Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate last year, according to publicly available statistics, and we import more cocoa annually than any other nation. Chefs — whether professional or amateur — continue contriving new and unusual chocolate confections and racking their brains to find the perfect adult beverage to pair with them. My latest discovery is a combination you may have tried but not taken seriously: beer and chocolate.
Yes, the beer-and-chocolate combo isn’t just for frat parties anymore. More and more up-scale chefs are pairing beers, not wines, with their up-market menus and they’ve found ways to carry beer straight through the meal — from appetizers to dessert. Think about how well coffee pairs with chocolate, and then think about the coffee flavors you find in dark stout ales. It’s the same theory, just different practice. (The Kona Brewing Company makes its Pipeline Porter with 100 percent Kona coffee and it’s dee-lish. Several stores and restaurants carry Kona’s beers in Mobile, but you may have to specially request the Porter.)
Personally, I like IPAs with chocolate cupcakes with dark ganache frosting and with dark gooey brownies. The hoppy dryness of the IPA cleanses sticky chocolate off your palate, making you ready for the next bite.
The fruity notes in IPAs also work to enhance the fruit notes in dark chocolate — especially in higher end or “artisanal” chocolates. Harpoon, Freckle Belly, and Southern Tier 2X IPAs are three I’ve tried and liked. Lindt and Ghirardelli are good chocolates to start you on your beer-pairing journey, but Valrhona and Willie’s Delectable Cacao are worth searching out (or go to the websites; it’s easier).
Wine is a more typical pairing with chocolate, but there still are no rules. Some folks like dry wines with their chocolate, and some prefer sweet. I’d recommend an upper-end Cabernet with lots of cherry flavors, if I were going dry. Sweet is trickier, because sweet plus sweet can equal too much sweet. A medium Riesling with good acidity can work.
France produces a wine that’s perfect with chocolate, but hard to find. It’s called Banyuls and it comes from the town of Banyuls-sur-Mer (Roussillon) in extreme southern France, near the Spanish border. Made primarily from red Grenache grapes and aged in a process involving heat and oxidation, the result is dark and rich, but not syrupy — and hard to describe because there’s nothing quite like it. If you see a bottle, buy it, chill it, and bring out the dark chocolate.
Now, what rivals chocolate as America’s culinary love? Hot dogs and apple pie? No, I’m thinking bacon! Statistics show we consume more than 1.7 billion pounds annually in the food service industry, which doesn’t count the rashers we fry up at home. We put bacon on burgers and pizza and donut sandwiches. We’ve got bacon-flavored mayonnaise and bacon-flavored ice cream, and little bacon bites dipped in chocolate so we can multi-task our vices.
Our dogs go nuts for bacon (if they had thumbs, they’d get it themselves). And it’s a closely guarded secret in Washington that opposing views on bacon may be the root cause of the whole Middle East kerfuffle — but you never heard it from me.
So, what can you drink with bacon? Seriously? What can you not drink with bacon seems more like the question. But if you really want an answer, remember the pairing rules: sweet with salty, acid with fat. Bacon is salty and fatty — so you need a wine with a sweet tinge plus some sharp acidity to cut the fat. Most Rieslings are great with bacon, particularly if they have a bright, acidic edge. Chardonnays are buttery, and the last thing you need with bacon is butter. Champagne will work, particularly if you choose demi-sec over brut. And there’s a French white called Muscat de Baumes de Venise (Baumes de Venise being a picturesque little village in upper Provence) that the French serve with their ultra-salty oil-cured black olives. It’s available online and perfect with any kind of bacon-wrapped appetizers.
Beer with bacon is almost too obvious. Have you seen the mugs made from formed, pressed bacon strips? I bet they leak, eventually, so I’m recommending Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale as a brew that won’t just wash down but will amp up your bacon experience. It’s a sturdy, well-balanced amber ale with some citrus and caramel notes in among the malt (6.6 percent ABV). Kingsbury Chocolates, by the way, makes a Candied Bacon Bar that plays nice with Rogue. (Widely available in bombers and six-packs; Rogue also makes a Voodoo Bacon Maple Ale that I haven’t tried, but had to mention.)
Cider with bacon? What a concept! Most hard ciders are sweet, acidic, and have a nice fizz that will cut the fat while distributing bacon-y flavors around your mouth. In the medium-sweet category, I like Angry Orchard’s “Crisp Apple” Hard Cider (5 percent ABV, widely available at grocery, wine and beer stores). Crisp Apple smells and — apart from the carbonation — tastes deceptively like almost any decent apple juice. It’s lightly fizzy and very smooth. And it’s wonderful with a toasted BLT and potato chips (simple pleasures sometimes really are the best).
But wouldn’t it be great if you could just drink bacon? Imagine the steps you’d save, the splatters you’d avoid — the skillet you wouldn’t have to wash. To save your valuable time, I offer the “Breakfast in Bed” cocktail, created (we believe) by my friend Ben Prentice:
• Shake 2-3 dashes of Liquid Smoke into a rocks glass and roll it around to coat the inside surface (pour out the excess).
• To the coated glass, add 2 ounces Bourbon, ½ ounce Torani Bacon Syrup (available at gourmet and import markets), and ½ ounce real maple syrup.
• Add one large ice cube (Ben makes his in a 2×2-inch square silicon ice tray, being something of a cocktail nerd) and stir slowly for 30 seconds.