In 1516, the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV issued a decree stating in part that, "in all our towns and markets and in the countryside, no other items be used for beer than barley, hops, and water." This beer purity law, which came before yeast's discovery late in the 17th century, influenced centuries of beer making in that country and beyond. Mostly to our benefit, beers today are brewed with a wide array of ingredients. It's no longer novel to see a beer made with fruits, spices, or something sweet, though not all brews are enhanced by their presence.
Very few foodstuffs have the appeal of chocolate, but in my experience chocolate beers have often missed the mark by being too sweet, too literal. Extensive winter research, however, has brought me to three chocolate beers I think you'll enjoy.
The most easily accessible of the three on New England store shelves, Sierra Nevada Brewing Narwhal is a Russian Imperial Stout from the Chico, Calif. craft brewing pioneer weighing in at 10.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It's named for a type of porpoise with two teeth, the more prominent of which spirals into sword-like protuberance that can reach 8.8 feet long (Thanks, National Geographic).
Like many similar brews, Narwhal gets its chocolate flavor from roasted malt, which is base malt roasted in something not unlike a coffee roaster to bring out notes of espresso and cocoa. Pale, Caramel, Chocolate, Honey, and Carafa malt varieties were also used, and as you might expect for a Sierra Nevada, this beer is hoppy (60 international bitterness units). No chocolate was added to this beer.
My bottle of Narwhal pours black as the icy depths. I smell: cocoa nibs and booze, a warning to take it slow with this one. I sampled this beer with my wife, and the first word out of her mouth was "chocolate." This is a "malt-forward monster" as described by Sierra, expressing the depths of flavor roasted grain can bring about.
Our second beer, Boulevard Brewing Chocolate Ale, takes the opposite approach. While literal in ingredient -- there's chocolate in here -- the final product is not a beer that hits you over the head with that fact.
"I think itís hard to make any beer where a featured ingredient is a bit restrained," says Jeremy Danner, Boulevard's Ambassador Brewer. "We designed a beer that would serve as a vehicle for the expression of chocolate flavor and aroma, but we also wanted the base beer to be a really good beer.
"Drinkers will immediately notice that Chocolate Ale is definitely not a stout or a porter."
As ill-prepared as I typically am, I cracked my bottle of Chocolate Ale expecting a stout or a porter and was taken by surprise. A little reading revealed that the Kansas City brewery sought the help of chocolatier Christopher Elbow, who contributed a rare variety from the Dominican Republic for the brew. Nibs of chocolate are steeped in the finished beer for a minimum of five days. Danner suggests you drink the beer fresh as opposed to aging it, stressing that "it is definitely not a candy bar in a bottle."
My bottle of Chocolate Ale smells spicy with hints of cocoa powder. I get dark fruits, pepper, and a subtle hop bitterness on the first sip. It's only after the beer lingers in my mouth for a few seconds does a wave of dark chocolate come in. If you took the chocolate away, this would still be a good beer. Maybe it's this complexity, or maybe it's the lure of the word itself, that drives it off store shelves.
Boulevard Chocolate Ale weighs in at 9.1 percent ABV and sells in 750-ml bottles.
The last beer, Heavy Seas Beer Siren Noire, lies somewhere in between the first two. Real chocolate is added -- three pounds of Belgian cocoa nibs per barrel, in fact -- but this is also a stout, brewed with Chocolate, Crystal, and Roasted malt. When that's done, the base beer is aged in bourbon barrels for five weeks as part of the Maryland brewery's "Uncharted waters series", exploring the "unique changes that happen to a beer when exposed to wood."
Siren Noire pours thick with a dirty-brown head. I smell vanilla, then chocolate, then figs. The beer tastes sweeter and smoother than many stouts, the sharp edges rounded out by the barrel aging. This is a decadent beer, spectacular in its depth but comfortable within itself. At 9.5 percent ABV, it falls in line with the heft of the other two beers and the sinful expectations of the ingredient.