For an exotic taste combination, have you ever sampled beer with chocolate? If you smile at the memory, then you know your beer. If you've just grimaced at the thought, be assured we're not talking PBR and Hershey's bars. There's a world of beer flavor—and chocolate flavor—for you to discover.
With a week remaining before the calendar's most sentimental candy blowout, pause before you settle for the box-of-chocolates-and-bottle-of-champagne cliché. Recall that, delicious as they are separately, these two lovers' gifts don't make a harmonious marriage when consumed together. Their flavors can clash and cancel one another in your mouth, for a combination that is less than the sum of its parts.
Beer, especially the substantial, malt-accented styles, makes a much better partner with sweet foods than wine, with its generally more acidic edge. Some of the most elegant dessert beers—barleywines, doppelbocks, Imperial stouts, weizenbocks, English old ales—are complex, sweet and strong.
There are also lower-alcohol beers that complement the robust, earthy richness of chocolate. Stouts and porters, which are so often described in terms of their chocolate or coffee notes, are natural companions. The roasted barley used in brewing these beers, with its gristy, burnt-toast elements, brings out the same in dark chocolates. The less-hoppy of the brown ales, as well as mellow Scotch ales, or the smooth German schwarzbiers and dunkels provide similar supporting roles for sweet flavors.
Or, go for contrast. Another range of beers sets up a counterpoint to your Valentine bonbons, without resorting to wine's tartness. Look for beers that lead with spice and fruit flavors: the farmhouse beers—saisons and bières de gardes—and fruited ales from Belgium and France. These beers give you fruit notes, either real or suggested by their yeast, with flavors of pepper, clove, vanilla and cinnamon.
Here are a few suggestions, a starting point for beer and chocolate experimentation:
Combine the very best chocolate chip cookies with a good brown ale (not too hoppy) or a German dunkel, styles that have a roasted, bready quality that matches the golden cookie. Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel is a superb choice, sweetly malty with light roasted notes. Or look for a German black beer, a hard-to-find style that combines a dark roast with a gentle finish.
With airy desserts such as chocolate soufflé or light cake, look for a porter, the elder and more restrained sibling to stout. A good English porter—Fuller's London porter or Meantime's interpretation—is round and gentle, and won't overwhelm the confection.
Anyone who has attended a beer-themed dinner knows that a stout, the blackest member of the ale family, is a favorite pick with dessert. However, if your tastes run to Death By Chocolate flourless cakes, the stout has to be similarly over-the-top. Imperial stouts were created in England with extra alcohol and hops to weather the trip across the Baltic to enthusiasts in the Russian court. Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout has enough bitter chocolate, burnt toast and roasted almond notes to stand up to the Czar. There are also numerous domestic examples.
Instead of capitalizing on the complementary qualities of beer and chocolate—coffee, espresso, chocolate and nut notes—another range of beer offers contrasts. A fruited Belgian beer, such as Lindemans Framboise, which is flavored with raspberries, or Kasteel Rouge, which owes its deep pink to cherry juice, will marry with bitter chocolate treats.
Belgian Trappist monasteries are responsible for the creation of a number of sweet yet sophisticated beers. However, since this holiday celebrates carnal, not spiritual, love, perhaps the same beer styles brewed by secular brewers fit the occasion a bit better. Look for beers called "dubbel" or "tripel"; some outstanding examples are made by Allagash Breweries in Maine, or try Brother Thelonius from California's North Coast Brewing Co. Pick up some luscious Belgian chocolates to enjoy.
The term "barleywine" was first used about 100 years ago by English brewers to denote a beer of wine-like strength, and these are the strongest, most sippable beers in an English brewer's portfolio. Select an English original, or an American variant, provided it's not too hoppy, and relish a snifter alongside chocolate truffles.
For a final, decadent pairing, how about a stout float? Top a half glass of stout—silky oatmeal stout would be perfect—with a dollop of chocolate ice cream.
Of course, some brewers, having been told how chocolaty or cocoa-like their beers are, took the logical step and put the chocolate directly in the beer—thereby saving you a step. Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence is a blend of subtle cocoa; Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock has a powerful chocolate aroma but is restrained on the palate; and Young's Double Chocolate Stout is full of recognizable Cadbury's chocolate. The ever-creative Dogfish Head Brewery created Theobroma, based on an Aztec recipe from the days when chocolate was called xocolatl. The most provocatively named beer, Sexual Chocolate from Winston Salem's Foothills Brewing, will be available in a few days. Its quantities will be very limited, but this beer may best capture the essence of the holiday, or at least the gift giving!
This Valentine's Day, pair a fine beer with an indulgent chocolate delicacy, and treat your beloved to an unexpected—and unexpectedly romantic—gift.
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, which is based in Durham. Beer Hopping appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at email@example.com.