If you’re brewing a beer to evoke a culinary experience like eating a piece of key lime pie or German chocolate cake, choosing the right ingredients and treating them correctly can be the difference between a balanced and nuanced beer, and one that’s disjointed and unsatisfying. Here’s a quick primer on ingredient selection and use—based on our experience—that will help you make the right choices for your beer.
The single most important thing you can do when procuring cacao to add you’re your beer is to source it locally. Think of cacao like coffee—the fresher the better—so your best possible source is a local chocolatier who roasts their own beans. Cacao doesn’t degrade as fast as coffee does, but if you get it fresh, you can use the husks as well as the nibs and they’ll impart an additional richer flavor. Locally roasted cacao isn’t available to everyone, and if you’re ordering it or buying from your local homebrew shop, look for Tcho cacao nibs. Shops or breweries can order them from BSG, and they’re a high quality product at an affordable price. Of the two varieties they offer, Ecuadoran is dark fruit-forward, while Ghanaian is more earthy. We stick with Ghanaian for the more traditional quintessential chocolate flavor. Your choice should depend on the your flavor target—for softer and fruitier beers, stick with South American. For earthy and spicier cacao character, stick with African.
Another thing to consider with cacao is the potential for infection. Find a provider that packages them in a sanitary way after roasting—the heat of roasting will kill microbes, and the quicker you can get it in a sealed environment after roasting, the lower your chance of picking up unwanted microbes. We’ve had no issues at all with Tcho’s packaged cacao nibs.
Be careful when adding nibs to time it properly—the longer your beer rests on cacao, the more astringent it will get, and the beer can go rancid if you leave it on the nibs for too long (that’s a general rule of thumb that applies to most adjuncts). Our typical cacao regimen is one day on nibs at ambient temperature, then crash to 35°F (1.7°C) for two days. That gives us the right amount of creamy cacao character without extracting harsh cacao bitterness. Like dry hopping, the higher the temperature, the better the extraction will be, but you’ll also extract more bitterness at those high temperatures.
One key to achieving great cacao character in a beer is supporting it with chocolate malt in your grist bill. In our stouts with cacao, we use pale chocolate, chocolate rye, and regular chocolate malt in varying percentages depending on the beer. The addition of cacao adds that dark chocolate candy bar character, but cacao by itself without the chocolate malt will be perceived as thin and unsupported. We accomplish more chocolate character with malt than with cacao alone.
We use a significant amount of coconut in our beers, both in terms of the number of beers that use it and the amount used in each of those beers. We don’t find much benefit to coconut if we add any less than 5 lb per barrel (2.3 kg per barrel). While some breweries report success with it, we have yet to get good results from raw coconut due to the very high oil content, and we’re fearful of infection issues that might come from adding an ingredient that hasn’t been pasteurized.
We now exclusively toast our own coconut, and we’ve found that a higher temperature for a shorter time is the key to removing oil. 375°–400° for 4–6 minutes will typically do the job, but evaluate by color rather than sticking to a strict time schedule—the coconut should be a nice golden brown. If you go black or burnt, you’ll get unpleasant astringent flavors. At homebrew scale, you can typically fit one pound of coconut on a cookie sheet—just place paper towels underneath the coconut, as you would with bacon, to soak up the excess oil. Cool it as fast as you can, then get it into the beer shortly after that. The longer it sits out, the more chance there is of it picking up some errant microbes.
We add it to tanks in mesh bags to facilitate clean up, even though this means we have to use more coconut in each batch. Our most coconut-forward barrel-aged imperial stout uses a whopping 25 lb per barrel (11.3 kg per barrel), and we’ve found that in pastry stouts we’re hard-pressed to get perceptable flavor with any less than 10 lb per barrel (4.5 kg per barrel).
We purchase pre-shredded, unsweetened coconut. While some brewers use sweetened coconut, we prefer to only add fermentable sugars in known quantities. Flaked coconut can work as well as shredded, but always keep in mind that the more surface area of the coconut, the better the extraction.
No matter how you add it, coconut is not a stable ingredient in beer. The beers you make with it should be consumed relatively quickly.
