Monday, February 9, 2015

Showdown! Chocolaty beers

Over the weekend I teased today’s blog with a Caption this! post. You’ll notice that whenever I do that, it’s an indication that a “showdown” (i.e. blind tasting panel) is underway. Chocolate stouts and porters have always been some of my favorite styles of beer because they tend to taste exactly as advertised. In fact, there’s an entire chapter in my book The Handbook of Porters and Stouts dedicated exclusively to chocolate stouts (other chocolaty beers appear throughout the book as well). I always thought it would be fun to do a blind tasting panel of some of the most well-known and readily available chocolate beers. And once again, the results were a bit surprising.
Chocolate beers 002
First of all, you’ll notice that the title of this post is “chocolaty beers” and not “Chocolate stouts” or even “Chocolate beers” per se, since not all the beers in the lineup market themselves as being blatantly chocolate.
Just a quick aside: both Merriam-Webster and Microsoft Word’s dictionary consider “chocolaty” to be the proper spelling rather than “chocolatey.” The latter would seem to be correct to me, but I’ll abide to the spelling gods.
Secondly, when I went to the beer store to pick up bottles for this showdown I was rather shocked that there were so few chocolate beers available. I expected to have a plethora of choices to wade through, but these were pretty much the only chocolaty beers on the shelves. In fact, Southern Tier’s Choklat was sold out before Christmas, according to the guys at the beer store. I was only able to get it since a member of my homebrew club had an extra bottle he was willing to donate (thanks, Josh!).
Thirdly, I think some of these bottles may have been a bit old, even though I made sure to check the freshness dates when I bought them. Certain beers I was expecting to score highly only rated about average or worse. But as I’ve said repeatedly, if breweries can’t be bothered to fresh date their products, then they deserve the low ratings their beers receive since the customers don’t know if they’re drinking a fresh or vintage old bottle.
Lastly, I deliberately threw a couple “wild card” entries into this pool as a way of being experimental. One of these entries scored remarkably high, the other scored pretty low. I also asked each judge to separately rate how chocolaty the beer was on a scale of 1-5 (this had no bearing on the total score, though).
Anyway, onto the results, from worst to first.
NOTE: The number next to the beer’s name on the spreadsheet indicates its place within the flight.
#9 (tie) Cricket Hill Nocturne Chocolate Ale
At only 4.6% ABV, this was the lightest of all the beers. Not that you can’t make a flavorful beer with low gravity; however, I think this bottle was just old (the code was rather indecipherable). I’ve had this beer before I also found it to be tangy and astringent, so who knows if this was a case of a good beer gone bad, or a beer just brewed badly from the get-go.
#9 (tie) Kasteel Winter
This was one of the best beers I had in 2014, in fact, I rated it the second-best beer of the year! Though not labeled as a chocolate beer per se, I did find it to have a distinct mocha-like flavor of chocolate and coffee. But something was radically different from the way I remembered it from just a couple months ago. Maybe it was due to the fact this came in the middle of the pack, or perhaps the bottle just hadn’t been treated properly, or maybe the beer just really isn’t as chocolate-forward as I remember. Alex S. and I really didn’t like it and scored it accordingly, but the other three judges rated it rather highly. However, you’ll notice that everyone except Alex N. rated it very low on the chocolate scale. That being said, I still recommend this beer – just don’t drink it among a flight of chocolate beers.
#8 Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
I always found this beer to taste like Guinness with some cocoa powder added. I opted for the bottled version as I’ve found the can seems a little watery due to the nitrogen widget (and also that its appearance would be obvious to the judges who have had it be before and I wanted to keep the tasting as blind and unbiased as possible). It seemed to taste more like vanilla than chocolate; though it also seemed to be a bit oxidized and old (it was still within the freshness window on the bottle). Technically, it scored pretty well with an average score of 31, though no one on the panel was really impressed with this beer.
#7 Rogue Chocolate Stout
I first had this beer way back in 2008 and I absolutely loved it at the time. In fact, I think it was the first chocolate stout I’ve ever had. However, it’s been a law of diminishing returns as every time I drink it I enjoy it a little less. It’s remarkably hoppy for the style and rather low in real chocolate flavor (the panel agreed, as it scored only 2.6 on the chocolate scale). It’s very likely this was an old bottle, but we’ll never know since Rogue doesn’t fresh date their bottles.
#6 Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter
