By Tanner Davies
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s that amazing time of year again, where brewers start releasing those big, beautiful dark beers that are made to warm drinkers from the inside out during chilly winter temperatures. Wonderful porters and stouts are flowing from taps and there are barrel-aged varieties in bottles to discover. Some have been spiced with a variety of fruits, seeds, spices, roots and leaves. But what really gives a lot of these great beers a backbone with complexity? Chocolate malt.
Chocolate malt provides the link between the base malts and the heavy, roasted black malts and roasted barley. As one brewer put it, “[Chocolate malts] tie it all together — it doesn’t just go from base to char.”
Although beer makers sometimes feel this malt is very one-dimensional, a majority have used it, and a vast majority of porter and stout recipes on the market contain it. When it comes to deciding on whether to use a chocolate malt, it all depends on its adaptability, the link it provides to other flavors and, of course, the desire to bring some of that chocolate character to the beer.
There are a lot of different options when it comes to chocolate malts. Primarily, there are domestic producers, U.K. producers and a few Continental European producers. English malts tend to be quite a bit darker than their American counterparts and have a distinctly different flavor profile. Aside from barley, there are producers who roast wheat and rye to tease out chocolate notes. The chocolate rye typically has some spicier characteristics and a milk chocolate taste, whereas the chocolate wheat offers more of a dark chocolate flavor contribution.
So why is it called chocolate malt? Aside from the flavors produced, roasting malt is not much different from roasting chocolate or even coffee. The main differences come down to temperature and time. In most cases, dried pale malt is roasted for 2–3 hours in a roasting drum between 420–450 F (220–230 C), until it reaches a color of 200–500 L. Coffee is typically roasted at similarly high temperatures: 380–480 F (190–250 C), but finishes much more quickly (3-12 minutes) due to the water and oil content in the beans. Chocolate (cocoa beans) is much more delicate and needs to be roasted at much lower temperatures: 210–310 F (100–155 C) for 5–30 minutes. These temperatures force the Maillard (browning) reaction forward, creating similar flavor profiles for all of the roasted products.
Perhaps during this time of year when there are so many options for chocolate-flavored treats — from the ubiquitous red hearts filled with chocolate bonbons to your local purveyor’s simple cold brew — think of your local brewer instead. There are so many great beers that will surely satisfy you or your loved one’s chocolate craving!
Tanner Davies has been in the beer and brewing industry for the past 15 years. He’s clambered his way up from the trenches of East Coast bars, worked with distributors and moved to the West Coast to brew. He’s currently Oregon and Northern California territory manager with Country Malt Group and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.