With me and brewing, the circumstance most likely to cause such a turnaround is the ready, cheap availability of superior ingredients. In January, I went to Guatemala—the cradle of Mayan civilization, and arguably the cradle of chocolate as a human institution. I brought back a half-kilo of cacao “beans”—a form of chocolate two steps removed from the least-processed chocolate you’re ever likely to encounter in this country. “What the hell is a cacao bean?” asked the customs official rummaging through my bags in Houston. I started in on the two-minute explanation; disappointingly, he waved me on before I’d got half started.
Read on for the two-minute explanation—but first, know that when I sat down to brew this beer, it was with the purest of aesthetical intentions in the Small Beer spirit: I strove for a beer that would as closely as possible resemble a bar of 70% raw cacao dark chocolate in liquid form.
At two o’clock of an afternoon in the Small Beer office, it’s not rare to find everybody huddled around the teapot, passing from hand to hand mugs of Irish breakfast blend, green tea or darjeeling and generous chunks of just such a chocolate, flavored perhaps with a touch of hot pepper, cardamom, coffee or mint. If you’ve ever considered subscribing to LCRW, might I suggest, as a means of experiencing in absentia a little bit of how it feels to be a Small Beer intern, the chocolate option?
Imagine, then, given the bliss of that heady hit of afternoon caffeine and chocolate in the quiet presence of literary greatness, what further heights of sublimity the heart and mind might reach under the influence of chocolate beer.
The Two-Minute Explanation
The Mayans called chocolate the food of the gods. Ah Cacao, Lord Chocolate, a king of Tikal, was toasting the gods with liquid chocolate a thousand years before its introduction to the European palate. In liquid form, it was a drink for kings, made from hot water and powdered cacao lightly sweetened with honey and flavored with a variety of spices, from chile pepper to cardamom to chamomile. Chocolate wasn’t paired with milk until the French got their hands on it in the sixteenth century. Nobody brewed a beer with it until the notion occurred to some arrogant Americans in the twentieth. But that’s not going to stop me.
Chocolate grows on trees, as seen here in this photo of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) in the rainforest room at the Smith College conservatory, which, to my great luck, happened to be fruiting when I visited for the Spring Bulb Show in March. After harvesting, the pods (which have a surprising variation in shape and color depending on region and cultivation) are split open to reveal an array of seeds suspended in a sweet/sour milky substance which is enjoyed by the growers but does not otherwise contribute to chocolate as we know it. The seeds are removed from the milky goo, washed and spread in the sun to ferment for a few days. They are dry-roasted by means similar to those used for coffee, then the beans are crushed and the shells removed, yielding the strongly bitter, incredibly flavorful cacao nibs. The nibs are then distributed to chocolatiers, where they are still further processed to produce all those other kinds of chocolate we’re used to. Dutch process cocoa is made by grinding the nibs to a powder and then separating out a portion of the natural fats (cocoa butter), which are reserved and re-integrated with the cocoa in varying proportion along with sugar and milk solids to produce milk chocolate, dark chocolate, semi-sweet morsels and everything else we’re used to. It’s a complicated process, as historied and refined as that for turning grapes into wine or barley into beer. And as with wine, beer or coffee, different cultures and regions of the world produce distinct varieties with unique flavors. Guatemalan chocolate happens to have fruity, grassy and grapelike elements.
I learned most of the above from a drool-inducing coffee table book called The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao, by Maricel Presilla. Seek it out if you want the 120-minute explanation.
Chocolate in Beer
Raw chocolate has a strong, inherent bitterness accompanied by wonderful secondary flavors. In that way, it’s not unlike hops. This was the rationale by which I convinced myself it might be okay to make a chocolate beer. But even in raw form, chocolate also has a lot of fat in it. Hops contain some partially water-soluble resins and aromatic volatile oils (which largely account for its bitterness), but not in nearly as large a proportion. So I wanted to be careful not to expose too much cacao to too much heat in order to avoid letting too much of the oils get into the wort and mess up the mouth-feel or the head retention.
A stout, I figured, was the obvious style choice, since it already has the chocolatey color and can be made with dark-roasted specialty grains that grant a chocolate-like flavor of their own.
And because I’m crazy like that, I threw in a handful of these tiny, rather potent smoked Guatemalan hot peppers. It’s not that crazy—hot pepper goes great with chocolate; lots of high end chocolatiers have used it, not to mention the Mayans. And I have already experimented with hot pepper in beer. Read about those exploits in Literary Beer Episode 8.
Cacao Piquin Stout
- 2 gallons water
- 2 lbs. pale liquid malt extract
- 1 lb. two-row barley
- 6 oz. pale chocolate malt
- 2 oz. black patent malt
- 8 oz. honey malt
- 6 oz. cacao nibs (divided)
- 12 whole smoked piquin chiles
- 1/2 oz willamette hops, bittering (added at start of boil)
- Nottingham English ale yeast
(I’m leaving out the nitty gritty here—if you want the details of my process, see the Honey Porter entry.)
I used 3 oz. lightly crushed cacao nibs in the last 8 minutes of a 60 minute boil, and another 3 oz. uncrushed in my secondary fermenter along with the chiles (I used two separate one-gallon fermenters so I could make some with chiles, some without). The hops I used because I didn’t know how much of the chocolate bitterness would make it into the wort with so little exposure to heat. In retrospect, there was actually a fair bitterness, and I bet I could have done without. Original gravity was 1.057, final gravity 1.018, for an alcohol content of around five and a half percent—significantly less than you’d find in a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout or a Southern Tier Chocolat—but I was intentionally going for something drier and less sweet, trying to achieve that dark chocolate flavor. On the other hand, I wasn’t making a Young’s Double Chocolate Stout either.
Those were some strong little peppers. Next time I will use somewhat less of them. But my were they flavorful! The head is nice, deep brown with intense chocolate aroma, but fast-fading, likely as a result of the fats from the cacao. The chocolate flavor is huge. If you’ve ever had an IPA where you found yourself still tasting the hops 15 minutes after you’d finished the beer—this is like that, but with chocolate.
I have to admit, this was not very beery. It tastes like a dry English stout as it hits the tongue—but very quickly the chocolate comes on, then the pepper, and it doesn’t go away. Not something to drink all the time, or to drink a lot of at a time—especially since chocolate contains the coffee-like stimulant theobromine—but very, very satisfyingly close to what I wanted. When I next have fresh cacao nibs and a hankering to flirt with darkness, I will brew this beer again.
If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry (as well as some more fun colonial beer history), and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck.