Tastings School - Top of the chocs (Beer & Chocolate)

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Top of the chocs (Beer & Chocolate)

Ben McFarland gets all gooey at a beer and chocolate tasting

Being a beer writer has its upsides. As careers go, it’s not quite up there with ‘serial lottery winner’ or ‘bed-tester,’ but there’s certainly shoddier ways to cough up for the mortgage, that’s for sure.

I’m sure there are ‘proper’ journalists dodging bullets in Iraq or working undercover in the Mafia underworld whose noses would turn up at the notion of a beer writer but, frankly, I’d take my gig any day.

Rarely have I been more resolute of this sentiment than earlier this month, merrily walking through the plush streets of London’s Mayfair on my way to a day’s beer and chocolate tasting.

I may be changing my waistline more than the world, I thought to myself as I skipped down Park Lane, but I’d take flapjacks and chocolate torte ahead of flack jackets and concrete boots every time.

The setting for this hard day’s toil, this vigorous cutting-edge investigative journalism, was to be the headquarters of the Chocolate Society in Shepherd Market, once renowned as a haunt for very posh ladies of the night.

For anyone with even the modest of sweet teeth, the Chocolate Society is a thigh-rubbing and salivating place to be. Set-up to develop a nation’s taste for the world’s finest chocolate and promote the wares of cocoa-producing countries everywhere, the Chocolate Society is to fine chocolate what Tiffany’s is to diamond rings.

We’re talking proper chocolate here, not Hershey kisses or the stuff you buy in newsagents. We’re talking gloriously textured chocolate that’s chockfull with ethically farmed cocoa and not massproduced industrial chocolate bars teeming with sugar, vegetable fat and powdered milk.

Aware that it’s neither the time nor certainly the place to mention my favourite colour of M&M, I manage to bite my lip and, in doing so, avoid the embarrassment of being ejected quicker than a floozy from a convent.

To leave now would be a terrible mistake. The table in front of me is adorned with a dozen beers and a dozen slabs of chocolate, a selection of beautifully-crafted beers brazenly showing thigh and provocatively winking at some of the most mouthwatering chocolates in the world.

Shepherd Market, for one morning at least, was once again a den of vice, a gastronomic voyeur’s wet dream, and I was certainly ‘looking for business.’

Beer and chocolate may seem more of a fetish than a feasible combination to some but like a lot of mischievous indulgences, it shouldn’t be knocked before it’s tried.

Besides, the marriage between beer and chocolate is one of domestic bliss compared to the deviant relationship that is chocolate and wine. There are many wine styles and grape varieties that have a problem when drunk with chocolate, but beer and chocolate are a natural double act with many shared taste nuances.

Chocolate malt is a case in point. Increasingly popular and widely used among brewers, it’s barley that has been malted and then roasted until it is dark brown. It does exactly what it says on the tin, namely imbuing a beer with aroma and flavour suggestive of, yes you’ve guessed it, dark chocolate.

Chocolate malt and other barley that’s been given a slight roasting provide beer with flavours that wine simply can’t compete with. No amount of oak-ageing will give wine the same kind of burnt or roasted character of silky-smooth stouts and velvety porters. Brewed with these roasty-toasty malts from the dark side, stouts and porters are an obvious and often sublime pairing to chocolate, especially those rich variants made, not from vegetable fat and sugar, but chocolate essences ground from roasted cacao beans.

But it’s contrasting, not just corresponding, flavours one should be seeking to unite beer and chocolate. For example, the hop-derived marmalade qualities of India pale ales will match any orange-like flavours so often present in thinking man’s chocolate, while the IPA trademark bitterness can stand up to chocolate’s buttery decadence.

The lightly malty and floral aromas of some lagers work too. The folk behind King Cobra, the bottle conditioned posher sister of the popular ‘Indian-style’ pilsner, have paired their new beer with a range of Valhrona, the Rolls Royce of the connoisseur chocolate world.

Speaking recently at the launch of King Cobra, a bottle-fermented pilsner with an ABV of 8%, George Philliskirk of the Beer Academy gave his blessing to the marriage.

“The best beer and food combinations work because not only do the flavours complement each other, but the synergies created generate a whole range of new flavour attributes,” he says.

“Chocolate and beer work particularly well because this synergistic effect is very marked, producing an explosion of flavours. This is very much the case for King Cobra and Valrhona. The warming effect of the 8% alcohol in King Cobra complements the rich, smooth texture of the Valrhona while the dryness of the beer - all the carbohydrate is fermented out in the secondary fermentation - and the hop bitterness perfectly complements the slight bitterness of a quality chocolate.”

Meanwhile InBev, which has been eagerly promoting its speciality beer range in the United Kingdom, suggests Leffe Brune with chocolate torte.

Marc Stroobandt, master beer sommelier and Belgian beer ambassador, agrees: “Leffe Brune is a smooth and creamy, double dark Abbey beer with a silky almost chocolatey texture and a soothing toffee-like bitter sweetness with hints of roasted coffee that brings out the gorgeous chocolate flavours of the tart.

“In turn the chocolate makes the beer even creamier, without spoiling its warming and comforting flavours.”

A marriage made in heaven.

InBev has also taken to serving its Bellevue Kriek beer alongside Belgian chocolates in upmarket bars and pubs. Hailing as it does from Belgium, it’s no surprise that the beer and chocolate idea is at the forefront of its thinking. It’s a valuable weapon in the battle to coax women away from wine into beer.

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to that table full of beer and chocolate. First up was a bottle of Gulpener Korenwolf, a luxurious cloudy wheat beer from Holland.

Its partnership with Valrhona Porcelona, one of the most expensive chocolates in the world at £50 for 300grams, was simply sublime. You’d expect the dark chocolate to overpower the beer but you’d be mistaken.

Coming through instead were banana tones, hints of elderflower and a powerful desire to keep stuffing one’s face.

From a harmonious relationship we moved to a feisty one. Hobgoblin Strong Dark Ale, produced by Wychwood Brewery, and the Scharffen Berger Semi-Sweet pure dark chocolate caused an almighty melèe in the mouth with the caramel flavour of the former and the vanilla character of the latter swapping hands more times than a soft skinned youngster with a hot potato.

The Grolsch and a Chiman’s Dark Chocolate with cardamom was a chocolate equivalent of a pint with a curry, while cherry beer Liefmans Kriekbeer, when joined up with the Chocolate Society’s very own Organic Dark label, tasted like hot chocolate pudding with cherry coulis.

However, there was one pairing that hit it off better than any other. Innis & Gunn, the Scottish beer oak-aged in whisky barrels, shimmered seamlessly alongside the scrabble-winning Valrhona Manjari Ecorces d’Orange, chocolate from Madagascar.

Not all the combinations hit it off but, let’s be honest, there have been worse days ‘in the office.’