If you’ve been drinking porters and stouts this winter, then give a nod to the Mayans and Aztecs. The royalty of these cultures were the first to embrace chocolate by drinking it, and chances are, some of your favorite porters and stouts were brewed with chocolate malt, providing a hint of one of the world’s most famous drinkables and edibles.
When it came to liquid chocolate, the Mayans and Aztecs preferred consuming the foam, perhaps because it was easier to drink the slightly bitter substance this way in the absence of sugar. Although the Aztecs used some additives for flavoring, both cultures were known for repeatedly pouring or beating their chocolate drinks to create a foam head before sipping it right off the top.
So if that chocolatey Russian Imperial Stout you’re drinking with its nice foam head makes you feel like a member of the upper crust, maybe there’s something universal involved.
After the English Reformation, chocolate imported from the New World was drunk before coffee and tea started to dominate the hot drink scene in what became known as coffee houses. The English, like those across the water, were looking to chocolate for the effects of theobromine (food of the gods, directly translated) and caffeine, each a stimulant. On both sides of the Atlantic, the societies that endorsed the drinking of chocolate – or other caffeine-laced drinks – were flirting with the abandonment of what had made their societies strong. Their cultural ethic favored steady work and sobriety, not sitting and sipping stimulants or ingesting an aphrodisiac, a reputed quality of theobromine.
These days, American and European cultures have learned to live with the "work hard, play hard" ethic. Should that porter or stout happen to also put you in the mood for love as Valentine’s Day approaches, forget about the feeling being sourced from any chocolate malt on three counts. First, theobromine has only been confirmed as a good accompaniment to caffeine. Second, chocolate malt is made from barley, which doesn’t have these ingredients or any other known stimulants – unless malted and brewed with hops! As importantly, there’s not much chocolate malt, which has a rather dry taste, in grist bills. Much of the flavor comes from other dark malts on the bill or roasted barley that is highlighted by the chocolate.
Photo Courtesy of Briess Malt & Ingredients Co.
The story of chocolate malt doesn’t get much shrift in the mill that often provides the written grist on beer, its ingredients and history. Without stepping into the eternal debates surrounding porters and stouts, it’s well established that the malt roaster invented and patented by Daniel Wheeler in 1817 introduced black malt and was a key change in the darker beers favored by the British public and eventually around the world. Then a change in the laws regarding the taxation of malt in Britain in 1880 led to more widespread use of roasted barley.
Eventually, it caught on that roasting malt – after the usual techniques of germination – could be done in a way similar to roasting the beans of the cacao with a result remarkably similar to chocolate. The malted barley and cocoa nibs (the fermented beans of the cacao tree) have similar flavor precursors like peptides, amino acids and sugars, according to Cassie Liscomb, a technical services associate at Briess Malt & Ingredients Company in Wisconsin. The same roasting equipment used to make chocolate malt, she pointed out, is often used by companies that roast cocoa nibs prior to adding sugar and milk, among other ingredients, to create the familiar edible.
As far as the art of malt shoveling is concerned, not much has changed in the past century.
Some beers announce chocolate as a major flavor ingredient such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout; Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout; or Choklat Stout, brewed by Southern Tier Brewing Co. In addition to chocolate malt, beers designated as chocolate generally have another source for flavoring such as cocoa nibs, cocoa or the chocolate we know in edible form. Invariably for all dark beers, the darker malts are a minority ingredient on the grist bill along with a majority of pale malt, which is more efficient for brewing.
Since Spaniards reported that pepper was one of the additives used by the Aztecs, it seems fitting that pepper-influenced dark beers have emerged with links to Mexico such as the Cocoa Mole Spiced Chocolate Porter from New Belgium Brewing Company; The Mayan from Britain’s Ilkley Brewery; or Chocolate Sombrero from Clown Shoes Brewing Company.
Malt Photo Credit: Ian McIlwain, Ilkley Logo Courtesy Ilkley Brewery