It’s winter, which means it’s cuffing season for singles, stout season for beer nerds, and chocolate season* for everyone.
*Note: Chocolate season is real! Per the Guardian, it “kicks off before Halloween, taking in Christmas, Valentine’s and Mother’s days, and ends just after Easter (give or take a bit of abstention for Lent).” Commercially driven or no (yes), it’s happening.
Whatever the season means for you, it’s a great time to enjoy the combination of two great things, beer and chocolate, in the form of chocolate stouts. These can be a bit bewildering because some beers qualify for the category due to their use of chocolate malt, named for a chocolate-like flavor derived from its roasting process, not because of actual chocolate brewed into the beer. (Example: Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout. Great beer, no actual chocolate.)
For those who feel robbed, confused, or enraged by this common misnomer, this is for you: a ranking of chocolate stouts that are actually made with chocolate, as decided by the VinePair tasting panel.
San Diego, California
This limited-edition, bourbon-barrel-aged, coconut- and-chocolate-dosed brew promises to emulate its eponymous dessert, German chocolate cake, an American dessert that layers chocolate, coconut, and pecan. The coconut and chocolate notes are certainly present in the aroma, but this “barrel-aged imperial stout with coconut and chocolate” is less quaffable than one might expect from such a bold description. Notes of toasted coconut are subdued among a more prominent roast character, and the body is lighter and thinner than a typical barrel-aged imperial stout. One taster noted the beer tasted like a macaroon, while for others, a hint of something herbal and leafy lingered.
This one is not a stout, but it gets a spot on our list for two reasons: drinkability and availability. It’s also the best of Sam Adams’ winter seasonals, so if you’re standing in the supermarket aisle mulling over a date-night six-pack, let Chocolate Bock be your guide. Chocolate Bock dials back the richness of the typical dessert-like dark beer, with subtle sweetness, spot-on chocolate flavor (thanks to aging on cocoa nibs sourced from Madagascar, Ghana, and Ecuador), and a low ABV to increase your chances of making it to that next stage of Netflix and chill.
There was a lot of divide in the Great Divide, with some tasters backing down from its jet-black color, burnt coffee aroma, and syrup-like, glass-coating viscosity. But if you’re up for the challenge of this barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with cocoa and cayenne pepper (a 2013 Great American Beer Festival gold award winner), it’s akin to a warming chocolate liqueur – boozy, chocolate syrup that’s creamy and sticky, perfect for pouring over vanilla ice cream. The cayenne comes through more as a minty numbing sensation than a peppery spice, making it all the more worthy for an end-of-night dessert drink.
Brooklyn, New York
In a surprisingly unanimous sweep, Sixpoint 3Beans was a crowd favorite. So named for its use of three beans (Romano, coffee, and chocolate), the recipe was inspired by ancient texts depicting Baltic brewers using beans in their recipes. At our tasting, the bourbon-barrel aged and beaned imperial porter offered up aromas of Port, fortified wine, and fruity berry notes, with flavors of Madeira and what one taster described as “concentrated Starbucks mocha Frap, if they used good espresso and really good chocolate.”
Brooklyn, New York
Grimm excels at many styles — DIPAs, fruited farmhouse ales, dessert Berliner Weisses, and imperial stouts are among them. The Brooklyn-based brewery (gypsies for several years, but soon opening a brick-and-mortar brewery this year in East Williamsburg) describes Icing on the Cake, an imperial milk stout with cacao and vanilla, as a liquid slice of flourless chocolate cake, and we couldn’t say it better ourselves.
Sweet and warm as a summer night, Dino S’mores delivers exactly what you want: aromas and flavors of dark chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker, with a smooth body and medium-full mouthfeel that’s as much a bite of s’mores as it is a drinkable beverage. This, what Off Color dubs as an “imperial marshmallow stout,” was created in collaboration with Amager Bryghus and West Lakeview Liquors. Despite being brewed with actual marshmallow fluff, vanilla beans, molasses, graham flour, and cocoa nibs, it is less cloying than one would expect from a bottled bonfire dessert. At 10.5 percent ABV, you’re best to be careful with this one.
One of our favorite beers of all time, it’s impossible to pass up Prairie Bomb!, an aptly named explosion of chocolate, coffee, vanilla beans, and ancho chili peppers, wrapped up in a pretty liquid package that coats and invigorates the tongue all at once. It’s like the first time, every time. The public apparently agrees: RateBeer has named Bomb! a top 100 beer in the world for four years running.
In a tickling juxtaposition to its name, Teddy Bear Kisses is surprisingly adult. Here, Upland takes a traditional stout and amplifies it: lots of roasted malt; sweet, creamy mouthfeel; bittering hops; and aging it all on cocoa nibs. Its plan worked so well, the beer won a Gold Medal in the 2010 World Beer Championships. The bourbon-barrel-aged version (BBA Teddy Bear Kisses, 11.5 percent ABV) is worth seeking out if you can get your lips on it; it’s like dipping a dark chocolate bar in bourbon and letting it melt in your mouth while you’re engulfed by oak aroma.
If a chocolate stout can be dessert-like and at the same time thirst-quenching, Rogue Chocolate Stout is it. Rogue Chocolate Stout won us over with its simple, straightforward appeal: aromas of milk chocolate and milk sugar; flavors evoking a liquid dark chocolate bar and cocoa powder; and a roasty, bitter bite washed down with crisp carbonation, leaving a hint of lingering, brownie-batter bittersweetness.
Disclosure: Some beers were provided to VinePair for tasting. All were tasted blind.