At Kinston's Mother Earth Brewery, Travis Quinn and Josh Brewer often deal in limited-release beers. But the phrase "super OOP"—or super out-of-print—has not yet made the jump from record-store nerdom into craft-brew obsession in describing the rarest of goods. They've never heard it.
For Valentine's Day, Mother Earth will launch another limited-edition creation through its Window Pane series. The beer, simply named Chocolate, is an imperial oatmeal porter brewed with cocoa nibs from Raleigh's Videri Chocolate Factory.
"The things we do year-round are rooted in traditional recipes and styles," says Quinn, Mother Earth's director of sales. "This is a fun outlet for us to try some different things."
Now five releases deep, Window Pane focuses on brewing with non-traditional ingredients sourced in North Carolina. Previous editions have used Tar Heel peaches, berries, figs, and raisins. Each batch is barrel-aged for at least three months.
"It's turned into a series of whatever I have in my head," says Brewer, the brewmaster. "The new beer is a little different than what I've done in the past, with things that grow outside. But when I went to Videri, I knew I wanted to do something with them."
These nibs are an organic, Guatemalan variety grown in a micro-lot. They impart an earthier, nuttier flavor than their processed cousin, chocolate. During the aging process, the whiskey and wood enhance the smoky sweetness. For a high-gravity beer, Chocolate has a surprising softness, achieving a substantial 8.7 percent alcohol content with minimal bite. That's due to the oats, which coat the tongue and mellow the sharpness.
Mother Earth kegged and bottled Chocolate at the start of February. The brewery produced twenty barrels, or about 600 gallons. Only fifty cases of bottles and thirty-six kegs will make their way through the state by Valentine's Day.
"These things are almost like rewards. They're fun for us to brew, but they're difficult to make in large quantities," explains Quinn. "This might be a one-time, get-it-before-it's-gone beer."
Quinn chuckles and adds: "Super-OOPER-OOP!"
—Tina Haver Currin
For eight years, Big Boss Brewing didn't think to dress the Big Operator—its annual early-release black ale, made from lightly roasted Venezuelan cocoa nibs by Escazu Chocolates and a raspberry puree overnighted from Oregon—in appropriately romantic attire. The brown bottle's label was a drab gray, with white letters declaring the name but nothing about its proximity to Valentine's Day. But this year, marketing and distribution manager Dave Rogers decided to capitalize on the beer's late-January release and paint the paper on each $4 bottle raspberry red.
This isn't the first change for Big Operator: Several years ago, the chocolatier that Big Boss had been using couldn't meet the brewery's volume demands, so the roaster passed the business to Escazu. The move changed the flavor, Rogers says, adding creaminess and more present chocolate notes to the beer, which depends on dark malts as the starting point. Escazu's Hallot Parson knew just what the beer needed.
"We look at these new collaborations as an opportunity to experiment and dial in our flavors," Rogers says. "Hallot understood how this would be different and what dark malts would do to a beer. He gave us something to complement the beer and the raspberry."
At 8 percent, Big Operator offers a rebuttal to the idea that chocolate-based beers are irreconcilably sweet or that fruit-based beers smack needlessly of berries. Instead, the balance is exquisite, with early touches of the fruit and the chocolate meeting in the middle in a strong, almost-whiskey-like coda. Big Operator tucks a lot of strong flavors into one subtle space, now packaged beneath a perfectly sanguine insignia.
—Grayson Haver Currin
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bean to Bottle"