Brewed of the Gods – Dogfish Head Theobroma

By Emily Brightman

Justin Surgent/Daily Collegian
Justin Surgent/Daily Collegian

The only thing I love more than good beer is good beer that comes equipped with a history lesson. The art and science of brewing beer is steeped in centuries of worldwide experimentation and stylization, and the trend among craft breweries to harken back to more antiquated ingredients and brewing processes has burgeoned considerably over the last decade.

One of the old-world ingredients that is making a strong comeback is the cocoa bean, flavor base of one of the world’s most beloved sweets: chocolate. Few, if any, foods are as widely praised as chocolate: everything from good health to increased libido has been attributed to this relatively simplistic sweet, and it remains in the upper echelon of favored flavors across a global spectrum. The cocoa tree is native to the Central American region, but can be found growing wild as far south as Colombia, and the history of the cocoa bean itself is heavily intertwined with that of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cocoa bean, translates to “food of the gods,” and the Aztecs and Mayans believed that the cocoa bean itself had been discovered by and was intended strictly for consumption by the gods themselves. In modern times, the “food of the gods” has taken root with the Dogfish Head Brewery in its Theobroma Ale, a celebration of both the flavor of chocolate and its proverbially mystical qualities from the folklore of bygone eras.

Since 1999, the Dogfish Head Brewery has intermittently released new additions to its “Ancient Ales” series, a collection of beers derived from olden brewing practices and ingredients. Over the years, Dogfish Head brewers have worked closely with molecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern, an expert on the history of ancient beverages, to ensure the artistry and legitimacy of their Ancient Ale brewing. The series includes such concoctions as Sah’Tea – an ale brewed with juniper and black chai tea that pays homage to ninth century Finnish beer – and Chateau Jiahu, based on a recipe exhumed from an ancient tomb in China and brewed with hawthorn fruit, sake rice and honey. Theobroma Ale is a key component of this series and has been brewed periodically since its first release in 2008.

According to the Dogfish Head website, the recipe for Theobroma was born from ancient pottery fragments discovered in Honduras. Chemical analysis of these pottery shards gave rise to the unearthing of the first chocolate-infused alcoholic beverage employed by ancient civilizations for celebratory and/or ritual purposes. Cocoa was a crucial element, culturally and historically, to both the ancient Aztec and Mayan empires. Mayan mythology describes how the “Plumed Serpent” god Kukulkan bestowed the gift of cocoa upon man after he was created from maize (corn), and it has been rumored throughout history that the Aztec ruler Montezuma drank copious amounts of liquid cocoa to fuel his libido and served an old world form of hot cocoa to his soldiers after battle. Both of these ancient cultures held the cocoa bean in highest esteem for its properties as both food and ritual element.

Chocolate-infused beer is by no means a new sensation. There are a plethora of chocolate-y dark beers currently available on the market, like the Imperial Choklat Stout from Southern Tier Brewing Co. or Rogue’s Double Chocolate Stout. A chocolate-laced ale, however, is a bit more unique because the flavor composition of the average ale, which tends to focus more on releasing the flavor of hops, is not always conducive to the addition of chocolate because of the potential clash on the palette. As per the label, Theobroma is brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs (bits of unrefined, raw chocolate) from Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Mo., as well as honey, annatto (spicy, aromatic tree seeds popular in Mexican cooking) and chile peppers. Cocoa is not the defining characteristic of Theobroma, though it is crucial to the beer’s uniqueness.

According to BeerAdvocate, Theobroma is billed as a “chile beer,” meaning it has been infused with hot chile peppers in the brewing process. This style is also not a new innovation, but it has been gaining a larger foothold of popularity in craft brew culture in recent years. Regular readers of this column may remember my review of Rogue’s Chipotle Ale from a few months back, and a few other popular pepper beers worthy of mention are the Punishment Ale from Stone Brewing Co. and Lips of Faith Cocoa Molé from New Belgium Brewing. Classic ale style lends itself well to the addition of smoke and heat from hot peppers, and the brewers at Dogfish Head have taken their legacy of “off-centered” beers to a new complexity by combining the spiciness of a chile beer with an infusion of cocoa powder. To say the least, Theobroma boasts a heavy-hitting combination of piquancy belied by the simplicity of its categorization as a mere ale.

