Editor's Note: We're trying to find the best beers to drink with our favorite foods. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.
Wine is often seen as the most romantic consort to Valentine's Day sweets, but truth be told, beer is a much more compatible match. Wine offers only contrast, like pouring fruit sauce on chocolate ganache cake, and the pairing often fails because the sweetness of the dessert makes most wines taste bitter. Beer, on the other hand, brings a host of flavors that complement and contrast chocolate desserts.
As a general rule, when pairing beer with chocolates, you want to go rich and go malty. The toast, roast, caramel, and chocolate flavors of malt-forward beers are a perfect match for the decadent creaminess of truffles or the bitter bite of high-cocoa chocolate. Tart fruit lambics are also fun partners for chocolate treats: they beautiful balance the richness of creamy ganache fillings. But don't ignore the bitter brews completely: roasty beers can work the way the coffee does with sweets, and in combination with the right dessert, a balanced IPA can be just the thing to make your tastebuds swoon.
How Dark Is Your Chocolate?
Different levels of cocoa content require different beers to make a match. My taste tests indicate that chocolate with a cocoa content around 70% tends to work best with the widest range of beers. This intense chocolate strikes a good balance between bitter and sweet that neither overpowers the beer, nor is overpowered by it. 70% cocoa chocolates are delicious with a wide variety of beers from Belgian dubbels to caramel-like doppelbocks and on up to dry and roasty porters and stouts. A Belgian strong dark ale is heavenly here, and tart fruit lambics absolutely sing.
A few beers to try:
Doppelbock: Sam Adams Double Bock, Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock
Belgian Dubbel: La Trappe Dubbel, St. Feuillien Brun (Both add a nice banana layer to the pairing.)
Belgian Strong Dark: Gouden Carolus Cuvée Van De Keizer Blauw (creates flavors of chocolate-covered cherries in your mouth), Boulevard Sixth Glass Quadruple
Porter and Stout: Meantime London Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Highland Black Mocha Stout, Pike Street XXXXX Stout
Fruit Lambic: Hanssens Kreik, Timmermans Framboise Lambic
Cocoa content over 80% need bigger, sweeter beers. The bitterness of these chocolates latches on to the bitterness in the brew. Sweet-leaning imperial stouts or aged English barleywines are the way to go here.
A few beers to try:
Imperial Stout: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout
English Barleywine: J. W. Lee's Harvest Ale, Thomas Hardy's Ale
For milk chocolate, you can try hoppier beers with a solid underpinning of caramel malt. The caramelized sugar flavors combine with the sweet and creamy chocolate to create a caramel explosion in your mouth. The bolder bitterness and juicy citrus flavors of American or English IPA provide a palate-cleansing counterpoint to sugary milk chocolate. Just be sure to pick one with ample amounts of balancing malt.
A few beers to try:
IPA: Bells Two Hearted, Founders Centennial IPA, Goose Island IPA, Anchor Liberty Ale
Fun With Truffles
Flavored truffles and filled chocolates allow for some creativity and experimentation when selecting beer pairings.
Let's start with the basics: bittersweet chocolate ganache truffles are wonderful with a wide variety of beers. You can't go wrong with Rogue Chocolate Stout with these classic chocolates: the cocoa in the beer and cocoa in the chocolate meld together. Classic truffles tasted with New Belgium's yeasty Abbey Dubbel result in the flavor of chocolate-covered bananas. It's a fun combination to try.
Ganache truffles' bittersweet creaminess gets a snappy, acidic contrast from Belgian sour ales. Oud Beersel Oude Kriek Vieille, a traditional cherry lambic, is like a tart fruit sauce on chocolate cheesecake. An underlying musty funk brings out the cocoa's earthiness. Vichtenaar Flemish Ale combines with the chocolate to produce mysterious, winey, dark fruit and floral flavors.
And what if you spice it up? Cinnamon truffles are excellent with Salvator Doppelbock. Cinnamon and caramel, spicy and sweet, the beer and chocolate offer each other's ideal counterpoints. For a truffle with the added kick of chiles, try Huhahpu's Imperial Stout from Cigar City. It's brewed with cocoa nibs, ancho and pasilla chiles, Madagascar vanilla beans, and cinnamon to match the truffle flavors head to head.
Chai flavored spices are wonderful with English-style India Pale Ales. A chai truffle conjures images of a good cup of Earl Grey when paired with the grassy/citrus hops of Meantime India Pale Ale. Another great pairing with a chai-flavored truffle is Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Brew from Kiuchi Brewery in Japan. The ginger flavors in truffle and ale accentuate one another, but the beer has a strong enough malt backbone to keep the marriage balanced.
There are so many possible chocolate and beer pairings. What are your favorites?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint