By Jason Notte
Why should Valentine's Day chocolate only come in boxes?
Don't have a good answer for that one, do you? There's no real reason shoppers have to settle for a generic red heart or some box of pre-assorted selections from the local CVS or Walgreens and no real argument against giving a beer-loving valentine the best of both worlds.
According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, 51 percent of Valentine's Day shoppers intend to pick up some chocolate for their loved one this holiday season. Consumers told the NRF they intend to spend an average of $22.81 on chocolates, bringing total Valentine's Day chocolate and candy spending up to $1.6 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.
Meanwhile, research organization Mintel says sales of craft beer have more than doubled since 2007, to $12 billion last year. While the Beer Institute notes that those gains came at the expense of large brewers that lost sales as working- and middle-class consumers cut back during the recession, small brewers have spent the past half-decade or so expanding market share and sweetening up the beer supply.
That includes mixing the occasional chocolate flavors into their brews, and nowhere is that more visible than in chocolate stouts and porters. While usually so named because of the brewer's use of dark roasted chocolate malt, occasionally sweeter chocolate flavoring and even chocolate nibs are used in the brewing process to make the beer slightly sweeter or as flavorful as drinking chocolate.
For those who'd prefer a heart-shaped 10-pack to a box of truffles, we've compiled the following list of 10 great chocolate porters and stouts. It's by no means comprehensive, but it's a good starting point for building a Valentine's Day assortment for your special, beer-loving someone:
Alcohol by volume: 6 percent. Northwest breweries tend to overdo it on the hops in their stouts, but Bend, Ore.-based Rogue gets it just right by front loading a whole lot of chocolate malt and chocolate flavoring into its stout and saving the hop flavor for the finish. Even then it's not incredibly bitter, as a combination of rolled oats and roasted barley combine with the chocolate elements for an almost milkshake-style chocolate experience. Rich, dark and sweet, Rogue's chocolate stout doesn't scorch a drinker with excessive alcohol content and doesn't deceive buyers into a dessert beer that isn't. If you're looking for something a bit more high-octane to warm a cold February night, you may want to consider a goblet of Rogue's 8 percent ABV Double Chocolate Stout instead.
Alcohol by volume: 5 percent. This particular chocolate stout has been kicking around since 1990 and is a huge favorite for one big reason: that 5 percent. It's one of the few chocolate stouts that actively invites drinkers to have more than just one. In return, it rewards session drinkers with a sweet taste built on roasted chocolate malt and organic Peruvian cocoa powder. It pours as dark as a chocolate bar and its cocoa powder leaves behind a flavor and especially an aroma that few of its chocolate compatriots share. If you're not opposed to buying roses by the dozen this close to Valentine's Day, a 12-pack of this easy-drinking California offering shouldn't be out of reach either.
Alcohol by volume: 5.3 percent. Brewed in the beer mecca of Fort Collins, Colo., alongside other great craft breweries including New Belgium and Odell, Fort Collins' Chocolate Stout is less confectionery sweet than the stouts listed before it. It's a purists' stout that relies heavily on its chocolate malt and roasted barley to produce its dark hue and roasty flavor. Fans of more traditional sweet stouts should be pleased, but folks looking for a little more kick or some actual sweetness might be better served skipping the standard-issue Chocolate Stout and going right for Fort Collins' 8.1 percent ABV Double Chocolate Stout or tracking down one of the few remaining bottles of its morning java-tinged Double Chocolate Coffee Stout released in October. While you're checking out Fort Collins, it may be worth your while to pay a call to its neighbor ...
Alcohol by volume: 8.5 percent. This is the season of love, right? Well then why shouldn't Fort Collins-based Odell show its love for Lugene, the nearby farmer who hauls away the brewery's spent grain and uses it to feed his cows? Just about every craft brewery has a Lugene who'll take their grain, but not all those happy farmers get such a rich and powerful stout named in their honor. Milk stout is so named because it uses lactose in the brewing process. Combined with roasted barley and chocolate malt, that often produces an incredibly sweet stout. It also gives the brewing yeast a whole lot of sugars to feed on, though, which can kick up the alcohol substantially. Much like a warm glass of milk, this kicky milk stout is best enjoyed when you have nowhere to be in the immediate future.
Alcohol by volume: 5 percent. Much as they excel at making every American rave about Cadbury Flake and Picnic bars after a vacation chocolate binge in London, the English are good at producing a chocolate stout.
Granted, they've been doing it far longer and either laugh or shake their heads in amazement when some American "craft" brewer thinks they invented the style, but that doesn't make their product any less outstanding. In the case of Samuel Smith's, which has been brewing in Tadcaster longer than the United States has existed, water from a well originally dug in 1758 combined with chocolate malt and organic cocoa creates a creamy concoction begging for an evening of English-style session drinking. Not only is it incredibly mild at 5 percent ABV, but it's certified organic and registered with the Vegan Society. Valentine's Day is for everyone, which makes this sweet treat great to share with the health-conscious eater, vegetarian or vegan you love.