Ask Mr. Wizard

Cacao Nibs Advice


Patrick Kiefer – Greenleaf, Wisconsin asks,

What is your best procedure for adding cacao nibs to an all-grain brew?


With any brewing ingredient it is helpful to consider what the ingredient contributes to beer, how the contribution is best transferred from the raw material to the wort and/or beer, if there is any benefit to cooking the ingredient, and if there are microbiological risks associated with the ingredient or flavorant, e.g., used oak barrels. Wort is prepared like it is because malts must be mashed to convert starches into fermentables, hops need to be heated to isomerize alpha acids into iso-alpha-acids, and “sterile” wort is required for bacteria-free fermentation.

Cacao nibs contribute a range of aromas and flavors that can be described as chocolatey, nutty, malty, and fruity, among others. Most of these compounds are water soluble, and arise from Maillard reactions that occur during roasting. This means that cacao nibs do not need to be soaked in solvents, such as ethanol, to yield their goods, or transformed, like hop acids, by cooking to improve solubility of the flavor-active compounds. And despite the crucial role yeast and bacteria play in the fermentation of cacao pods, which frees the beans from the pod and develops flavor, roasted cacao nibs are not associated with beer spoilers because the relatively long and hot, drying and roasting processes is a thermal kill step (there are aerobic bacteria on the surface of cacao nibs, but are not a major concern for beer spoilage).

The easiest and most common way to use cacao nibs is like hops used for dry hopping, and the contact time can be empirically determined by periodically taking small samples for tasting. A couple of weeks is usually what it takes to get good flavor extraction. I prefer this general method for all brewing ingredients that do not need to be mashed or boiled because the aromas and nuanced flavors of these ingredients fade if added prior to fermentation because carbon dioxide gas scrubs volatiles from fermenting beer.

A variation on this theme is to add the featured ingredient; in this case cacao nibs, to a smaller fermenter or container, fill with beer or another liquid, and make a concentrated stock that can be used for blending. The advantage to extracting the flavors in a smaller volume of beer or other liquid is that it allows for more control over the flavor intensity in the finished beer. This method works especially well when using potently flavored ingredients in a recipe for the first time. Whether the ingredient is cacao, coffee, vanilla, oak, fruit, or spices; it is nice not having to worry about adding too much or too little. And when you use special ingredients in this fashion you can really focus on maximizing flavor extraction because it is easier to filter or strain smaller liquid volumes, especially if you use a solvent that is not subject to oxidation, as is the case with beer. Water or alcohol teas are the most common, and the simplest way to improve flavor extraction of these types of ingredients is by reducing the particle size. Cacao nibs are fairly brittle, so they can be turned into a powder using a blender or coffee grinder; don’t attempt to mill this ingredient because the fat content will gum up your malt mill.