On a recent trip to Trinidad, English brewer Phil Saltonstall was introduced to some of the best tasting chocolate in the world, made, of course, from trinitario cocoa beans. So, naturally, he did what he does best – he made a beer out of it.
“If you’re a brewer you look for flavour pairings in the world that exist already and you just put them in the beer,” Saltonstall told Business Day in a telephone call last week.
The first batch of Saltonstall’s Brass Castle Brewery’s Trinitario chocolate stout was canned just over two weeks ago and it’s already proved popular.
“I have to ringfence a couple so I can send it to Trinidad or else it’ll be gone,” he chuckled.
The beer is, of course, named after the eponymous cocoa variety that originated in Trinidad in the late 17th century. Trinitario, a natural hybrid of the forastero and criollo varieties, is considered one of the world’s finest-flavoured cocoas. The Trinidad Fine Cocoa Company, with which Saltonstall consulted, advised him on using trinitario cocoa shells and nibs to enhance the already chocolatey flavours that naturally occur in dark beer. (He was introduced to them through his wife, British High Commissioner Harriet Cross.)
“We have done a chocolate beer before, but we’ve done it with cocoa powder – and probably not very good cocoa powder. It was meant to be like a Black Forest gateau, with cherries and chocolate. It was really nice and chocolatey, with the cherries, and that was cool.
“I have since been educated to the fact that Trinidad has the best chocolate in the world, and making that connection with TT fine cocoa caused me to understand that I can use cocoa better – that I shouldn’t just be using powder, I should be using cocoa nibs and cocoa shells. So they effectively enhanced my process.
"And they also kindly explained that Trinidad has the best chocolate in the world, and if I want to have a real chocolate beer (this is the stuff to use).”
Different types of grain and malt (sprouted grain) can give some very gentle chocolate flavours, Saltonstall explained.
“You have to look for them, but they are there. What most brewers do is, they will add a chocolate flavouring or essence or something like that. But when I had the option to have some of the best chocolate in the world, that’s obviously (better).”
Brass Castle tries to make its base as chocolatey as possible and then overlay that with the fine cocoa nibs during the fermentation and conditioning phases.
“The finished beer is very luscious and chocolatey and doesn’t have any of those fake aspects, and that’s all testament to how good the cocoa and chocolate that we’ve used (are).”
Beer is made from fermenting cereal grains. The first step is creating a mash, where the grains are mixed with water to form the base liquid and release the sugars that will eventually ferment. Usually, rice husks are used as process aid, preventing the mash from turning into a porridge consistency that needs to be thrown out.
But, Saltonstall was pleased to discover, cocoa shells did the same job and imbued the mash with a rich chocolate flavour.
“It’s cool, because I didn’t realise that cocoa shells are just kind of thrown away because they’re no good for chocolate, but actually there’s still flavour there, so they are quite good in the mashing process and brewing.”
The next phases – fermentation and conditioning – are when the nibs, shelled cocoa seeds broken into pieces that have a deep, rich cocoa flavour, are added to the mix to really bring create that chocolatey, beery goodness.
Brass Castle is based in the town of Moulton in North Yorkshire. A few miles away is the city of York, which Saltonstall said has a history of being in the chocolate trade.
“I talked to chocolatiers in the town and they are totally thrilled that we are doing something with trinitario cocoa nibs, because they get it. They know how good the nibs are and they know that it’s in relatively short supply.
"It's lovely to see them get enthusiastic and passionate about it, and hopefully drinkers will get the same effect.”
Saltonstall has not yet tapped into the huge Caribbean diaspora in the UK – covid19 restrictions have made that difficult at the moment, so the usual avenues, like bars, restaurants and even Notting Hill Carnival have been restricted. He’s interested in looking into it, though, and even directly reaching out to some high-profile Trinis and sending them some of the beer.
“In normal times this would be obvious and it would be nice to get the feedback from the diaspora.”
Brass Castle is a small craft brewery, so it produces about 4,000 440ml cans of beer at a time. He’s all but used up his initial 25-kg supply of shells and nibs in production, so he’s actively researching how to import a supply.
“I was lucky because I was able to transport this back from Trinidad myself, but I’m now talking to people who can ship it. I’m told shipping is pretty straightforward because (despite covid19 restrictions) commerce is still working and goods are still transiting. So my understanding is that getting hold of some more is not problematic.
"Of course, everything is slightly more difficult now but getting more nibs and shells is not (impossible).”
He’s excited to start back production, though, and already envisions the beer being a regular offering. It’s on sale at the brewery and online, as well as some shops. It also proved to be a surprise Valentine’s Day hit, with lots of orders coming in before February 14. He also hopes to be able to send some soon to Trinidad – and maybe get a new supply of nibs in return.
And as far as he’s concerned, even though some people might see chocolate stout as a dessert drink, the beer will go with anything. “People drink and eat what they like to eat. I know there’s a whole host of people who would want to drink it all the time.”
The labelling. though, is reminiscent of a chocolate bar in the colours of the TT flag.
“I might change the packaging at some point, but I hope that the name and the look are simple enough for people to understand quickly what it is, but also for people who know to appreciate that it’s a Trinidadian beer with Trinidadian ingredients.”