Truth be told, I bought Theobroma several months ago while visiting my sister in New Hampshire and it sat unattended in my basement for a time before I finally had the good sense to break into it. While most folks might cringe with revulsion at the notion of drinking a beer that has been sitting in storage for a time, the truth of the matter is that many craft-brewed beers age in a manner somewhat similar to wine and can be opened and enjoyed long after their bottling date. In fact, there is a process known as “bottle conditioning” wherein the beer is bottled with live yeast that continues to ferment after the seal is made, leading to a richly flavorful beer once it is opened. While Theobroma is not a bottle-conditioned ale, letting it sit for a solid few months allowed the exotic flavors to further be steeped and led to a strikingly flavorful drinking experience as a consequence.

Popping the top off the 750mL champagne-style bottle, my senses were immediately flooded with the sweetness of cocoa layered over a strong alcoholic subtext somewhat reminiscent of cognac. Beneath the initial sweetness come aromas of smoky chile peppers and honey-like yeast, a robust wave of fundamentally different flavors. When poured into a pint glass the hazy dark golden hue of Theobroma gives way to a frothy off-white head, a surprisingly color presentation given the darker elements of its ingredients. The mild carbonation of the body continues to release the array of flavors comprising the nose of this beer. The first sip heralds a surprising sugary quality contradicted by the beer’s ingredients. I was fully expecting a thick, smoky flavor rounded out by the sweetness of cocoa and the heat of chile peppers, but the taste falls more along the lines of a forward honey-like sweetness mellowed out by the smoke of peppers with distinct hints of cocoa. The manner in which this beer is marketed suggests that chocolate is the main flavor component, but in truth the notes of cocoa are more of an added sensation rather than a star character. This is not to belittle the presence of the cocoa, for it is easily evident, but it is certainly not the foremost zest in the beer itself. For an ale, Theobroma has a hearty mouth feel not unlike some imperial ales and IPA’s and the sensation on the tongue is equal parts effervescent and robust. I can’t say in honesty that I wasn’t slightly disappointed at the relative lightness of Theobroma, but regardless of my expectations this is a distinctly unique beer in terms of flavor and presentation. While the finish is somewhat oily and leaves the stinging sensation of hot pepper juice on the tongue, Theobroma is overall an enjoyably mild beer that both conveys a reverence to ancient culture and the artistry of brewing exotic ales.

Dogfish Head has built its reputation on brewing strange and exotic beers, and Theobroma is no exception to this legacy. Its widespread presence in the craft beer realm has afforded it a kind of brewing celebrity that lends itself well to the ability to experiment with more oddball styles and recipes. The Ancient Ales series offers a taste of the old world of alcoholic beverages that has gone underground in the wake of more modern technology and the subsequent brewing practices it heralds. From a personal perspective, Dogfish Head is one of my favorite brewing companies and I say with confidence that very few, if any, of its beers are ever disappointing. Theobroma may not have been my favorite from Dogfish Head, but the boldness required to brew such a complexly flavorful ale is worthy of praise, so I tip my proverbial beer-drinking hat to the brewers there.

Selections from the Ancient Ales series are available at Liquors 44 and Spirit Haus in Amherst, but their obtainability is sporadic due to the intermittent brewing schedule of the series. If you’re lucky enough to snag a bottle of Theobroma, I highly recommend it as a means of indulging in the artful flavors of Dogfish Head’s brewing. This “food of the gods” beer lives up to its name with a 10 percent alcohol ratio, so just bear this in mind when the urge to consume becomes overwhelming. Here’s a well-deserved toast to the bold brewing antics of Dogfish Head; may your strange and exotic brews never be in short supply.

Emily A. Brightman can be reached at [email protected]