Chocolate stout and porter could use more love, and not just because that beer seems like a natural holiday fit as Valentine's Day approaches.
According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, 54.8% of consumers will celebrate Valentine's Day, with 50% of those shoppers planning to pick up some chocolate. Consumers told the NRF that they intend to spend an average of $26.22 on chocolates this year, bringing total Valentine's Day chocolate and candy spending up to $1.76 billion this year. Considering overall chocolate sales hit $12.9 billion in 2009, according to the Census Bureau, Valentine's Day is a huge portion of the annual chocolate take.
Chocolate stouts and porters wish they were that popular.
According to IRI, stouts and porters combined were just 4.7% of all craft beer sales at bars and restaurants. By comparison India Pale Ale alone takes a 19.2% stake, pale ales account for 10.6% and seasonal beers fill 4.3% of all pint glasses. The story gets worse for packaged goods sales, as Nielsen says bottles and cans of porter alone constitute only 1% of all packaged beer sales.
So, with 4,100 U.S. breweries to brew them, why are stout and porter (and the chocolate subsets of each style) getting the short end of craft beer growth that's made it 11% of the beer market by volume? Well, it's partially because they're part of an overall beer market that just keeps shrinking. Beer makes up 47.8% of all alcohol sales, compared to 34.7% for spirits and just 17% for wine, according to the Distilled Sprits Council of the United States. Yet beer's share has actually fallen from 55% in 2000 thanks largely to U.S. light lager's collapse. Meanwhile, craft beer has latched on to India Pale Ale and made it 27% of all craft beer sales in 2015 after it was just 8% in 2008, according to IRI.
There's also the pervasive believe that porter and stout make us fat quicker than any other beer. Stouts and porters are tarred as "heavy" beers because of their malt content, full body and dark color, though little of that has to do with its caloric content. A typical 12-ounce Guinness draft, for example, clocks in at 128 calories, according to parent company Diageo. By comparison, 12 ounces of Samuel Adams Boston Lager clock in at 175 calories, while an AleSmith IPA packs in 210 calories per 12 ounces.
As with any beer, caloric content is more tightly tethered to alcohol content than anything else. In the brewing process, yeast devours sugar and basically excretes alcohol. The more sugar the yeast has to eat, the more alcohol content your beer will have. However, that added sugar has roughly the same effect as sugar in just about anything else you consume: It adds caloric content that's increasingly difficult to burn off.
Finally, there's the fact that few people other than beer judges know the difference between porter and stout. You can blame Arthur Guinness, whose recipe for Extra Superior Porter eventually became Guinness Stout. Meanwhile, porter existed in the U.S. prior to Prohibition didn't really return as a style until the initial U.S. craft beer boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Judges at beer competitions insist stouts are darker, use roasted barley and use less water than porters, but look at the Beer Judge Certification Program's style guides for stouts and porters: until you get into the specialized styles for each, the differences can be tough to discern.
With chocolate stouts and porters, there's the added burden of being sweet, smooth and biscuity at a time when the craft beers of choice are bitter, light and citrusy. However, considering that there are millions of varied palates across this land of ours, there's likely someone who wouldn't mind an assortment of chocolate porters and stouts for Valentine's Day. Here are just a few to get you started:
Alcohol by volume: 8.7%
We've written about Newport, Ore.-based Rogue's Chocolate Stout before and could have chosen either its Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout or Mocha Stout as other options here, but this is about as chocolatey as the company's stouts get. In this case, the "double" doesn't note high alcohol content (regular Chocolate Stout is 6% ABV), but rather a double helping of the chocolate elements themselves. Where Chocolate Stout leans more heavily on chocolate malts for flavor, the Double Chocolate doubles down by adding Dutch chocolate to the equation and making a rich, viscous stout worthy of the red 750-milliliter dessert-wine bottle that bears it. Double Chocolate stout is first on our list not because it was the first that came to mind, but because it serves as a fine baseline for what other chocolate stouts could and should be.
Alcohol by volume: 9.2%
Back in 2008, the beer world was shocked by a hop shortage and wasn't quite sure how to achieve the bitterness that craft beer drinkers were just starting to get accustomed to. Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele and his team in Escondido, Calif., came up with a solution: Use unsweetened chocolate. The result was a combination of biting chocolate aroma and flavor tempered with oats to give it a smoother, fuller feel that make this pitch-black beauty taste like a boozy milkshake that someone mistakenly added their stash of expensive artisan splurge-item chocolate to. It's a rare treat, and one we're glad Stone added to its 20th Anniversary "Encore" series.
Alcohol by volume: 5.5%
Yep, the name's a gross double entendre, but for a brewery in Frederick, Md., that Hunter S. Thompson had a hand in opening, that Ralph Steadman still designs the labels for and that unapologetically produces an IPA called Raging Bitch, this sweet stout is about as mild-mannered as it gets.
Oyster stout dates back to 1800s England, when stout was just something you drank between eating oysters. However, later that century, brewers found that oyster shells -- and sometimes the oysters themselves -- helped clarify the beer when they were added to the boiling stage of the brewing process. In this beer's case, it's brewed with local Rappahannock River Oysters that not only keep this sweet, jet black stout from getting cloudy, but whose use in the stout help fund oyster bed restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay.
