Home brew guru Daniel Parsons-Jones investigates.
Things that taste like chocolate are great. Chocolate is one that springs to mind. But not all things that taste like chocolate are actually made from chocolate. I’m not talking about carob (carob is an abomination), I’m talking about beer *audible gasps*. Yes, that chocolate porter you sipped last week probably had no chocolate in it at all! But how do they do it, you ask? The answer to this question, as it is to many of life’s questions, is malt.
The most obvious culprit in a beer that tastes like chocolate is something known as ‘chocolate malt’. This is a standard pale malt that has been roasted to a much darker colour (usually 500-800 EBC, but examples exist across a range of 400-1100 EBC). Using it as up to 8-10% of a grain bill will impart chocolate aromas and will darken the beer to a deep chocolate brown, but the main effect is actually a taste more like coffee than anything else (yes, this is frequently where coffee-flavour in beer comes from). To really make a beer taste (and look) like chocolate, most brewers will add about 5% chocolate malt along with similar amounts of crystal/caramel malts, and other malts like munich or vienna. Crystal malts will impart sweetness, toffee aromas, chocolate aromas, and often raisin/dried fruit aromas. Munich malts provide a ‘biscuity’ or ‘bready’ character. In combination these flavours can taste a hell of a lot like chocolate!
However some brewers do decide to add cocoa products to their beer. The most famous example of this kind of chicanery is Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, which my mate was drinking right out of the bottle on Saturday night like an absolute madman. There are some tricky elements to using real chocolate – the flavours will impart throughout the beer easily, but the high oil content of almost all cocoa products will make your beer go ~weird~. Adding actual chocolate bars, or even cocoa powder to a beer typically results in an unpalatable oily slick on its surface and no head to speak of because most chocolatey products are high in cocoa butter and other fats. Raw cocoa ‘nibs’ are the lowest-fat commonly available chocolate product, so if you don’t have a cacao tree handy this is a good choice. Adding the cocoa is easily done, either with the malt (i.e. in the mash) or with the aroma hops (towards the end of the boil). Unfortunately the inevitable oiliness of cocoa means that only a small amount can be used, so using those chocolatey malts is still essential to getting a full flavour (also actual chocolate provides next-to-no colour to a beer). This is why Young’s is ‘Double Chocolate’ – it uses both.
Of course the easiest way to get a chocolate-tasting beer is to add an essence or extract. These can be cocoa-derived or synthesised, have little or no oil content and are added to a beer by “pouring them in”. As someone who equates ‘good’ with ‘difficult’, it pains me to say that the results can be really, really good. The aforementioned Young’s offering should really call itself a Triple Chocolate Stout because they use an essence as well.
Yeast choice, hop flavours and other ingredients can also affect how chocolatey a beer will taste. Bold hop flavours can distract, while yeast can either produce complementary or contrasting flavours. Additional ingredients often associated with chocolate, such as vanilla, can strengthen the perception of chocolate flavours. Lactose can be added for sweetness and to bring to mind the taste of milk chocolate. Boiling techniques can maximise caramelisation and melanoidin formation, which also produce flavours often found in chocolate.
EBC: European Brewery Convention scale, a measure of colour for malt and beer. The higher the number the darker the result.
Crystal malt: malt that has been treated so that its sugars have partially caramelised. Also known as caramel malt.
Munich malt: a darker version of standard lager malts named for its historical background, not for where it is made or grown. Ditto ‘vienna malt’. High in melanoidins and fundamental to bock beers.
Melanoidins: a flavour compound similar to caramel. Formed through the Maillard reaction (the combination of heat, sugars and amino acids). Dark, sweet, and a key component of the flavours and aromas of bread crust, coffee, chocolate, popcorn, and cooked meat.