Chocolate and Beer Pairings at the 2012 NYC Craft Beer Festival

The 2012 New York City Craft Beer Festival took place on Saturday, March 3rd, at the Lexington Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Close to 60 craft breweries and cider makers from around the country were pouring over 100 different offerings covering the gamut of beer styles.

I was asked by Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s #43 (now closed) and the host of Beer Sessions Radio on the Heritage Radio Network to give two chocolate and beer pairing seminars – one during each of the afternoon and evening sessions – as a part of the educational program that also included Joshua Bernstein, beer sommelier Hayley Jensen, Adam Levy, and Samuel Merritt.

60 breweries gave me a lot to select from – an embarrassment of riches, in fact. After consultation with Jimmy and others, I narrowed the selection down to five beers, all from breweries pouring at the event, each a different style. My goal was to select as many brews as possible that were not being poured in the tasting sessions, and four of the five brews I selected were only served in my pairing programs.

And, because I like to live dangerously … I had actually tasted just three of the five brews and four of the five chocolates before the day of the festival, and I’d only tried one of the pairings. I was trusting my gut that I could make the rest work as I imagined in my mind.

The five breweries and brews were (in the order they were served):

  1. Brooklyn Brewery (NYC) Pennant Ale – (English Pale Ale)
  2. Wandering Star (MA) Zingari Witbier
  3. Blue Point (LI, NY) RastafaRye
  4. Clown Shoes (MA) Muffintop – Belgian Trippel style IPA (India Pale Ale)
  5. Firestone Walker (CO) Sucaba – Barleywine aged in bourbon barrels

With these five brews I paired six chocolates (also in the order of service):

  1. Valrhona Tanariva (33% milk)
  2. Pacari Lemongrass
  3. Valrhona Guanaja (66%)
  4. Valrhona Caraibe (70%)
  5. Ki Xocolatl Oregano and Almond milk
  6. Raaka Bourbon

Beer and Chocolate?

Over time, I have come to understand that pairing chocolate with beers is not only easier than pairing with wines, it’s also a lot more fun and satisfying. Part of my enjoyment is that the craft beer and fine chocolate audiences have a lot in common. It’s a lot more satisfying because “everyone knows” that chocolate and wine go together so introducing them to the nuances of beer with chocolate is a new experience for most of them. It’s also easier because chocolate and beer not only share fermentation flavors, but also roast flavors, plus the soft bubble structure of beer complements the texture of chocolate; it does not clash the same way that tannins in wines often clash.

Beers tend not to be vintaged, as most wines are. So when you find a beer you like, chances are that it’s not going to change in flavor from year to year as wines can and do. I ran into this recently where I asked for a wine for a pairing and the 2009 that I had always used was no longer available … the merchant delivered the 2010 vintage and it was not the same wine at all!

Finally, virtually all beers are lower in alcohol than wines. This means you can enjoy more beer with your chocolate because you don’t get buzzed nearly as quickly.

My number one tip for pairing beers with chocolates? Select beers that can be served at something close to room temperature. Beers that need to be really cold (or are served too cold) are really hard to work with because they cause the fat in the chocolate to harden, slowing down the release of chocolate flavor.

My number two tip? Don’t go for the obvious choices. You will notice there is not one stout, chocolate stout, or porter in my pairing lineup, and half of my chocolate selections are not mainstream. Why? Because what would my audience (and I) learn from staying within the bounds of what is obvious?

The Pairings

#1 – Brooklyn Brewery Pennant Ale with Valrhona Tanariva

I am a contrarian when it comes to wine pairings, and I tend to prefer pairing white wines (I like a lot of Gewürztraminers and my all-time favorite pairing wine is Prosecco) with dark chocolates and red wines with milk chocolates whenever I can. Many chocolate “connoisseurs” think it’s bad form to admit they like milk chocolate (just as wine drinkers have been trained to say they prefer pinot over merlot), and these days, IPAs not English Pales Ales are all the rage. So what better way to start a pairing program than by crashing through stereotypes by pairing a classic French milk chocolate with an English Pale Ale?

In this case, the warm bready, yeasty flavors of the beer marry extremely well with the rich, sweet, caramel notes of the milk chocolate. The very soft bubble structure of the beer mingles well with the soft, velvety texture of the chocolate. This pairing was selected to highlight how the texture of the beer plays an important role. Plus, I also happen to like this particular milk chocolate. A lot. The pairing is obvious in hindsight (hindtaste?).

#2 – Wandering Star Zingari Witbier with Pacari Lemongrass

I forget why I was talking with Wandering Star’s Chris Cuzme about this beer, but it was shortly after I returned from San Francisco in mid-January where I attended a Pacari and Whiskey tasting that included the lemongrass bar.

Most Wit beers don’t have lemongrass in their recipes, but when Chris mentioned that Zingari did (along with the more traditional coriander and cardamom and the decidedly untraditional fenugreek), I intuited that the lemongrass in the chocolate would provide a nice bridge linking the two. And I was right. What was also nice was that the additional lemongrass notes in the chocolate enhanced the other spices in the beer, making the combination more complex than either, individually.