Alcohol by volume: 8.1%
For 20 years, this Healdsburg, Calif., brewery has been powered by its hop-forward Racer 5, Racer X, Hop Rod Rye and Cafe Racer 15 beers. That doesn't mean it can't find its way around some chocolate malt. Loaded with rich roasted and chocolate malts, this beast pours into a thick, brown head that lets off an aroma somewhere between a chocolate bar and black coffee.
It's also far bigger and more potent than that bitter chocolate flavor would have you believe, so go easy if you bought the six pack instead of the 22-ounce bomber.
Alcohol by volume: 9.1%
In fairness, we've only had the original-recipe chocolate version of this Kansas City brewer's Chocolate Ale, so we have a better idea of what the base is like without the raspberry. That said, the base that Kansas City chocolatier Christopher Elbow and brewmaster Steven Pauwels concocted out of cocoa beans, cocoa nibs, oats and pale and caramel-wheat malts is incredible.
It reminded us of Rocher chocolate with just a hint of hazelnut, but that flavor may vary by palate. What doesn't vary, however, is that dusky cocoa throughout the sip. Add some raspberry to a mix of cocoa beans and nibs that hints at fruits on its own, and you're getting a particularly sweet confection.
Alcohol by volume: 9.75%
When we can, we try to steer these suggestions away from "white whales," those limited-release beers that lots of beer geeks talk about and covet, but few ever get their hands on. Sexual Chocolate is one of those beers, but we actually like your chances of finding some this year.
For one, the release date was pushed back by a snowstorm. We don't know that it'll deter bracelet-wearing fans from staking their claim, but even if everybody cleaned out the Winston-Salem brewery's home supply, the company has increased production this year to make it available in a wider radius. Just as the worst place to get Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout is in its hometown of Chicago, the best place to find Sexual Chocolate is any place Foothills sent it that isn't Winston-Salem.
Once you get your hands on it, just know that it is one slow sipper. With dark, bitter chocolate melding with hints of espresso, blackstrap molasses, toffee, fig and date -- as tends to happen with imperial stouts -- Sexual Chocolate is deeply satisfying and ages about as well as the joke from Eddie Murphy's Coming To America that gave the beer its name.
Alcohol by volume: 5.9%
Brewed by one of the nation's first craft breweries and the brewery at the head of Colorado's craft beer movement, Shake is a bit misnamed. The "Shake" part might imply milkshake, but there aren't the sweeter elements of a milk stout or oatmeal stout present here.
Instead, this porter takes the bitter elements of cocoa nibs, plays them off of the chocolate and roasted coffee bitterness of its malt and brings it all together in a smooth-drinking dark beer with bite. If you're looking for the frothy, milkshake texture of a dense milk stout or a nitrogen-bubble infused oatmeal stout, you won't find it here. If you're looking for a bit of chocolate decadence, though, you've come to the right place.
Alcohol by volume: 10%
This Lakewood, N.Y., brewery makes a habit of messing around with imperial stout and dedicates its entire Blackwater Series of beers to the variety's sweeter side. It puts a whole lot of coffee into its Java, swirls that coffee with Belgian chocolate in its Mokah and dumps a whole lot of vanilla in lactose into its Crème Brûlée. That said, Chokolat is perhaps the sweetest of the bunch and combines chocolate and caramel malts, hints of vanilla and bittersweet Belgian chocolate into its brew for one of the richest stouts currently available. Technically, it still doesn't qualify as a sweet stout, as that 10% ABV and mild burn at the end fall right into Imperial Stout territory. Don't let anyone disparage you for sipping this particular chocolate stout: you're drinking with the big dogs now.
Alcohol by volume: 5.5%
Were availability not a factor, we would have pointed you toward this St. Louis brewer's imperial version of its Milk Stout: Madagascar.
However, as we mentioned in a previous example, sometimes it's best not to chase white whales. Besides, when this beer's chocolate malts lend some rich chocolate backbone cut only by the sweetness of the lactose it's brewed with, why wouldn't you go for the beer that's more readily available.
The issue we've found with many milk stouts (including those we've brewed ourselves) is that they seldom retain the more chocolate characteristics of a more traditional stout. Instead, the lactose just tends to soften the bitterness of the roasted malt and function like a splash of creamer in a cup of coffee. 4 Hands uses its to make some honest sweet chocolate stout, and we think that's a fine step in the right direction.
Alcohol by volume: 6.8%
However, if you're out in farm country and have access to all the milk you want anyway -- and aren't far from the homes of Wilbur and Hershey chocolate -- why wouldn't you experiment a bit?
This Harrisburg brewer takes its standard 5.3% ABV milk stout recipe, doubles up on the chocolate malt, tosses in some cocoa nibs and limits its availability from December through February. The result is far more sweet and chocolatey than its milk stout sibling, but far less jittery than the 8% ABV espresso-infused version that Lancaster offers a step above it.