This is an article that Jeff Mendel, craft beer veteran; esteemed partner, director and ambassador of Lefthand Brewing Company wrote for craftbeer.com in association with The Brewers Association. It’s timely, in that next week is American Craft Beer Week. I asked if he would allow me to post it here because I think it gives a delightful insight into our wonderful class offering, “May Chocolate Lab for Lovers… of Craft Beer”
CRAFT BEER AND CHOCOLATE’S SECRET LOVE AFFAIR
by Jeff Mendel
For the past 15 months I have been working with Sarah Amorese, owner and chocolatier at Piece, Love & Chocolate in Boulder, Colo., conducting Beer & Chocolate Pairing Classes at various breweries in our area. We have so far conducted four such classes, with our fifth edition to take place at Avery Brewing Company’s Barrel Room on Wednesday, May 15, during American Craft Beer Week.
Consuming beer with chocolate in and of itself is not necessarily a new idea, but what Sarah and I have discovered in our work together is that both beer and chocolate are very versatile food products. Each on its own can complement a wide range of flavor characters, yielding endless opportunities for interesting matches across the flavor spectrum.
I joke with our students that a lot of hard work goes into determining the pairings we choose to share with them. Someone has to step up and taste the beers and chocolates, experiment with pairings both good and not-so-good to arrive at the combinations that best highlight the wonders of beer and chocolate together. Alas it is true. Sarah and I spent many sessions tasting craft beers together with truffles, tarts, tortes, cakes and pies, all of which incorporated chocolate in some manner.
The idea of pairing beer with chocolate has really been gaining in popularity over the last decade or so. Prior to that, wine was the popular choice to accompany dessert and chocolate. When Sarah opened Piece, Love & Chocolate two years ago, she immediately offered wine and chocolate pairing classes. “In my industry, wine and chocolate pairings have been popular for awhile, especially for women,” Sarah says. She believes the idea of wine and chocolate emanated from their common health benefits but was “…quickly elevated to an elegant affair.”
However she finds pairing wine with “straight-up bar chocolate” is tricky at best. The tannins in many wines are not well suited to chocolate. The flavors provide interesting, though not necessarily pleasurable, contrasts on the palate. She has found her most pleasurable wine and chocolate pairing occur in the realm of late harvest sweet wines, ports and well-aged red wines.
When Sarah and I started developing beer and chocolate pairings, we had to first learn about each other’s products. I had to teach Sarah about the raw materials used in beer, the sensory experience of consuming beer, explain the different flavors and aromas and their origins, whether process or raw material. Sarah had to teach me about the chocolate fermentation process, the raw cocoa pods, the richness of cocoa butter, the difference between dark, milk and white chocolate. I like to say that I thought I loved chocolate. But when I walked into Piece, Love & Chocolate for the first time I learned that I didn’t know what chocolate really was. What a revelation!
Through all of our R & D we have discovered that beer and chocolate can not only be paired on the basis of flavor but also on mouthfeel, or as Sarah calls it, “the feel of taste.” The rich, fatty feel of the cocoa butter melts at body temperature and coats the palate, and the lively carbonic bite of carbonation activates the trigeminal nerve, creating a round and full flavor AND feel experience.
We have encountered some challenges along the way to finding some really pleasurable pairings. Certain styles of beer do not naturally lend themselves to pairing with chocolate. Generally more moderate alcohol, lighter-bodied sessionable styles, such as pilsners, pale ales, ESBs do not hold up well to the rich, fatty cocoa butter. We even found this to be true with a mild milk chocolate. There have been a few notable exceptions. We have had great success pairing hefeweizen with chocolate crust lemon custard tart and a lavender chocolate cake. In both cases the chocolate component acted as a maid–of-honor to the pairing of the fruit/spice characters of the beer and the desserts.
We also found the Left Hand Good Juju Ginger Ale to be an excellent candidate for pairing with chocolate desserts. Ginger and chocolate are already known to pair well together from a flavor standpoint, but could this lighter-bodied spiced ale stand up to the richness of a chocolate dessert? Sarah and I randomly chose to try the beer with her Honey Lemon Tart, a honey gelee topping white chocolate mousse and a light lemon custard. The snappy ginger spice worked beautifully with both the sweet of the honey and white chocolate as well as the tart of the lemon custard. The ginger character also helped offset the heft of the cocoa butter.
IPAs continue to be a challenge for pairing with Sarah’s chocolate treats. The intense hop bitterness of most of these beers often creates a real clash of flavors, making it difficult to find a truly pleasurable pairing. I think the right IPA is out there, one with enough malt flavor and body so as not to be dwarfed by the hops, to pair roundly with a chocolate treat. I just haven’t found it yet.
As one might expect, bigger, richer, and maltier beers seem to pair best with chocolate. Porters, Stouts, Barleywines and barrel-aged styles. Higher alcohol beers tend to stand up to the cocoa butter better, while the malt sweetness of these bigger styles often offers a nice compliment to the sweetness of chocolate. These styles of beer also tend to blend well with other flavors (from wood, coffee or other added ingredients), much like chocolate does.
Sarah likes to take the idea of pairing craft beer and chocolate beyond just putting a chocolate next to a beer and tasting them together. As Sarah explains, “I am not a fan of pairing simple bar chocolates with spirits. I prefer chocolate desserts for a more comprehensive and exciting culinary experience. Some of these desserts have beer incorporated into them, and others are just really delicious consumed with certain beers. “
“When we integrate a selected craft beer from a local brewery into a recipe at my shop, R & D starts with a concept. What will we make – a ganache? a mousse? a cake? Not all beers make good mousses, and even fewer make terrific ganache. Sometimes, in a baked good like a cake, we will first reduce the beer down to a more concentrated flavor. However, so as not to sacrifice some of the nuances and delicate flavor notes in the beer that might have been lost to heat or evaporation, we may fold the beer in its original state into an additional component of the final dessert or pastry, thereby retaining all of the unique flavor notes of the selected craft beer.”
As with any culinary experience, finding pleasurable craft beer and chocolate pairings is an entirely subjective endeavor. Our best suggestion is to pick out a particular flavor component of a beer to try to pair with a particular flavor component from the chocolate, and see how compatible you find the marriage. As I stated at the top of this piece, both beer and chocolate are versatile enough to accommodate and complement many flavors, so there is room for a lot of creativity in imagining how the two can pair together.
Below I have provided a list of some of the best pairings we have developed over the past year:
Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro w/Left Hand Milk Stout Chocolate Mousse Cupcake
Avery Hog Heaven Barleywine with Pecan Tart
Left Hand Good Juju Ginger Ale with Honey Lemon Tart
West Flanders Woodshed Smoked Porter with 64% Dark Chocolate Liquid Salted Caramel Truffle
Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss with Lemon Tart
Avery Tweak Espresso Imperial Stout with Hazelnut Espresso Shortbread topped with a Hazelnut Ganache
Upslope Foreign Style Stout with an Espresso Truffle
Working with Jeff on this project has been a lot of fun. In addition to being so incredibly knowledgeable about the craft of brewing beer, he is wildly entertaining, funny and sweet. Developing and teaching this class has been a true joy, indeed! Working with many of the local breweries and getting to know this age-old craft and the passionate people behind these companies has touched my artisan heart! Each class we conduct is highly customized to the local craft beers that are available at that specific time of year – no two classes are ever the same. This coming class, Avery has thrown in a beer brewed with passion fruit – can you even imagine!?! Here’s to ongoing research, Jeff! Cheers!
By the way, Jeff teaches other beer and food pairing classes (yes, other than chocolate!). If you would like to know more, please visit Boulder Valley Schools Lifelong Learning website: