One of the most popular specialty malts used in brewing is chocolate malt. Chocolate malt contains no actual chocolate, but it is roasted to such a degree that it lends a somewhat chocolaty flavor to beers it is used in. Every year around Halloween, however — when the supermarket aisles overflow with chocolates — I used to wonder if it would be possible to brew using actual chocolate. This year, my question was answered when I tasted a couple chocolate beers made by members of my local homebrew club, the Austin ZEALOTS.
There are thousands of different chocolate products available, but most of these are not suitable for brewing due to their high fat content. (Fat kills the head on beers.) Perhaps the easiest way to explain which types of chocolate are best used in brewing is to explain how chocolate is made.
It grows on trees
Chocolate production begins with the harvesting of the pods of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). The Latin binomial means “food of the gods.” The cacao tree is a small evergreen and its pods, when ripe, look like yellow, orange or red footballs. Each pod contains 20–50 seeds, or “cocoa beans.” The pods are cut off the tree by cocoa harvesters with machetes.
The seeds are removed, along with the light-colored, sweet, pulp inside the pods and left to ferment for a few days. Traditionally, this was done in big heaps on the ground. In more modern operations, this is done in bins. After a few days, the seeds are separated from the pulp, spread out more thinly and allowed to dry in the sun. Once dry, the cocoa beans are shipped to chocolate manufacturers.
Once at the chocolate factory, the beans are roasted at around 250 °F (121 °C) for about an hour. This roasting darkens the beans (via some of the same browning reactions that occur during dark malt production). The shells are then cracked and the kernels (called nibs) are gathered. The nibs are then ground into a dark brown, bitter paste called chocolate liquor (or pure chocolate). Chocolate liquor is, on average, 47% cocoa solids and 53% cocoa butter. Despite the name, it is not alcoholic.
Chocolate liquor can be further processed by pressing it and removing some of the cocoa butter. This is the process that produces cocoa and bakers chocolate. Bars of unsweetened bakers chocolate may contain almost as much cocoa butter as pure chocolate, or it may have much of it pressed out. In general, the more crumbly a bar of bakers chocolate is, the less cocoa butter it contains. Some baking chocolate bars have oils added to them so they can be formed into a bar.
Cocoa, a powder, generally contains from 10–35% cocoa butter. Cocoa comes in two forms, plain cocoa and “Dutch” or “Dutched” cocoa. Dutched cocoa is cocoa with an alkalizing agent, often potassium carbonate, added. This raises the pH of the cocoa (when in solution) from a pH of around 5 to a pH between 6 and 7. It also makes the cocoa darker colored and — contrary to what you might infer from the color change — less strongly flavored. (Incidentally, the term “cocoa” is an 18th Century corruption of the word “cacao.”)
Solid chocolate (also called “eating chocolate”) is made from cocoa solids or chocolate liquor to which an excess of cocoa butter has been added. Most eating chocolates contain between 70 and 90% cocoa butter. Likewise, a lot of eating chocolate also contains ingredients other than cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Milk chocolate, for example, also contains milk solids, sugar, vanillin and lecithin (a binding agent).
When choosing a type of chocolate to use in brewing, you want to select one that has a high percentage of cocoa solids, a low percentage of cocoa butter and no other ingredients.
From cocoa to candy bars
Cocoa (particularly low fat cocoa) is the best way to add chocolate flavor to a beer. Even though cocoa contains some cocoa butter, you can add enough to a beer to get a nice chocolate flavor and still have good head retention. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of beer, one pound (0.45 kg) of cocoa will add a noticeable chocolate note to a beer. (Some kinds of chocolate may add a stronger flavor than others, depending on how they were roasted.)
I don’t know whether plain or “Dutched” cocoa is a better choice for brewing. The pH of plain cocoa (around 5) is very close to that of wort (often around 5.2 after the boil) and has a stronger flavor.
However, calcium carbonate (chalk) is sometimes added to brewing liquor when making a beer with a lot of dark grains. This prevents the pH of the beer from dropping too low. So, Dutched chocolate — with its higher pH — may not be such a bad thing in a dark beer. Given the small amount of cocoa that needs to be added to wort, however, I doubt the difference between the two types is that great.
Unsweetened bakers chocolate is a good second choice if good cocoa can’t be found. Although higher in cocoa butter content, many homebrewers have used it and not suffered any negative consequences with respect to head retention.
There are many brand names of cocoa and bakers chocolate including Hershey, Nestlé, Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, Merckens, Saco and many others. Most of these companies have a description of their product line on their Website and can easily be found by an Internet search.
Eating chocolate could be used in brewing, but you would likely suffer some problems with head retention because of the high percentage of cocoa butter in it. In addition, it almost always contains other ingredients as well. Cocoa or bakers chocolate is easy to locate, so there’s no reason to resort to using candy bars in your brew.
Fat-free chocolate extracts, including Star Kay White’s chocolate extract, are also available. In baking, these are mainly used to enhance or increase chocolate flavor in items that already have chocolate in them.
One more possibility for adding chocolate flavor to a beer is by adding cacao nibs. Nibs are harder to find than cocoa or bakers chocolate, but are available in some specialty stores.
Look for cocoa, bakers chocolate, chocolate extract or cacao nibs in the baking supplies aisle in your supermarket or a store that specializes in baking supplies. Always look at the label and examine the list of ingredients. Pick a chocolate with no “extra” ingredients and the lowest amount of cocoa butter you can find. (If sugar is the only extra ingredient in the chocolate or cocoa, go ahead and use it — the sugar will just ferment away.) Likewise, look at the amount of fat in the chocolate. Remember that serving sizes vary, so divide the grams of fat by the serving size to compare fat content between two products. Also, remember that cocoa and hot chocolate mix are not the same thing. And finally, know that white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all — it’s usually just sweetened cocoa butter. Don’t use it for brewing.
In the kettle or keg
To use cocoa or bakers chocolate in your beer, just add it to the boil. You can add the chocolate for the entire boil, the final 15 minutes of the boil or add it at knockout (when you turn the heat off to your brewpot) and let the wort sit 15 minutes before you begin cooling. (You may have to decrease the amount of late addition hops if you let your wort sit for awhile before cooling. Some alpha acid isomerization can occur at high temperatures, even if the wort isn’t boiling.)
Chocolate extract can be used to boost the chocolate flavor in finished beers. At bottling (or kegging), sample some of the beer and determine if the chocolate flavor needs a boost. If so, add a few drops of chocolate extract and taste the beer again. Be sure to stir the extract into your beer, but do it gently so as not to aerate. Keep adding extract until you reach the desired level of flavor. (Be careful not to overshoot your mark, however.)
You could also add cocoa or bakers chocolate at bottling or kegging instead of the boil. To do so, stir the cocoa into hot water and hold the temperature over 160 °F (71 °C) for 15 minutes, then cool quickly and add to your beer. Adding cocoa or chocolate extract at bottling or kegging allows you to make a “spin-off” batch from a non-chocolate beer. For example, you could make a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of porter, bottle half of it, then add chocolate to the second half to yield two different versions of the same beer.
Most of the time we eat chocolate, it is sweetened. Thus, if you want your beer to have the flavor most people recognize as chocolate, you should try to brew a relatively sweet beer. All-grain brewers can perform their saccharification rest at the high end of the range (156–162 °F/69–72 °C) and include some caramel or other specialty malts to leave some residual, unfermentable carbohydrates in their beer. Finally, you could add a little lactose — a sugar that brewers yeast cannot ferment — to the kettle during the boil. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, 0.5–1.0 lb. (0.22–0.45 kg) of lactose will give a level of sweetness similar to a milk stout or sweet stout.
When making a chocolate beer, help yourself out by adding a healthy dose of chocolate malt to your grain bill. Getting some chocolate-like flavors from chocolate malt will mean you have to add less actual chocolate — and the cocoa butter that comes with it — to your beer. In a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, 0.66–1.0 lb. (0.29–0.45 kg) of chocolate malt is a good start.
Chocolate will lend some roasty bitterness to the beer, so you may want to cut back on the amount of bittering hops or very dark roasted grains to keep this in check.
There are a number of possible flavor combinations possible in a chocolate beer. You could make a mocha beer by combining chocolate and coffee. Adding 16–22 fl. oz. (473–650 mL) of brewed coffee to your beer at bottling should be sufficient for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. Or, you could pair chocolate with fruit by adding 6 lbs. (2.7 kg) or more of raspberries or 12 lbs. (5.4 kg) or more of cherries to your 5-gallon (19-L) batch of chocolate beer. Or, you could add cocoa powder, lactose (milk sugar) and a hint of vanilla extract or vanilla bean to make a milk chocolate beer.
Chocolate is a flavor that works well in beer and pairs well with many other beer-friendly flavors. Your imagination is the only limit when formulating a chocolate beer.
Chris Colby is the editor of BYO.