Spiced beer – especially on the commercial production level – is a tricky item to get right. Small test batches that taste fine can spiral out of control once the ingredients are increased to augment a 180 barrel batch instead of a 5 gallon experimental. This tightrope walk can pay off big if done properly.
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I attempted such a beer for the annual Sweet Water Brew Your Cask Off competition. It was my notion that an exotic spiced beer would stand out head and shoulders above the proliferation of IPA I knew would be the popular choice for most of the competitors. One major obstacle stood in my way. I had never brewed a beer before.
Dreaming of a rich, warming, seductively-spiced beverage that would be the perfect contrast to the chill of March air in Atlanta (back when BYCO was held in early Spring), I settled upon a combination of cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, ancho chili pepper, vanilla bean and agave nectar. Basically, a Mexican molé reinterpreted as a beer.
Not knowing how the beer would dilute the additives, I poked around online for advice from home brewers. Once I found parts from multiple recipes that I extrapolated would suit mine, I submitted my instructions to the brewery. Then we went up to brew. Then we had to wait a month until the beer fermented and the party was on.
I ran into my brewery rep before the gates opened. She had just tried my beer. I inquired how it was and she replied “Spicy.” And? “I like spicy?” So, nothing else came through; no chocolate or vanilla? Nope. Nothing but chili heat. One gent even informed me that this was the “worst beer he’s ever had.” Terrific.
The real kicker was I had piggybacked my recipe off of a 5 gallon experiment. What I had made was a 10 gallon batch! Imagine how horrible it would’ve been half the volume!
New Belgium Brewing has learned to control the spice like Paul Muad’Dib in Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” Their most recent Lips of Faith Series release, Cocoa Molé Porter successfully combines chocolate and cinnamon with ancho, guajillo and chipotle peppers without melting mouths. This wonderfully-balanced beverage comes to you cola brown with a decent khaki head that settles to an ever-present ring with spotty lacing left behind. The scents are like a Mounds Bar; strange because there is no coconut in this! It’s chocolaty with cinnamon, heavy cream and the nutty/fruity notes of dried chili. The pepper heat shows up right at the front under a cloak of cocoa, caramel and vanilla with the lingering chili heat finishing off each sip.
A testament to the abilities of New Belgium’s brewing staff, Cocoa Molé is a study in spice done right.