#3 – Blue Point RastafaRye with Valrhona Guanaja and Caraibe

The RastafaRye was one of the three beers I’d tasted before the seminars, at Roberta’sin Bushwick (which is, coincidentally, the home of the Heritage Radio Network Studios – and some of the best pizza in the NYC metro area; I can recommend the guanciale with egg). The other reason I selected it was because ryes tend to be spicy but without the aggressive piney resinous quality of many IPAs and I wanted a distinct style different from the other brews.

The purpose of this pairing was more educational in nature, rather than being something that I knew in advance “worked.” The idea was to taste the chocolate with the beer to see how the flavor of the beer changed with the two different chocolates. (In color theory in art, we call this the principle of simultaneous contrast). Even though the percentages are only 4% apart, the difference in sugar content, as well as the bean origin and roast, make the flavor combinations wildly different.

I always like to include one pairing like this in all my sessions as I get to use it to show part of the process of making the pairing selections. It’s also instructive to note that some audience members really prefer one pairing over the other while some don’t really care for either.

#4 – Clown Shoes Muffintop with Ki Xocolatl Oregano w/Almond Milk Chocolate

This was one of those completely blind pairings that were either going to be fabulously wonderful or absolute dreck. For me, this was the standout pairing of the session, in part because it was the most surprising. This is a really counterintuitive pairing on the surface but one that makes sense when looked at closely. Still, it would either fail spectacularly or be hauntingly sublime.

IPAs in general are among the more difficult pairing beers, and any beer that labels itself as a hybrid of a Belgian Trippel and an IPA is going to be even more problematic. The challenge is the resinous, piney, bitter nature of the hops – it really does want a fatty chocolate that itself is spicy.

The chocolate is extremely aromatic and Mexican oregano is known for its resinous qualities. The combination was outstanding, with the oregano notes mellowed by the almond and caramel flavors in the milk. Definitely a case where 1+1 equals 3 (but in this case I might make it equal 4).

#5 – Firestone Walker Sucaba with Raaka Bourbon

First off, if you ever see Sucaba available anywhere, try it. It is outstanding and unlike almost anything else you will ever drink. Not very much is made – it’s a “proprietor’s reserve” limited edition. You will be rewarded admirably if you seek it out.

This was the highest alcohol content brew of the day – ABV 12.5% – and, like the Wandering Star/Pacari pairing was one I intuited would work because … the Sucaba is aged in bourbon barrels and the Raaka is made from nibs that have been stored in used bourbon barrels to absorb the aroma.

So – they share basic fermentation flavors, basic roast flavors, and the overlay of the bourbon flavors, which have ferment flavors, roast flavors, plus oaky and vanilla flavors from the barrel. See where I am going with this one? While the flavor pairing is a marriage made in barrel-aged heaven (I scored it tied for second with the Zingari/Pacari pairing in my mind), what’s most interesting and unusual is the way the deep earthy base note from the chocolate tamed some of the residual sweetness of the barleywine, adding layers of depth and complexity that brought out some of the fruitiness in the chocolate and lowered the “center of gravity” of the tasting experience in the mouth.

Concluding Thoughts

The point is to have fun and to experiment, and understand that not every pairing has to work. In fact, pairings that don’t work can be more instructive than pairings that do.

Tasting is a conscious process, where you go slowly and pay attention to what your senses tell you about what you are smelling, drinking, and eating. What’s important, and what takes practice, is to build up sense memories that you can call on. People who are really good at this can imagine what pairings will be like in their mind. I won’t pretend that I am really good at this – I have a lot to learn, still – but I “knew” in advance that the lemongrass pairing would work and I had a very good sense for how the bourbon pairing could work. I could also “taste in my mind” how the oregano could go with a hoppy IPA.

All it takes is practice – and a sense of humor. It’s okay to take the chocolate and the beer seriously – but don’t take yourself too seriously.In the end, it’s just beer, and it’s just chocolate.


Thanks to the festival organizers and Jimmy Carbone for inviting me to present. Also to Chris Cuzme of Wandering Star, Jordan at Union Beer Distributors, and Brooklyn Brewery for helping me with my beer selections. Conrad Miller of Chocolate Earth provided much of the chocolate, and all of the chocolates served during the pairing are available through Chocolate Earth (DUMBO – Front St). Thanks also to Louis Varela of Ki Xocolatl for providing their chocolate. Louis returned from Merida, Mexico the day before the session and brought the chocolate with him, requiring some extra special last-minute coordination with Conrad. I would also like to thank Mary Izett and the staff from Jimmy’s who provided invaluable assistance during setup, greeting guests, and pouring the beers. Their hard work and professionalism made my job a whole lot easier.

You can listen to the episode of Beer Sessions Radio that aired the Tuesday before the festival, where I talk about beer and chocolate with Garrett Oliver, John Holl, Mark Zapp, and Jimmy Carbone, on-line. It (and all Beer Sessions Radio episodes) are also available for download as podcasts on iTunes and elsewhere.

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