If I had to pick one style of beer that was my favorite to both brew and drink it would be a pastry stout. My husband Michael brewed up the Snowstorm Oatmeal Stout kit for the National Learn to Homebrew Day Event at Cowtown Brewing Company and as soon as he brought it home to ferment, I told him I was going to mess with it. It's going to be kegged on the same night I write this, after sitting on a combination of chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, and ancho peppers. Adding flavoring to your beers always comes with a bit of learning curve but the one I get most asked about is chocolate.
Chocolate is made from the seeds of a cacao tree. The pods are harvested then broken open and the white seeds inside are extracted. Then much like beer the magic comes from fermentation. The white cacao beans are fermented for about a week while enzymes begin to break down and heat up the beans, darkening the color and sweetening them to the chocolate flavor we know. The beans are then set out to dry, roasted, and then winnowed to remove the outer skin. At this point the nibs are ground and pressed into a thick brown liquid called cocoa mass. It is made up of rich cocoa butter with fine cocoa particles suspended throughout it. The mass is then pressed until the cocoa butter is squeezed out. What is left behind is cocoa powder and cocoa butter. In a secondary manufacturing process cocoa butter and cocoa mass are combined in different proportions along with sugar and milk to create milk chocolate. While white chocolate has no cocoa powder only cocoa butter and sugar.
There are many ways you can add chocolate flavor to your beers and each has pros and cons. First, I want to address a myth. Chocolate Malt does not equal Chocolate beer. Chocolate malt is barley that is heavily kilned to produce dark color and roast characteristics akin to black coffee. Pale Chocolate malt is not kilned for as long as chocolate malt and has a more subtle roast flavor. Although there are some dark chocolate nuances in chocolate malt its most likely not the chocolate flavor you’re looking for. They absolutely belong in a stout as you want the dark color and a nice roast but in small doses. Adding more malt is not going to increase the “chocolate” flavor and the closest you will come to a nutty chocolate-like flavor from malt is with Pale Chocolate malt.
Nibs are easy to find and relatively easy to use. They require a slightly longer contact time and there is a potential for contamination when used post boil. You can soak them in vodka to sanitize. I recommend putting them in a muslin bag as opposed letting them float free. They can quickly clog up an auto siphon. Cacao Nibs will impart some bitterness and roast, so I like to add vanilla beans if I am looking for a more milk chocolate flavor. You might also want to craft your recipe with a higher final gravity to leave some residual sweetness to balance the bitterness.
Cocoa Powder is found in every grocery store but not all cocoa powder is created equally. Natural Cocoa powder is most commonly found in most supermarket brands. Dutched or European cocoa powder is washed in potassium carbonate to adjust the pH. It darkens and mellows the powder bringing forth more earthy characteristics. Black or Brute cocoa powder is alkalinized to bring out more bitter chocolate notes. They can also be blended aka “Double Dutch” or “Triple blend.” Cocoa powder requires less contact time and can be used in the mash or added just before sparge for a more subtle chocolate flavor and to contain the mess. It can be used in the fermenter but likes to float on top and create rafts so don’t freak out thinking you have a weirdly infected beer it might be the cocoa powder. And when added to the boil, know that it can add bitterness and some color.
If you decide to go this route its best to do it yourself. A simple syrup can be created with cocoa powder, sugar, and water. If you decide to go with the grocery store route read the label carefully. Most commercial versions contain other ingredients, artificial flavorings, and preservatives that can harm yeast and prevent them from doing their work. If you go this route it's best to do so in secondary or keg after primary fermentation has completed.
Baker’s Chocolate, Candy Bars, or Chocolate Chips
It might seem that adding baker’s chocolate, candy bars, or chocolate chips would be the easiest way to impart that chocolate flavor you are seeking. And while it will produce a true chocolate flavor, it’s not without its downfalls as well. This form of chocolate contains cocoa butter which can kill your head retention and leave an oily mouthfeel to your beer. It also has the potential to sink to the bottom of the pot and burn. If you decide to go this route you will want to increase your boil time so that you can volatilize the oils and try to skim off as much as you can.
Extracts are a great solution for ease of use. They offer excellent flavor retention but can add an alcohol note to your beer. An extract is the only way to add white chocolate flavor to a beer, as white chocolate is only the cocoa butter and sugar. You can make your own extract by soaking cocoa nibs in alcohol and straining out the nibs. When using any extract, you want to add it anytime after boil, so it doesn’t lose its flavor. I like to add half the amount when going into secondary and if it needs it more before going to keg. Make sure you test taste as there is not a lot you can do if you add too much.
I learned about Liquid Cacao from Craft Beer and Brewing magazine and it became a game changer for my pastry stouts. Oskar Blues uses a semi-sweet liquid cacao in their Death By Coconut Porter, which happens to be one of my favorite beers. It's extremely easy to use and contains no preservatives or emulsifiers. However, the biggest draw back on this route, is the cost. It's about $40 for 32 oz. I use a cup in a 5-gallon batch. It has a shelf life of about a year so if the beer is a one off it might not be cost effective.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about using chocolate in stouts, but it can be used in a variety of styles. If you have a favorite recipe that you think would benefit from a chocolate addition, then try it. If you go dark chocolate or milk chocolate, subtle or prominent adding chocolate to your beer can open you up to a whole world of possibilities.
Cicerone Certified Beer Server, Homebrewer, and Tireless Recipe Researcher