My first experience pairing chocolate and beer was at a fundraiser beer pairing event in Portsmouth, NH. The Passport Beer dinner featured local restaurants and NH breweries in pairings of food items and one of their beers. I walked the grounds of the historic Strawberry Banke living history museum and tasted some amazing food. Smuttynose brewing company’s featured pairing was their Baltic Porter (a heavy, rich beautiful beer) and some Lindt Chili Dark Chocolate. I was caught on camera saying, “Beer… and chocolate… is amazing. This just made my day.” Something about the way the beer played with the creaminess, and the hot chilis cut the intense richness of the beer was divine – it was truly inspired.
Since then, the opportunities that I’ve had to sample great beer and great chocolate have been limited – but I was lucky enough to hear about an event atNovare Res – my favorite Belgian beer bar in Portland, ME. For Valentine’s day weekend, they paired up with a local chocolatier – Sweet Marguerites – to create custom beer and chocolate pairings. I was lucky enough to sample several of these.
Sweet & Tart: Dogfish Head Fort & Dark Chocolate with Plum-Sake Filling
The Dogfish Head Fort is an intensely raspberry beer, and is the color of a rose wine. I chose this pairing first because I knew it would be sweet, and I was worried if I put it later in the lineup that the heaviness of some of the other beers would overwhelm it. In my notes, I wrote that the beer tasted like a raspberry tart – sublte but sweet and “romantic like a kiss.” I remember it staying on my lips for a few minutes after each sip – which is a characteristic that I usually like. Too bad there isn’t a type of description for beer called “lip-feel.” With the chocolate – I was surprised at how light it was. The plum and chocolate bring the alcohol in the beer out, and after a few sips, the plum comes out to play. It was really interested because without the beer, the plum in the chocolate was there but not special – and with the beer the two fruits really got to dance around and shine. This one was a winner, right away.
Tart & Rich : Cantillon St Lamvinus & Milk Chocolate truffle w/Lambic ganache (based on champagne truffles)
Whenever I have anything from Cantillon in my hand, my usual reaction is to inhale it, deeply, for a long time. There’s something about that smell that I just can’t get enough of. If someone ever makes it into a cologne, I am done for. The chocolate on this one was smooth, gooey and rich. The tartness of the lambic went alright with this sweetness and richness, but it was almost about a harmony of flavors instead of them enhancing each other. It mixed well, but didn’t create something new. The closest I can get to describing it is like a meat and a sauce. They are still separate and don’t make something “new” when you try them both, yet they get along very well.
Smoky & Salty : Schlenkerla Maerzen & Bacon ganache dipped in dark chocolate w/smoked sea salt
Bacon + Salt + Chocolate + Beer? If you told me that three years ago I would have looked at you like you had three heads. But now, the thought of it makes me drool. The beer itself smells almost like bacon – it is a smoke beer of excellent quality – a thin white head. I have had other Schlenkerla beers, and they tend to be on the heavy side. This one was thinner, which I was initially disappointed with. However, the chocolate fills all that in. The richness of the chocolate gave depth to the beer, and the saltiness brought it all together. The idea of putting sea salt (let alone bacon) in a pairing like this was a new one for me, and I really enjoyed it thoroughly.
The pairings themselves proved to me that there are really several dynamics going on when beer and chocolate are combined – and it isn’t all about sweetness. The perfect pairing is really a one plus one = 3 scenario – the beer and the chocolate together are better than either one separate. I was hoping that at least one of the pairings I’d try would live up to that idea. Of the beer and chocolate pairings that I had, each embraced a different combination of sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, tartness, or richness. I think that if you can learn how these fundamentals work, you can pair just about anything.