well-choreographed variety show, with the cocoa, coffee, peppers, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg all building to a memorable finale. At 8.1 percent ABV, it is also a relatively mild beer when compared to Weyerbacher’s Sunday Mole Stout or Cigar City’s Hunahpu. It’s closer in strength to Copper Kettle’s 7 percent ABV Mexican Chocolate Stout.

Back in Colorado, on the northeastern plains of the state in Greeley, a small town best known for its university, energy production, and meat packing economy, a young craft brewery has grabbed the attention of beer drinkers in a short length of time. Last year it took home a silver medal from the GABF, and earlier this year, a USA Today reader survey named WeldWerks Brewing Co. the best new brewery in the nation. No doubt its regular customers were inspired in part by specialty beers that often draw lines of 300–400 people on release days. One of the brewery’s more recent offerings—Barrel Aged Mexican Achromatic—is a good example of its popularity.

“Our [October] release was a huge success and we actually sold more than we planned—almost 2,220 bottles,” says Neil Fisher, head brewer and co-founder. “There were about 250 people in line before we opened and from noon until 9 p.m., over 500 people came through the brewery and purchased bottles.”

A bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout brewed with cacao nibs, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla beans, Barrel Aged Mexican Achromatic is part of the brewery’s Achromatic series, which has also included Imperial Stouts brewed with maple, coconut, and peanut butter. Fisher says customers can’t get enough.

“Chocolate and peppers can contribute even more complexity and flavor to an Imperial Stout, which is a complex style to begin with,” explains Fisher. He also stressed that the high quality of the chocolate, peppers, and other ingredients is key. According to Fisher, WeldWerks employs a trial and error method for many different types and brands of ingredients before settling on their final mix of adjuncts to use in the recipe: Vietnamese cinnamon, cacao from Peru or Ecuador, and vanilla from Tahiti and Madagascar.

“We design our beers to have a rich, full-bodied mouthfeel,” he says. “We don’t want to overtake the base taste of the Stout with the adjuncts. But we still want to have the recipe’s [full profile] on display.”

Fisher thinks the growing enthusiasm for mole beers is part of a trend for bigger beers in general. Food historian Pilcher echoes this sentiment, speculating that any push for bigger flavors and balance bodes well for craft brewing.

“For the big picture, I think we have to look at the economics of the craft beer industry,” Pilcher says. “Unlike 50 years ago, it is possible for small brewers to prosper in niche markets, so I think there will be continued creativity, pushing out in new directions. Frankly, a lot of this stuff is not going to survive the test of time, but as long as people are happy drinking it, who am I to judge?” 

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