Inspired by Valentine's Day, craft brewers, generally a romantic lot, are getting chocolate in their beers -- in fun and creative ways.
We're not talking about just chocolate, or dark roasted, malt that can give brews chocolaty coloring and flavors (though there are some of those, too); we're talking actual chocolate, in a variety of forms, and with some other complementary flavors.
The North Side's Penn Brewery once again just released its Chocolate Meltdown Stout, which is made with local Betsy Ann brand milk chocolate. There's chocolate malt, too, and others -- black and caramel -- along with unmalted but roasted and flaked barley, Perle hops and lactose sugar to add a little extra sweetness. The result is a 5.5-percent-alcohol-by-volume brew that you can have a lot of fun with.
Penn assistant manager Jennifer Parks recommends boilermaking a pint of the beer with a shot of whipped cream-flavored vodka. Or cherry vodka. Or orange. "We're goofing around with it a little."
All this month, they're also serving it in a martini -- made with chocolate, white creme de cacoa and chocolate whipped cream vodka -- dubbed Death by Chocolate.
For Seven Springs Beer Academy this past weekend, Penn brewer Dave Cerminara infused some Chocolate Meltdown with black cherries. The brew was served with Double Chocolate and Organic Walnut-Honey Baklava.
This year for the first time, Chocolate Meltdown is available in 12-ounce bottles in addition to 22-ounce ones, and as draft that's just showing up around town.
Friday night, Feb. 8, Slippery Rock's North Country Brewing Co. will tap its Liquid Love Chocolate Stout, a draft it's been making since the pub opened in 2006. Says Bob McCafferty, "We're gonna serve it up with a Hershey's Kiss garnish and best hopes for luck in love!" Brewer Sean McIntire suggests, "This is good to try with a scoop of vanilla or chocolate ice cream in a mug."
At East End Brewing Co., they just brewed Chocolate-Covered Cherry Stout, a Valentine's Day special since 2010.
Owner Scott Smith says the brew was held up this season because his Michigan supplier didn't have tart cherries. But he secured some, and this past Friday, Feb. 1, brewer Brendan Benson fired up a kettle of about 20 barrels of the stout in East End's new Larimer digs.
The hard part: Adding the Callebaut dark chocolate, in the form of four massive 11-pound bars.
He and Mr. Smith used gravity and a hammer to break those into pieces, which Mr. Benson melted by pouring hot wort over it in a bucket. Then it all went back into the kettle to mix in, along with 15-plus pounds of Hershey's cocoa powder.
"Can I lick the beater?" Mr. Smith asked his chocolate-splashed, cocoa-dusted colleague.
They'll add the pureed cherries to the fermenter; the flavor they add is subtle, but they also add enough sugar that the beer has to be kept cold so it doesn't keep fermenting.
"This beer isn't about the cherries," says Mr. Smith. "It's about the chocolate." Also, "It's extremely popular."
He expects Chocolate-Covered Cherry Stout to be available at the brewery this Saturday, Feb. 9, but probably not at its shop in the Strip District until next Friday, Feb. 15.
Another chocolate beer that's going to be a bit later than hoped is the first seasonal bottle release of the year from Fat Head's Brewery in Middleburg Heights, Ohio:
Ooompa Loompa Cream Stout.
This whimsically named homage to Willie Wonka is brewed with Belgian dark chocolate, too, as well as bourbon-soaked vanilla beans, and is to come in 6.5-percent alcohol by the time it's finished and released around mid-month.
Brewer Matt Cole actually made a beer by that name at his former brewery, Rocky River, and won a bronze medal for it at the Great American Beer Festival in 2001 in the "Chocolate/Cocoa Flavored Beer" category.
"I want to say there were nine entries," he recalls. This past year, there were 39 "Chocolate Beer" entries (gold medal went to Cocoa for Coconuts by Chicago Brewing Co. of Las Vegas; silver to X-1 by DuClaw Brewing Co. of Bel Air, Md.; and bronze to Milk Chocolate Cherry Stout by Il Vicino Brewing Co. of Albuquerque, N.M.).
Says Mr. Cole, "Chocolate beers in general seem to be growing in popularity." He hopes that this one will become a year-'round offering. He describes it as having "a rich chocolate -- almost like chocolate milk-style aroma to it" with "creamy sweetness ... it has a little nuttiness in it as well. ... We try to go over the top with chocolate flavor, but [make it] dry enough so it's not syrupy sweet."
One of the most creative new chocolate beers is 3Beans by Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Sixpoint Brewery, which used not only cocoa but also coffee as well as Roman beans in the brew.
The last historically were added to the mash by breweries short on malt, according to Sixpoint.
The cacao beans -- specifically, the husks -- they source from their neighbors, Mast Brothers Chocolate. The third bean comes from neighbor Stumptown Coffee; it's added as brewed coffee to the fermented beer. It's all aged on oak casks, which add vanilla and other flavors. The result is a big 10-percent-alcohol dark brew. But alas, none of the stuff has made it to Pittsburgh.
Suburban Baltimore's DuClaw Brewing Co. is this week releasing Naked Fish, its draft stout brewed with chocolate raspberry coffee.
There are chocolaty brews that contain no actual chocolate, such as the classic Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. Homestead's Rock Bottom is pouring one now: assistant brewer Steve Ilnicki's "Neh Notta Nib Porter," which tastes like cacao nibs, even though it contains none -- just lots of chocolate malt and hops.
There are several other chocolaty brews worth seeking out, including classic Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock, a 5.8-percent alcohol bock aged this year on a blend of cacao nibs, including Ecuadoran nibs from TCHO artisanal chocolate maker in San Francisco. The Boston-based brewer has recommended pairing chocolates with its non-chocolate brews.
That's something they do this time of year especially at Hershey Lodge in Pennsylvania's chocolate town of Hershey. At 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, they'll serve Hershey's chocolates with five brews; tickets are $20; reserve by calling 1-717-534-8601.
Hough's in Greenfield will do a beer chocolate tasting on Thursday, Feb. 21, pairing up with Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip District to match six different styles of beers with chocolates. For more information, call 412-586-5944 or visit houghspgh.com.
Meanwhile, Hough's has been having fun with another chocolate beer classic: Rogue Chocolate Stout. They're mixing it with Rogue Hazelnut to make a chcolately, nutty mixture called "Rogue Snickers."
Penn Chocolate Meltdown Stout Brownies
Here's something else you can do with Penn Brewery's chocolate beer.
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, room temperature
8 ounces dark bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup white-chocolate chips
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
10 ounces Penn Chocolate Meltdown Stout
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips
Powdered sugar for dusting
Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder and salt in a bowl.
In a double boiler, add butter, bittersweet chocolate and white chocolate chips and melt completely.
With a hand mixer or upright mixer; whip together the eggs and sugar until very fluffy.
Slowly add the melted chocolate mixture into the eggs.
Add the flour mix to this and mix thoroughly, then add in the beer and chocolate chips.
Grease a 9-inch baking pan and add the batter. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool then dust with the powdered sugar.
Serve with Penn Chocolate Meltdown Stout.
Makes 9 to 12 brownies.
-- Chef Greg Schrett, Penn Brewery
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.