This was the only beer of the group that was technically a porter and the last beer of the night. I’d probably consider this to be the true mean entry as all the judges genuinely enjoyed the beer. A bit ironic considering it scored rather low on the chocolate scale at only 2.4, yet nearly everyone remarked that it tasted like candy or – fittingly enough –a chocolate shake.
#5 Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout
For some odd reason, this beer divided the sexes. Both Renee and Marissa loved it, but Alex N. and I thought it was only okay. Alex S., Marissa’s husband, actually seemed to hate it (they said they tend to have diametrically opposed opinions on most beers they drink). I thought it tasted like sugary wafer cookies and seemed to have an artificial taste – which is ironic considering it’s “organic.” Others said they thought it tasted like cookies too, which is probably why is scored fairly high on the BJCP scale. This probably would’ve finished in the top three if Alex’s score hadn’t brought down the average. Marissa described it as “a real ladies beer.”
#4 Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
As an imperial stout, this is definitely a great example of the style. However, as a chocolate beer, I’ve always found it to be a bit lacking. In fact, I believe its name is derived from the use of chocolate malts rather than confectionery-style chocolate ingredients. Before we started judging, Alex and Marissa told us they had a full keg of this on tap at their home a couple years ago which they dubbed “The Hangover Maker.” It was not surprising that they both scored it quite highly (especially Alex with a near-perfect score of 47!). Though neither specifically identified it during the blind tasting, they both said they had an inclination of its identity at the time.
#3 Founders Breakfast Stout
I’ve always found that beers brewed with coffee often have a chile-like flavor, but until this tasting I’d never met anyone that concurred. At the time, both Alexes asked me if it was a pepper beer like Prairie Christmas Bomb or some kind of smoked porter. Admittedly, this was the other “wild card” entry despite the description of “double chocolate” on the label. In my opinion, FBS has always been a coffee stout with some chocolate rather than vice versa. I believe this may have scored so high since it was only the second beer tasted (BJCPs tend to agree there’s a bias towards the first few beers of a flight). Also, it followed the Cricket Hill Nocturne which rated so low, so this was fantastic in comparison. Would you consider this a chocolate beer?
#2 Harpoon Chocolate Stout
I’m really not a fan of the Boston-based Harpoon Brewing Company. I find most of their beers to be average at best. However, I’ve always loved their chocolate stout since it’s exactly what I want in the style but without the density of a high gravity/gourmet brew (see next entry). Honestly, I expected this to rank near the middle of the pack, but just about everyone enjoyed it immensely (myself included) and scored it thusly. I thought it was a bit ironic that Marissa scored it the lowest of the panel since she was the most generous judge overall. FUN FACT: This beer will paired with the dessert course at the beer dinner I’m hosting at Café NOLA next Monday night.
#1 Southern Tier Choklat
If you’ve ever had this beer it really should come as no surprise that it not only finished in first place, but swept all the style categories as well. I wish I had filmed everyone’s reaction as they smelled and sipped their sample. No other beer came close to inciting the glee that Choklat did. I had considered saving this for last place in the flight, but I thought it better to serve it closer to the middle to establish a baseline of sorts. This has been one of my all-time favorite brews for the last five years because it is pure chocolate indulgence in a bottle (sorry, Ommegang).
Final thoughts
I did notice a few odd similarities among these beers. For whatever reason, many of them seemed to have a mint or peanut butter flavor to them despite the fact none were actually made with either (though beers do exist with mint and peanut butter flavors). I wasn’t alone, as other members of the panel said they detected faint notes of these things in a few of the beers. What would account for that? Mint & chocolate and peanut butter & chocolate pair so well together; perhaps our mind creates a placebo flavor because it wants to taste these flavor combinations?
I also notice that whenever I hold a showdown of a style I normally enjoy, I come to the realization that I enjoy it a lot less after doing a blind tasting. I had the same reaction after the pumpkin showdown last September.
Lastly, I notice beers I’ve reviewed and/or enjoyed as a full pour taste and drink completely different in the context of a judging panel. Sampling only a few ounces in a few minutes rather than 12-16oz over a quarter hour is a completely different experience. Judging is always fun, but it’s not as fun as drinking a beer just to drink it. Are there any judges that prefer judging samples to drinking full pours?

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