The Barley of the Gods

Connoisseur's Corner

The Barley of the Gods
(Photo Credit:

If you’ve been drinking porters and stouts this winter, then give a nod to the Mayans and Aztecs. The royalty of these cultures were the first to embrace chocolate by drinking it, and chances are, some of your favorite porters and stouts were brewed with chocolate malt, providing a hint of one of the world’s most famous drinkables and edibles.

When it came to liquid chocolate, the Mayans and Aztecs preferred consuming the foam, perhaps because it was easier to drink the slightly bitter substance this way in the absence of sugar. Although the Aztecs used some additives for flavoring, both cultures were known for repeatedly pouring or beating their chocolate drinks to create a foam head before sipping it right off the top.

So if that chocolatey Russian Imperial Stout you’re drinking with its nice foam head makes you feel like a member of the upper crust, maybe there’s something universal involved.

After the English Reformation, chocolate imported from the New World was drunk before coffee and tea started to dominate the hot drink scene in what became known as coffee houses. The English, like those across the water, were looking to chocolate for the effects of theobromine (food of the gods, directly translated) and caffeine, each a stimulant. On both sides of the Atlantic, the societies that endorsed the drinking of chocolate – or other caffeine-laced drinks – were flirting with the abandonment of what had made their societies strong. Their cultural ethic favored steady work and sobriety, not sitting and sipping stimulants or ingesting an aphrodisiac, a reputed quality of theobromine.

Photo Courtesy of Briess Malt & Ingredients Co.

These days, American and European cultures have learned to live with the "work hard, play hard" ethic. Should that porter or stout happen to also put you in the mood for love as Valentine’s Day approaches, forget about the feeling being sourced from any chocolate malt on three counts. First, theobromine has only been confirmed as a good accompaniment to caffeine. Second, chocolate malt is made from barley, which doesn’t have these ingredients or any other known stimulants – unless malted and brewed with hops! As importantly, there’s not much chocolate malt, which has a rather dry taste, in grist bills. Much of the flavor comes from other dark malts on the bill or roasted barley that is highlighted by the chocolate.

As far as the art of malt shoveling is concerned, not much has changed in the past century.
As far as the art of malt shoveling is concerned, not much has changed in the past century.
Photo Credit: Ian McIlwain

The story of chocolate malt doesn’t get much shrift in the mill that often provides the written grist on beer, its ingredients and history. Without stepping into the eternal debates surrounding porters and stouts, it’s well established that the malt roaster invented and patented by Daniel Wheeler in 1817 introduced black malt and was a key change in the darker beers favored by the British public and eventually around the world. Then a change in the laws regarding the taxation of malt in Britain in 1880 led to more widespread use of roasted barley.

Eventually, it caught on that roasting malt – after the usual techniques of germination – could be done in a way similar to roasting the beans of the cacao with a result remarkably similar to chocolate. The malted barley and cocoa nibs (the fermented beans of the cacao tree) have similar flavor precursors like peptides, amino acids and sugars, according to Cassie Liscomb, a technical services associate at Briess Malt & Ingredients Company in Wisconsin. The same roasting equipment used to make chocolate malt, she pointed out, is often used by companies that roast cocoa nibs prior to adding sugar and milk, among other ingredients, to create the familiar edible.

The Mayan
Some beers announce chocolate as a major flavor ingredient such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout; Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout; or Choklat Stout, brewed by Southern Tier Brewing Co. In addition to chocolate malt, beers designated as chocolate generally have another source for flavoring such as cocoa nibs, cocoa or the chocolate we know in edible form. Invariably for all dark beers, the darker malts are a minority ingredient on the grist bill along with a majority of pale malt, which is more efficient for brewing.

Since Spaniards reported that pepper was one of the additives used by the Aztecs, it seems fitting that pepper-influenced dark beers have emerged with links to Mexico such as the Cocoa Mole Spiced Chocolate Porter from New Belgium Brewing Company; The Mayan from Britain’s Ilkley Brewery; or Chocolate Sombrero from Clown Shoes Brewing Company.

Chocolate Malt
Photo Courtesy of Briess Malt & Ingredients Co.

It took a while from the time Wheeler invented the roaster until chocolate malt first started showing up in beers made in Britain. It seemed to be a progression starting with the black malt that first came out of his patented device that was used primarily for coloring. Next, roasted barley gradually became a common ingredient, and apparently, only afterward came the use of chocolate malt in relatively small quantities.

Ironically, the use of chocolate malt in brewing may have resulted from the popularity of chocolate in something other than liquid form. British companies J.S. Fry & Sons and Cadbury made edible chocolate all the rage across a range of consumers in the 1920s along with Milton Hershey in America. This market change in consumer demand driven by producers happened about the same time chocolate malt began appearing in some grist bills in Britain.

If it’s difficult to pin down precisely when chocolate malt was first produced, it’s also hard to tell why. Due to the popularity of chocolate, perhaps there was a money-driven search for a method to replace production from cacao beans by starting with something home-grown – like barley. Brewers themselves might have wondered if there was a way to capitalize on the chocolate rage going on all round them and may have inquired about it at malting houses. The entire concept of specialty malts may have brought out more experimentation on many fronts due to better understanding of how to use the drum roaster invented by Wheeler.

After macro lager brewers began to dominate in America, a counter-reformation took place and chocolate in beer marched in the legion of this much larger movement. In 1972, Anchor Brewing Co. almost single-handedly saved the porter style in the U.S. and Britain, then the rest of the world by introducing its profoundly tasty Anchor Porter, which includes chocolate malt. It was the start of something compelling that led to other landmark dark beers brewed with chocolate malt once the craft movement was in full fermentation. The Bourbon County Stout from Goose Island Brewing Company, Obsidian Stout from Deschutes Brewery and the iconic Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout from Terrapin Brewing Company are among many others emerging along this arc of progression toward darker beers.

In light of Valentine’s Day, it’s almost enough to make one dream of amber/brown waves of chocolate barley growing in the heartland – even if there is no such thing until the barley meets a maltster and a roaster.

This story was copied from an email to The MOB by The Beer Connoisseur. For more articles, click here.