Graham Cracker & Sugar Cone
These flavors are very hard to impart in finished beer. We’ve added them to the mash tun for sake of ease, but that doesn’t always carry over in flavor to the degree we would hope. Some of those ingredients are very hard to work with on the cold side, so we no longer do that, and instead use malts to bring that character out. Victory malt and honey malt together are pretty effective at adding a graham cracker note, and vanilla will definitely help accentuate the graham flavor. Aromatic malt and caramel malts can also help highlight that sweetness.
We’ve added cookies straight to the cold side, but that’s a huge risk and we do it knowing the limitations. We source cookie crumbles without the cream, to avoid messes with the dissolving cookie center. Throwing in the cookie crumbles by themselves won’t yield much flavor in the beer, but in conjunction with lactose, vanilla nibs, and cacao, that cookie note becomes more apparent.
For beers that don’t normally have lactose, we’ve tried all sorts of tricks with attenuation and malt bills, but settled on simply using lactose. It provides that creaminess of the pie, not just key lime flavor, in our Key Lime Berliner Weisse. If you depend on lower attenuation for that body and mouthfeel, you border on cloying. Lactose provides a more satisfying sweetness than under-attenuated malt.
Vanilla is quite possibly the most difficult ingredient to substitute. At cost of $370–400 per pound right now, it's the most expensive ingredient we’ve ever used, but also the most irreplaceable. When cooking, it’s almost impossible to make a dessert without vanilla, and the same is generally true of pastry beers—it’s one of the glues that brings these flavor combinations together, so pony up the cash or find an alternative.
While vanilla extracts are a viable option for homebrewers who don’t have the time or incentive to tackle extra processing, we use whole beans to create a vanilla paste that we blend with the beer in a brite tank. That paste gives us plenty of surface area with the beans for more efficient extraction. In our experience, you can’t over-extract vanilla as it just doesn’t produce a tannic bitterness like cacao or coconut if you leave it in contact too long. We’ve seen great results at 3–4 weeks of contact, and even at 3 months in a bourbon barrel, with the only issue being clogging as we racked out.
There are many different growing areas for vanilla, each with their own character—Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Tahiti, Mexico—but we keep coming back to Madagascar vanilla for our beers. Our stouts tend toward the low ester range of the spectrum, so the earthy sweet tobacco character of the Madagascar vanilla complements that well. There are a variety of other formats out there—commercial extracts and vanilla pastes, but when we buy beans and process them ourselves, we know we’re getting the most value out of it. No rogue manufacturer has cut it with anything, and we can inspect them before and after they’ve been processed. Extracts are very useful if that level of manual labor is not appealing to you—they involve no processing time or work.
We’ve found that whole beans split in half are a huge waste of a very expensive ingredient—the pod and the fiber have flavor you can extract, and at $300+ per pound we want to get every bit of vanilla flavor we can.
Usage rates vary bean-to-bean, region-to-region, beer-to-beer, but even 2 pounds (.9 kg) per barrel isn’t obscene. Paying $700–800 in vanilla cost per barrel is like high-stakes poker—if you’re not willing to ante up, you’ll never win the big pot.
We’ve found the best approach is the same as vanilla—we source as whole sticks and process them ourselves. Our typical process is to soak whole cinnamon sticks in with the beer, unless we need to accelerate the process, in which case we grind coarsely. Typical contact time is 3–7 days, and our favorite varieties are Vietnamese cinnamon and Indonesian cinnamon—there’s a subtle sweetness to those that keeps them from reading as pure heat and spice.
For cinnamon-like flavor, we also use cassia bark, which leans toward the more earthy, almost tobacco side of things. It does not offer as much heat, and makes for a great low-spice option.
Brewing beers that taste like treats from our childhood may strike some as kitschy, but we don’t name things just to sell the beer—the beers need to actually evoke that experience if they’re going to appeal to drinkers. We’re firm believers in moving past gimmicks into intentionality that speaks to experience.
Can you make good beers without these ingredients? Absolutely. But brewing beer is not just about dogmatically duplicating styles; it’s also about creating experiences, creating memories, and creating something unique.