I initially resisted the overtures to attend a recent beer and chocolate tasting. After all, the whole beer & food thing really isn’t my bag. The venue, the Alibi Room, looks to be the first proper beer bar in Vancouver since Fogg n’ Sudds jumped the shark.
That was a big part of the reason I decided to attend. The room is gorgeous brick and natural light, tucked beside the railroad tracks on the wrong side of Gastown’s cobbled streets. The tap handles are as good as this town has ever seen, representing micros you never see in the big city. The owner promised me the previous weekend they would be ever better with additions from Victoria brewpubs and sure enough Spinnakers and Swans were there on tap. That is 100% unheard of in the history of the BC beer scene. It’s exactly the sort of thing I know I would do if I had a beer bar here, so I was pretty impressed someone else thought of it, too.
What put me over the top was that the chocolatier, Themis Velgis of the Chocoatl boutique, would be explaining the background and terroir of the different chocolates on offer.
“Well, okay,” I told myself. Out loud. On the bus. I do that sometimes. “It’s an academic exercise. I can do that.” Besides I figure I’ve got to flex those tastebuds, whip them into shape before the heavy lifting of Hard Liver and WBC judging.
Round one started with a very creamy 48% cacoa. I did exactly as our hosts instructed. I tucked the chocolate into the right side of my mouth and allowed it to melt a little bit. Then I poured the beer into the left side of my mouth – or did my best to – and slowly mixed them. Apparently this technique is important because if you just toss them both in there without care the cold from the beer will draw out a certain waxiness from the chocolate that will inhibit your palate’s ability to perceive any subtlety. That’s pretty dorky! Chocolate-dipped strawberries and impy by the fireside this is not…no way…this is an academic exercise here.
The creamy chocolate was matched with a bitter and I don’t think the pairing worked well at all. The chocolate brought out a hint of fruitiness in the beer but otherwise these two did not come together in any meaningful way.
The next pairing was the no-brainer of the afternoon. Crannóg’s Back Hand of God paired with an austere, earthy 70% from São Tomé that finished with a distinctly roasty accent. The cask-conditioned stout was on form, which is to say very complex, and matched the chocolate beautifully.
The third pairing was another natural, so I thought. A 70% Grenada with an intense herbal character and bitter finish matched with Tin Whistle’s Cherry Chocolate Porter. The porter on its own was better than when I rated it – more aromatic chocolate and a bigger cherry character. Put together, the herbal character of the chocolate drops out and the sour cherries in the beer blow up. The whole packages has more body and sweetness as well. This pairing was very complementary, beautiful stuff.
For fun, I tried the Cherry Chocolate Porter with the São Tomé from the previous pairing. I pegged that chocolate as being a natural beer companion but with this beer the combo was a fiasco of bitterness and competing flavours. I did not expect it to be so totally unpalatable.
The same beer I then paired with the next pairing’s chocolate. That one was a 71% from Brazil. That country’s chocolate is usually of low quality and used for mass market purposes. While I was assured that this wasn’t the case with this particular Brazilian chocolate, I really didn’t think much of its coconut and peanut oil character. It flopped with the cherry porter.
It also flopped with its own beer, Phillips Longboat Chocolate Porter. I could actually see where they were going with the combo of syrupy beer and oily chocolate but that beer is a thin, gutless, one-dimensional swiller (note: it does have its fans, I’m just not one of them). Nothing could save that beer, let alone the weakest chocolate of the day.
Then, before the final pairing, I ordered up the new seasonal Porter from Swan’s. A mild, vaguely earthy example, it was crushed by the muscular São Tomé, but was at least a tolerable companion for the Grenada and the Brazil.
The last pairing was the most unorthodox of the afternoon. It was a 64% cacoa from Papua New Guinea and a cask-conditioned Mission Spring IPA. As a result – so I was told – of a high copper content in the local soil, the chocolate has a rich tobaccoey, smoky character. This paired so brilliantly with the IPA I was in shock. Fruity, orangey, leafy, tobaccoey…this combination revealed untold layers of depth.
I then tried the three previous chocolates with the IPA – nothing even came close to working. I then tried the PNG chocolate with the Swan’s Porter. That was a fine combination – it really pumped up the tobaccoey notes almost giving me the impression that I was smoking a cigar. Probably my third favourite pairing, after the Back Hand of God and São Tomé.
The best meal I’ve had this year was at a place around the corner from the Alibi called Boneta. It’s popular with food geeks and restaurant industry types, but I think its food is completely geared to analysis. If you don’t want to think about your meal, you’d probably be wasting your time at Boneta.
Chocolate is a lot like beer. Most folks get crap chocolate and like it. There aren’t a lot of people who could point out PNG, Grenada or São Tomé on a map, much less tell you what their chocolate is like. So like a dinner at Boneta, there is this whole analytical level on which this sort of thing works. But I’m not sure if it could possibly translate to a realm that thinks chocolate is Toblerone and beer is Heineken, any more than a gorgeous multitextural fried tuna in kazu sauce would appeal to lovers of corner store California rolls.