Savoring the Bitter and the Sweet

We humans have a penchant for both the bitter and the sweet.

Beer, for example, is a naturally sweet drink that people have craved since the earliest known civilizations in northern China and Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago (and probably much longer). Beer is produced when water breaks down the starches in grains into simple sugars and then yeast converts those sugars into alcohol through a process called fermentation.

Historically, and even today in many places, beer was consumed so fresh that it was still fermenting, retaining much of its sweetness. Even beers that are “fermented out” remain sweet because yeast conks out before all of a beer’s sugar can be converted to alcohol. A variety of herbs, spices and fruits have been employed over the ages to balance this sweetness with more bitter flavors such as that produced by the currently most popular beer-flavoring: hops.

Which leads us to the bitterness in which we also delight. Take coffee, our most cherished bitter drink. Coffee is often cut with milk and/or sugar to soften the bitter blow, but in its original context in Ethiopia and the Arabian peninsula, it was enjoyed in a highly concentrated and bitingly bitter form.

Chocolate strives for a similar balance of the bitter and the sweet. Mayans were the first people known to imbibe it. They dried and ground the beans of the cocoa pod, mixed them powder with milk, chili, and cinnamon, and then served the resulting concoction to royalty as a sacred beverage.

Cupping coffee at Counter CultureCoffee and chocolate are bitter for another reason too – both were historically reliant on human slavery for their production. The modern inheritance of this slavery is that most cocoa and coffee is grown by impoverished farmers who see little of the economic fruit of their labors. European colonizers conducted genocidal wars against indigenous people in Africa, Asia, and South America, forcing the survivors onto the least desirable lands high in mountainous regions or in densely forested equatorial areas – places that happen to have the ideal growing conditions for coffee and cocoa, respectively. (Pictured: at left: Coffee cupping at Counter Culture’s DC cupping lab)

Today, many of the poorest coffee and cocoa producers are the descendants of these marginalized native peoples. Fair Trade is a trade justice movement attempting to address these historic inequalities by working directly with small-scale impoverished producers to bring their products to market more efficiently and fairly. Alter Eco is one company dedicated to this trading model.

Bruce Williams

Happily, the history of beer is not nearly so bitter. Because it can be produced from local ingredients anywhere in the world, beer was never a motivating factor in the colonial search for cheap labor and natural resources. Thus, the modern brewing industry lacks the same imperative for trade justice that is so evident in the coffee and cocoa industries. Still, there is the occasional specialty beer brewed with fair trade ingredients, such as the Ginger Kyte “adult soda” from Williams Brothers brewery (that’s owner Bruce Williams in the pic to the right) in Scotland that includes fair trade sugar among its ingredients.

But being eager for any opportunity to link fair trade and organic products to beer, I gathered a group of friends the other day for a pairing of beers with Alter Eco’s organic, fair trade chocolates. In all, we sampled nine beers with eight chocolates, six of which were organic and fair trade. Here are some highlights.

Beer and Chocolate pairing
Shh . . . we’re being very serious about beer and chocolate.

Chocolate: Hazelnut Milk Chocolate, Alter Eco
Beer: Wild Blue blueberry lager, Blue Dawg Brewing
The secret here is that Blue Dawg Brewing is actually Anheuser-Busch. I could not find this fact mentioned anywhere on the packaging. We paired these up at the beginning on the theory that wacky, off-beat and dominating flavors should come at the beginning or end of a tasting. The blueberry lager tasted to me like blueberry-syrup flavored soda. Fine if that’s what you’re going for but as one taster commented, “It’s not beer.” I don’t usually share that restrictive attitude toward beer but in this case, it seemed true. The combination of the sweet milk chocolate and the sweet blueberry was too much.

Chocolate: Very Dark, 71% Cocoa, Equal Exchange (another Fair Trade company)
Beer: Porter, Sierra Nevada
One taster called this pairing “like oil and water” but in general folks found this a rewardingly rich combination but that may have emphasized bitterness a tad much.

Chocolate: Dark Mint, Alter Eco
Beer: Milk Stout, Lancaster Brewing
One of my favorites of the night, this coupling was as convincing dessert option. Next time you’re considering mint chocolate chip ice cream, try this instead!

Chocolate: Dark Twist, Alter Eco
Beer: Chimay Red, Chimay Trappist Monastery

This was the crowd consensus winner for the evening, with folks generally feeling this was a “girl-friendly” pairing of nuanced fruitiness from the Chimay and bittersweet orange from the chocolate. Lest that sound like a misogynistic slam, it was two of the female gastronomes that night who simultaneously and gleefully exclaimed: “like a chick-flick combo!”

Chocolate: Crunchy Roasted Nibs, Alter Eco
: Oatmeal Stout, Southern Tier
Comments on this coupling triggered a range of responses from those who felted it was “muscular” but “smooth” with an enjoyable crunch, the “best yet, Strong & Strong!”; to those who felt it “battled rather than blended,” as the sweet stout “coated” the tongue and the bitter roasted cocoa nibs came off as chalky.

Chocolate: Dark Chocolate Blackout, Alter Eco
Beer: Love Stout, Yards & Backdraft Brown, Hook & Ladder
At 85% cocoa, the Blackout tipped the bitterness scales for most tasters and unfortunately our single bottle of Love Stout was so oxidized it tasted like wet cardboard with a lactic sourness that may have been caused by a bacterial infection. So we tried again, replacing the Love Stout with Hook and Ladder’s Backdraft Brown and found more desirable results. The Brown is mild and relaxed, with just enough caramel-like malt body to cleanse the palate of the chocolate’s powerful bitterness which on its own verged on “baker’s chocolate.”

If you’re hankering for a chance to try a beer and chocolate pairing, there’s a great opportunity coming up in Washington D.C. SAVOR is a first-of-its kind event matching up beers from many of America’s leading brewers with haute cuisine prepared specifically for pairing with these beers. A number of these match-ups include bites from chocolatier Christopher Elbow. Check out the whole list of pairings and get details about the event here.


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