Chocolate beer is 3,000 years old

They’ll be cracking open the bottles of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout in Bedford today at the news that archaeologists in Honduras have discovered that chocolate was originally just a by-product in brewing beer.

What’s more, it looks as if chocolate-flavoured beer, like DC Stout, is one of the most ancient beer styles in the world, dating back more than 3,000 years.

I don’t normally do stories I know are going to be pretty much everywhere else in the beer blogiverse, but this is a great tale, and it also gives me an excuse to print an ice cream recipe I’ve been meaning to share for some time.

The story has its roots in one of the puzzles of technological history: chocolate is made by fermenting the seeds of the cacao plant. The pulp of cacao fruit and seeds are fermented together, colouring the seeds purple. Unless you do that, you don’t get the chocolate taste. But who first thought that would be something worth doing?

The answer, it now appears, is that fermenting the seeds was a happy accident that took place while the ancient inhabitants of Central America around 1150BC were making themselves beer out of the sugary pulp of the cacao pod. To quote Professor John Henderson, Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University (no relation – or at best a very distant one):

In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste. It may be that the roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink.”

The professor and his associates found traces of this early chocolate-flavoured beer after looking at pottery from Puerto Escondido in the Ulúa Valley of Honduras for traces of theobromine. This is the chemical that gives chocolate its “buzz”: several reports today say theobromine (which translates as “drink of the gods”) is only found in the cacao plant, which is not strictly accurate, since in the coffee plant theobromine is the immediate chemical precursor of caffeine, another purine alkaloid with a well known “whee-ha!” effect on its consumers.

Anyway out of 13 samples, all of vessels designed for mixing or pouring drinks, 11 tested positive for theobromine and/or caffeine, showing that the Ulmec people of the Ulúa Valley were knocking back a chocolate-flavoured drink 500 years before the previous earliest known evidence of chocolate consumption in Central America.

Rosemary Joyce at the University of California at Berkeley, who co-wrote the paper just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on the discoveries at Puerto Escondido – where excavation has been going on for at least nine years – says it was trying to work out how the ancient Americans had discovered what happened when you ferment cacao seeds that led them to decide that the most likely route was via cacao beer.

Later on the Aztecs and Mayans, who made chocolate into a vital part of their culture, had cut out the beer part and consumed drinks made from the treated cacao seed paste “straight”. These were generally very bitter and it wasn’t until the Spanish took chocolate back to Europe that anyone started mixing it with sugar.

I suspect it’s the chemical similarity between theobromine and caffeine that make chocolate and coffee great partners. Roasting grains can give similar flavours: roast barley is used as a coffee substitute, and “chocolate” malt, which is dried not quite as fiercely as black malt, gives a remarkably chocolaty taste when used in stouts: it’s the “other” chocolate in Double Chocolate Stout.

The following ice-cream recipe combines stout, chocolate and coffee to fantastic effect: a good Imperial Russian Stout is best, I think, and you could try drinking the beer you use to make the “ripple” with the ice-cream,

Chocolate truffle and stout-and-coffee ripple ice-cream

Truffle mixture

  • 125g (4oz) plain high cocoa solids (at least 75 per cent) chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons single cream
  • 2 tablespoons rum (or brandy)

Coffee and stout ice cream

  • 175ml (6fl oz) Imperial Russian Stout
  • Three dessert-spoonfuls of ground coffee
  • 2 egg whites
  • 125g (4oz) caster sugar (finely ground sugar)
  • 300ml (10fl oz) double cream

Put the truffle ingredients in a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until the chocolate has melted. (Theoretically this should end up completely smooth; I think the “mistake” of having little crunchy bits of chocolate left unintegrated gives a nice texture to the finished product). Put aside to cool,

Begin making the ice-cream by heating the stout in a saucepan. Pour the not-quite-boiling stout over the coffee in a cafetière. (Or use a filter coffee maker – your choice). Give the stout-coffee five minutes to brew, then pour into a bowl and set aside to cool.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually whisk in the sugar. Whip the cream with three to four tablespoons of the stout-coffee until it forms soft peaks. Fold this into the meringue (egg white and sugar) mixture.

When the truffle mixture begins to thicken, stir until smooth and soft and then fold it very lightly into the ice-cream mixture to give a marbled effect. Put the truffle ice-cream into a rigid freezerproof container, cover, seal and freeze until firm.

Transfer the ice-cream to the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving, and scoop into chilled glasses. Enjoy.

8 thoughts on “Chocolate beer is 3,000 years old

  1. Wow, I didnt know chocolate was a fermented food. I must say its one of the ones Im least fond of. Beer, Cheese, Bread and im happy , cheers.

    And if you are lucky enougth to have a R.I.S. for god sake dont waste it in ice cream !!! unless you are into that sort of thing of course …

  2. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout is a lovely beer. Like drinking a candy bar.

    I enjoyed this post. Beer is the root of all good things.

    Thanks for the info.

  3. Does anyone have a recipe for chocolate truffles incorporating beer? I am a chocolatier that is scheduled to do a beer tasting for a client restaurant in 2 months that is holding a beer tasting night. They will probably feature beers from several countries.

    Thanks to all serious chocolate lovers who wish to help.

  4. Being from Canada certain subtle attributes get lost in the voyage, I much prefer Dieu Du Ciel’s Aphrodisiaque, for a Chocolate stout brewed with Cacoa and Vanilla beans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.