A Taste Test to Find the Best Chocolate Beers

Perfect for a cold, winter day – or as an alternative to red wine on Valentine’s Day – we took measure of these stouts, ales and lagers

Main Chocolate Beer
Chocolate beer spans a wide spectrum of flavors and varieties. Flickr user Don LaVange

Peanut butter. Strawberries. Milk. Hazelnuts. Chili peppers. Coconut. Bacon. Marshmallows. Dried crickets. The world, it seems, was made to be eaten with chocolate.

Beer, also, is increasingly being made with chocolate—especially for Valentine’s Day releases. The funny thing is, brewers don’t really need chocolate to make a beer taste like chocolate, since the things they can do with just malt and hops are amazing. With these basic beer ingredients, brewers can create just about every flavor in the spectrum. Many imperial stouts and porters taste remarkably like chocolate even in the absence of added cocoa. Consider Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout. The 10-percent-alcohol-by-volume beer is intensely fudgy, but there is no chocolate in the recipe. The beer is testament to the art and alchemy of brewing.

On the other hand we have Sexual Chocolate, made every January by Foothills Brewing Company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Brewer Jamie Bartholomaus, who devised the recipe in college as a homebrewer, steeps 300 pounds of raw organic Peruvian chocolate nibs in a strong imperial stout—but the beer takes away just the faintest essence of cocoa. “Some people knock us, saying we tricked them and didn’t actually use chocolate,” Bartholomaus says. For one reason or another, the beer has developed a strong cult following, and on the February release day, a small stampede of fanatics swarms the brewpub to get their Sexual Chocolate. The bottled supply usually sells out in about three hours.  

Brewers use several means of adding chocolate to their beer. Some use chocolate syrup, others powder, others bars and still others nibs—dried pieces of cacao fruit that look something like coffee beans. So, which chocolate beer is for you? That depends what you like. Some chocolate beers taste very subtly of cocoa, like some unsweetened baker’s chocolate was sprinkled with care into the brew kettle. Others more closely resemble a pureed chocolate brownie. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, when chocolate sales spike, we review eight chocolate beers. 

Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout (Yorkshire, England)

(One of the best options for a chocolate beer. Alastair Bland)

This beer smells like brownies and tastes like liquid chocolate. It goes down thick, smooth and milky, and, although a rich and viscous mouthful, it’s delicious and, at a mild 5 percent ABV, does not exhaust the palate. This is one of the very best chocolate beers in the category, from a historic brewery that knows its craft.  

North Peak Brewing Dubious Black Chocolate Stout (Traverse City, Michigan)

(Despite the bright label, the chocolate flavor in this beer is infused with restraint. Alastair Bland)

This 5.3-percent ABV stout showcases the fruit of the cacao tree with subtlety and restraint. The thick foamy head on the beer dissipates within two minutes, but the ebony brew remains smooth and silky. The taste is bitter, charred and toasty, and the quiet flavor of chocolate is hard to catch unless you’re watching for it.

Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock (Boston)

(An offering that deviates from the traditional stout. Alastair Bland)

Made by the nation’s biggest craft brewery, the Sam Adams Chocolate Bock showcases cocoa in a different medium than the conventional stout. The 5-percent ABV beer is a bock, dark tan in hue, with some of the typical “brown” beer flavors, like fig, bread and molasses. The chocolate flavor is subdued but comes forth melded in with the other elements, rich and milky.    

Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (London, England)

(A chocolate beer that smells strongly of fudge. Flickr user Raymond M.)

Another low gravity stout, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout carries a powerful aroma of fudge. On the tongue, though, the beer is light and a bit thin—more like water than milk. 

Speakeasy Black Hand Chocolate Milk Stout (San Francisco)

(In this beer, chocolate is not the focal point. Alastair Bland)

A first sip produces toast, coffee, roasted nuts. Then, after this first rush of flavors surges and passes like a wave, the chocolate advances, bitter but rich. At 6.9 percent ABV and quite the opposite of the sweeter styles, like Samuel Smith’s, Speakeasy’s offering incorporates chocolate more as a complement to the greater effect of the beer, not a highlight on its own. 

Thomas Creek Castaway Chocolate Orange IPA (Greenville, South Carolina)

(A singular chocolate IPA. Alastair Bland)

You may have tasted ales sour as lemonade, stouts aged in whiskey barrels and porters that taste like smoke, and you think you’ve been to the four corners of the craft beer kingdom—and then you come upon this oddity. It’s an India Pale Ale—the style favored for its bright and zesty hops aromas and mouth-stinging alpha acids. But this one has been steeped in chocolate. The beer is named with a nautical theme—“Castaway”—and a motto line on the bottle reads, “Sink the status quo.” This unusual IPA sinks it. The chocolate gives the beer a curious tootsie roll flavor, and the end result is rather like a barleywine. 

New Belgium Salted Belgian Chocolate Stout (Fort Collins, Colorado)

(A little extra salt brings out this beer's flavor. New Belgium Brewing)

Food tastes lousy without salt, that greatest of flavor enhancers. Though beer does just fine without salt, the brewers at New Belgium Brewing Company decided to give their recently released chocolate stout a boost with an addition of both calcium chloride and sodium chloride. Already a hearty beer at 9 percent ABV, this latest rendition of New Belgium’s Lips of Faith gains from the salt a savory body and textured mouthfeel that it almost seems one could chew on.  

Dogfish Head Theobroma (Milton, Delaware)

(Ingredients in this beer offer a nod to Aztec culture. Alastair Bland)

Brewed with cocoa powder and nibs, honey, ancho chili peppers and annatto seeds, Theobroma—the genus of the cacao tree—is Dogfish Head’s tip of the hat to Aztec culture and their ancient use of chocolate as a beverage. The ale is tawny red in color and, if served in the sun, verily glows in the glass. Chocolate nibs aren’t the only unusual ingredient in this beer. Annatto seeds, honey and ancho chilis were also used in the recipe, and the latter two are evident to even the duller of palates, while the chocolate quietly whispers. 

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