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Like Beer for Chocolate

December 16, 2010

Popular thinking has it that wine and chocolate are the perfect pairing, but Gail Ambrosius and Otto Dilba beg to differ. When it comes to matches made in gustatory heaven, only beer has the depth and range of possibilities to bring out the best in its darkly sweet partner.

“Beer has a wider flavor and aroma spectrum,” said Dilba, co-owner of Madison’s Ale Asylum craft brewery. “The differences in wine are subtle, but the variations among craft beers are enormous.”

Ambrosius agrees and, as the city’s foremost producer of dark chocolate truffles, hers is not an authority with which to trifle. Now in its sixth year, Gail Ambrosius Chocolates on Madison’s east side scored a double coup this fall, first being tagged by the Food Network as making “the best little box of chocolates in America” in September, and then being named in the December issue of Bon Apetit as producing the best chocolates to give as gifts.

The two enterprises banded together to match four Ale Asylum beers with four of Ambrosius’ most compelling chocolate creations. Each of the four truffles were sourced from a single Latin American country as a way to better showcase the characteristics of country’s cacao.

“I believe chocolate, like wine, benefits from its own terroir,” said Ambrosius, borrowing the French winemakers’ term to describe the effect sun, soil and other conditional influences have on wine grapes. A sold-out room full of fans appeared to agree.

The first round paired Ambrosius’ shiitake mushroom truffle – an unusual offering even for her – with Ale Asylum’s Diablo, a Belgian-style double ale with classic esters and a caramel quality. The chocolate, in this case from Peru, had an earthy, almost savory quality, which Ambrosius said brought the concept of using mushrooms to mind. The shiitakes had been steeped in cream, which brought out a buttery rich flavor and a creamy quality that transferred to the truffle. The result was a remarkably fluid texture transference between the truffle and ale.

Next up was a chocolate truffle sourced from Colombia made with caramel and sea salt paired with Mercy, a Belgian Grand Cru and Ale Asylum’s seasonal beer. (At 9.5% ABV, it is bound to make anyone jolly.) The beer, elegantly smooth and subtly powerful, had hints of spice and floral aroma, while the truffle was very caramel-y, which brought out the same characteristic in the beer. Together, the pair may have lacked the fluidity of the first round, but danced delicately together around the taste buds in complex patterns.

This course was followed by Ambrosius’ raspberry truffle, another Colombian that was paired with AA’s Ambergeddon, a more highly hopped ale with a floral, almost pine-y aroma. The truffle was made up of a raspberry puree and topped with tiny cocoa nibs, resulting in splashes of flavor and multiple textures. The variety or oral sensations from both components made this one of the evening’s most compelling pairs.

Our gustatory journey ended with the chocolatier’s Pecan Smoky, mini praline-style truffle paired with AA’s Contorter Porter. The full-bodied, lower alcohol beer, with hints of both coffee and chocolate in its smooth malty finish, was a delightful companion to the Smoky. Comprised of Ecuadorian chocolate, the confection was topped with candied pecans that had been dredged in AA wort – the stuff of which beer is made – then roasted and dusted in sea salt. The symbiotic relationship between the two was most satisfying.

An evening too soon over led to multiple revelations, and the realization that I may never pair chocolate with wine again.

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