Pairing Craft Beer & Artisanal Chocolate
Think chocolate and beer are an odd couple? Actually, they are interestingly alike. And if you want to conduct your own craft beer + artisanal chocolate tasting, keep reading.
Why Beer + Chocolate?
Beer and chocolate are similar in many ways. For instance, both develop much of their flavor during fermentation. Both beer and chocolate balance bitter and sweet flavors—bitterness from hops in beer and cacao in chocolate, sweetness from malted barley in beer and sugar in chocolate. Some terms that describe the flavors in chocolate and beer are similar—coffee, toffee, caramel, molasses, biscuit, malt, and fruity notes such as raisin. “Chocolate” is even a word used to describe one of the flavor notes in some beers.
And beer and chocolate are fun to pair because the flavors in beer can not only complement or sharply contrast those in chocolate, but the carbonation in beer serves as a palate cleanser—a task not accomplished by wine, except for sparkling wine.
The Pairings with Craft Beer from Denizens Brewing Co.
Because artisanal chocolate demands to be matched with high quality craft beer, we teamed up with Denizens Brewing Co. for a Craft Beer + Artisansal Chocolate Pairing Event last month. Denizens is a local brewery with a two-level taproom and beer garden, and they were key in changing a county law that previously did not allow micro-breweries to self-distribute their beer to retailers.
The law previously required these breweries in Montgomery County, Maryland, to deal with a “middleman,” the Department of Liquor Control (“DLC”), which meant that all alcoholic beverage purchases by retail establishments had to be made from the DLC itself, and that made it difficult for micro-breweries to compete with . . . let’s call them “macro-breweries.”
When pairing, begin on the lighter end of the beer and chocolate spectrum and finish with bolder flavors. For the sold-out Denizens' event, however, we broke this rule of thumb because we decided not to pair all complementary flavors. In formulating the combinations, we sought beers that complemented the flavors in the chocolates, contrasted the flavors, and/or cleansed the palate.
After a few tasting sessions with the folks at Denizens, during which we not only sampled beers and chocolates, but also discussed the flavor notes we detected and the overall range of pairings we wanted to present, we selected the following five:
Caramelized Cacao Nib Bites with Lowest Lord English-Style ESB/Extra Special Bitter: We used a 60% dark chocolate that was adorned with caramelized cacao nibs. The Caramelized Nib Bites flirted between textures and tastes of crunchy, smoky, bittersweet flavors, drawing out the bitter notes in Denizens’ ESB, which isn’t overly bitter, but more so balanced.
Cuban Espresso Ganache with Ponch’s Porter: We paired our cuban espresso flavor with Denizens’ Porter. The Cuban espresso ganache, which is reminiscent of an authentic café cubano—sweet and strong, teased out the coffee and chocolate flavors in the Porter. The soft espresso ganache also contrasted the texture of the Caramelized Cacao Nib Bites.
70% Ganache with Born Bohemian Czech-Style Pilsner: We created a 70% bittersweet dark chocolate ganache for the event, teaming it with Denizens’ refreshing Pilsner. The Pilsner softened the bitter notes in the ganache, while cleansing the palate.
Dark Chocolate Fleur de Sel Caramels with Big Red Norm American Red Ale: These salty, slightly sweet, and fulsome caramels melted on the tongue, embracing the caramel notes in Denizens’ Red Ale. Again, the chewy texture of the caramels served as a contrast to the ganaches, and because the caramel lingered in your mouth, it blended smoothly with the Red Ale.
Dark Chocolate Almond Toffee with Third Party Belgian-Style Tripel: We selected our buttery almond toffee with hints of dark chocolate to play off the sugar and spice notes in Denizens’ Belgian-style Tripel.
Conducting Your Own Tasting
Work with craft beer and fine chocolate.
For chocolate, select pieces that can be consumed in two bites, such as a truffle, a chocolate-covered caramel, a chocolate-dipped piece of fruit, or pieces of a bar. Also, work with a variety of textures—that is, don’t choose all truffles. For instance, for our event at Denizens, we incorporated caramels and toffee, which varied the textures as well as flavors.
For beer, pour 3 or 4 oz beer servings (a reason to do the tasting with others because you’ll have a lot of beer left otherwise).
No more than 3 to 5 beer + chocolate pairings (my suggestion is to have eaten something light beforehand).
The intensity of flavor in the beer and chocolate are a consideration because a beer with intensity could overpower the flavors in a particular chocolate. Decide whether you want to pair a beer and chocolate that have similar flavor profiles (complementary); that oppose each other (contrasting); and/or a beer that cuts through the flavors in the chocolate (cleansing). I prefer a tasting that includes some complementary flavors and some contrasting ones (and some where the beers cleanse the palate). For instance, try a beer that cuts through and cools the tongue from a spicy chocolate.
Here are suggestions for selecting beers and chocolates for your tasting:
Try a pilsner with a not-overly-sweet white chocolate.
Choose a milk chocolate with 35-40% cacao, which offers some sweetness and some depth, offsetting the bitterness in an IPA.
Belgian-style dubbels would likely complement milk chocolate with raisins or dried cherries, while Belgian-style tripels would complement a chocolate with citrus notes.
Dark beers like stouts and porters are easiest to match with chocolate but that’s if your goal is complementary flavors. Try a stout or porter with bittersweet dark chocolate or contrast the bitterness of a stout or porter with a sweeter chocolate, such as white chocolate.
Try a higher percentage chocolate with a refreshing beer for divergent flavors.
Experiment with chocolates with salt or spices.
Conducting Your Tasting
Use your senses. When tasting chocolates, focus on the visual (the shine and color of the chocolate), the aroma, the texture as the chocolate melts in your mouth, the flavors, and the finish. Likewise, note the same when sampling the beer.
The chocolate should be at room temperature. As for the beer, there’s much to be said about the best serving temperature depending on the type of beer, but generally speaking, the beer should be chilled but not just out of the fridge. Sip room temperature water between pairings.
If you've chosen all complementary pairings, move from lighter flavors to bolder ones.
Experiment with sampling the chocolate first, then sipping the beer. Then do the reverse. Notice the flavor profiles that emerge depending on the order in which you taste the beer and the chocolate.
Discuss with others how the pairings worked (or didn’t), and enjoy!