This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of EU Jacksonville.
Some things instinctively go together: peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly, beans and rice, R2-D2 and C-3PO. Others defy instinct while their fusion results in a divine synthesis of unanticipated delight. So it is with beer and chocolate. An unconventional match, to be sure, but not without precedent; they are both aphrodisiacs, after all. With Valentine’s Day rapidly approaching, Hopped Up sought the sage guidance of Alewife Bottle Shop’s Kelly Pickard to school us on the finer points of pairing these two indulgences.
As a Certified Cicerone, Kelly is well versed in the art of pairing beer with food, including chocolate. Cicerones are the sommeliers of the beer world, experts at identifying and evaluating beer styles. They possess the arcane knowledge of how food and beer play together on the palate. When approaching any sort of beer pairing, Kelly suggests the tried and true methods of matching intensity, finding harmonies, and playing off contrasts.
A beer’s intensity depends on the combined effects of its alcohol content, sweetness, bitterness, roast character, and a variety of related factors. Chocolate’s intensity, however, is almost exclusively the result of its cacao content, expressed as a percentage and experienced as bitterness. “One shouldn’t completely dominate the other; rather, they should transform each other,” Pickard instructs as to deciding which beer styles pair best with different cacao percentages. “While milk chocolate might go well with a straightforward porter or stout, pairing a more bitter dark chocolate would require a beer with a bit more heft, like a barrel-aged imperial stout or barleywine.”
Harmonies can be discovered by looking to flavor characteristics shared by both sides of the pairing equation. Some of the same notes used to describe chocolate—coffee, roast, even chocolate itself—are also commonly used to describe stouts. Chocolates that contain caramel, toffee, or nuts would likely find favor with similar notes that result from barrel-aging, such as in a beer like Founders Backwoods Bastard.
Kelly finds the last dimension the most difficult to work with, but advises considering the beer’s mouthfeel when pairing for contrast. “A beer’s alcohol, carbonation, acidity, and roast bitterness can be used to cut through the richness and sweetness of chocolate,” she notes.
If your relationship is still relatively fresh and your primary objective remains simply not fucking anything up, Kelly has a few classic combinations up her sleeve that are guaranteed not to offend. Of course, you could always play the old chocolate meets stout card, but that’s not going to win you any bonus points in the bedroom later. To really light up their pleasure centers, dazzle your lover by deconstructing a decadent dessert like a rich chocolate torte with raspberry or a chocolate-covered cherry by pairing a tart, fruity lambic or kriek with a chocolate truffle. Or go with one of Kelly’s favorites: pecan caramel turtle with Boulevard’s Bourbon Barrel Quad (BBQ). “The saltiness of the roasted pecans offers a great contrast to the malt sweetness of the beer, while caramel finds a complementary partner in the toffee and vanilla notes coming from the bourbon barrel,” she tells me as my eyes roll back in my head just thinking about it.
However, if you feel the need to spice things up a little bit or your partner is just a bona fide freak, get weird by bringing an IPA into the mix. “Look for a chocolate with a citrus cream filling (the more tart, the better—think lemon or key lime) and pair it with an American IPA,” Pickard suggests. “The citrusy hop profile and caramel malt sweetness will complement the cream filling, while the bitterness will cut through the richness of the chocolate.” Yes, this is real life.
Now that you’ve been thoroughly tempted and find yourself willing to submit to these forbidden pleasures, don’t get over-excited in anticipation. Put some thought into it, but above all else, heed Kelly’s advice and keep it simple. Pick out three or four chocolates with different profiles and textures then choose four or five beers you know will play along nicely while giving you some room to experiment.
All that’s left now is to set the mood for your indulgence. Make sure your glasses are clean and free of smudges. Your previous girlfriend’s lipstick is not going to go over well. Put on some smooth tunes—might I recommend Toto’s 1982 album, IV? Now, dim the lights and go for it!