Story by Hannah Sullivan
Photograph by Shelby Brakken
Years ago at a bonfire to celebrate my 21st birthday, someone handed me a cold beer at the exact moment I pressed the graham cracker down on a toasted marshmallow and three squares of just-melted chocolate. Cue a light bulb above my head: a bite, a swig, and the sharp carbonated liquid cut through my mouthful of sugar. Suddenly, I understood why adults drank beer for more than the buzz.
Admittedly (and thankfully), my tastes have changed since then. When my mom opened Alma Chocolate in Portland, Oregon, where I work now, my ideas about chocolate opened up too. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally cracking open a fireside Bud Light while toasting a marshmallow for a s’more, but in the heyday of small-batch, hand-crafted revolution, we can do a lot better than Budweiser and Hershey’s. But I haven’t forgotten that original lesson: beer and chocolate, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. It’s love, and for good reason.
Beer enthusiasts embrace strong flavors in beers ranging from delicately spiced saisons to boldly hopped barley wines, and, similarly, chocolate runs the spectrum from smooth to bitter, dark to bright, malty to acidic. Chocolate and beer are such a perfect flavor match on paper (they even share a tasting vocabulary) that it’s surprising more hasn’t been made of the combination. Sure, there are chocolate stouts and Guinness brownies, but with the huge range of what’s available, they’re worth trying separately—and together.
Confectioners are embracing chocolate’s versatility, combining chocolate with spices or toffee and caramel, and mixing it with everything from pop rocks to potato chips. Bean-to-bar producers blend cacao beans from multiple plantations or source from a single origin to preserve clarity of flavor. And once beans are fermented and ground, they’re mixed with cocoa butter, sugar, and milk fat in varying percentages, so you can buy super dark milk chocolate or creamy, mild dark.
All this variety means there’s room to experiment, and you should—tasting is the best—and only—way to develop your palate. But a roadmap can still be helpful, and these are a few of the beer and chocolates matches that make my mouth sing.
The great thing about high percentage chocolate bars are their depth of flavor, but that can come with a bitter edge. Dubbels, in all their round sweetness, smooth out the sharp angles and let you really taste the chocolate.
High-quality milk chocolate gets a bad reputation from all the cheap stuff out there. Complex and comforting at once, it’s best with a strong beer that can stand up to a higher sugar and fat content while unleashing the caramel and malty notes.
Kriek Cherry Beer
Kriek is not without personality, and when paired with dark chocolate alone, it’s fruit flavor competes and clashes with the bitterness in the cacao. But chocolate blended with sweet cream, hand-rolled, and dusted in cocoa is a flavor sensation just waiting to be discovered. Classic ganache filling picks up the cherry notes in the beer for a pairing that’s subtle and unexpected.
Dark Chocolate Caramels
For the same reason that IPA is so good with rich, cheesy food, the butter and cream in caramel-filled chocolate is cut by the assertiveness of hops. Caramel, in turn, tames IPA and lets less-accustomed beer palates taste all the flavors under that bite.
Chocolate with Dried Fruit and Nuts
Nut Brown Ale
Just as soup wakes up with a squeeze of lemon for brightness, the pairing of nut brown ale and chocolate with almonds or hazelnuts becomes something noteworthy when shot through with the sweet acid note of dried fruit.
Salted Milk Chocolate
Golden Belgian Ale
Light and sweet matched with light and sweet tastes so good when punched up with a sprinkling of salt—think beer and potato chips, beer and tots, beer and fries. The chocolate and the Belgian golden complement each other’s mellow malt flavors, which is already a nice pairing, but the salt ratchets it up a notch.
Without exception, we loved barley wine paired with every chocolate on the table. Sweet and bitter, it’s the perfect beer to serve as part of a tasting or with your favorite chocolate cake after dinner.
SIDEBAR 1 /
Host Your Own Chocolate + Beer Pairing
These six tips will ensure that you and your guests get the most out of your pairing adventure.
Tip 1 / For a varied tasting that won’t induce palate fatigue, pick a mix of bon bons, bars, and barks paired with five or six different beers.
Tip 2 / Either keep the separate chocolate and beer elements in their packaging or label plates and glasses so you can keep track of which pairings you like.
Tip 3 / Aroma can tell you a lot about both beer and chocolate, so take time to smell everything. Often, things that smell good together will taste good together, too!
Tip 4 / To get the most flavor when tasting chocolate, place it on your tongue and let it warm to body temperature before chewing.
Tip 5 / Taste all of the chocolates by themselves, take a big drink of water, and then taste all of the beers by themselves. Then begin tasting them together to see how the flavors change when combined.
Tip 6 / Have fun and allow yourself to like whatever you like—there is no “right” pairing—plus, it’s beer and chocolate, so it should all be about pleasure!
Sidebar 2 /
West is Best: Chocolate + beer pairings from the Left Coast
Blame it on the good water, clean air, and pioneering spirit; the past few years have seen the West Coast become the epicenter of artisan chocolate. Below are just a few of our favorites.
Alma Habanero Crowns
Smooth caramel infused with habanero for a bit of warmth at the end, in a shell of snappy dark chocolate. This bon bon has the firepower to stand up to almost any IPA. Beer pairing// Descender IPA, GoodLife Brewing, Bend, OR
Chuao Potato Chip Chocolate Bar
If resisting the call to consume an entire bag of potato chips is difficult, this bar is trouble. Filled with super-crunchy shards of salty potato chips in a smooth, milk-chocolate base, this may be a gimmick but it works like a dream with a Belgian strong pale ale. Beer pairing // Delirium Tremens, Huyghe Brewery, Belgium
Hand-rolled ganache made from chocolate legend Felchlin’s dark chocolate couverture and pure cream, this simple, classic truffle is the perfect foil for ultra-flavorful beer. Beer pairing // Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Rogue Ales, Newport, OR
Dandelion Chocolate Costa Rica 70%
A mild, caramel-tinged dark chocolate that could be confused with a milk chocolate and pairs easily with a range of beers. A gateway to the dark side in gilded packaging! Beer pairing // Bête Blanche Tripel, Elysian Brewing Company, Seattle, WA
Michael Mischer 38% Milk
Single origin cocoa beans from Criollo, blended to milky smooth perfection without sacrificing flavor. Delicious with both stouts and porters. Beer pairing // Black Bear XX Stout, Alameda Brewing Company, Portland, OR
Recchiuti S’mores Bites
The classic campfire treat, all grown up. Delicious with a glass of barley wine in front of a cozy living room fire. Beer pairing // Jolly Rodger Ale, Drake’s Brewing, San Leandro, CA
Woodblock Chocolate Venezuela 70%
A good, strong dark chocolate. Woodblock is devoted to the craft of combining cacao and pure cane sugar, to rousing success. Best with a sweeter beer to balance it out. Beer pairing // Trappist Dubbel, Westmalle Abbey, Belgium
Xocolatl de David Orangette Bar
David Briggs, owner and chocolatier of Xocolatl, may be known for his savory chocolates, but I love the balanced hand he brings to dark chocolate and tart candied orange peel. Beer pairing // Transatlantique Kriek, New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
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