Just over a year ago, we were excited to be hosting our first “Let’s Talk Chocolate” evening. It was an unforgettable evening of fun learning. Dominican Republic cacao farmer, Dr. Charles Kerchner, talked all about how cacao is grown on the Reserva Zorzal and Blue Bandana Chocolate Makers Eric Lampman and Nick Hadsel-Mares discussed how bean to bar chocolate is crafted using cacao from the Reserva Zorzal.
Today we revive our Let’s Talk Chocolate series with a look at some of the other amazing products that can be created from cacao nibs. (Just how is chocolate made from bean to bar? Cacao is a surprisingly versatile ingredient that can be used to create a wide variety of products, other than chocolate.) Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker, Nick Hadsel-Mares, recently had the opportunity to sit down with our friends at Zero Gravity Brewery, Paul Sayler and Destiny Saxon, to discuss how they utilize cacao at their craft brewery. Together, they have nearly 40 years of professional brewing experience.
Zero Gravity’s Destiny Saxon and Paul Sayler. Photo credit: Oliver Parini
Nick Hadsel-Mares : Can you give us a brief introduction to yourself and your company?
Paul Sayler: “I am the brewmaster and founder of Zero Gravity Brewing. I started brewing in Vermont around 1990, and brewed in state for about 6 years. Then, I worked in New York and Connecticut before returning to start our businesses with my partner, Rob Downey. My primary focus right now is to oversee, with Justin McCarthy, the packaging brewery at 716 Pine [in Burlington, VT] and to work with Destiny as she steers the ship up at our pub [American Flatbread Burlington Hearth].
Destiny Saxon: I’ve been working at the brewery at Flatbread for eight years and before that I was homebrewing. I ended up kind of making contact with Paul at Flatbread right around the time I took a job at Otter Creek Brewing. So, my very beginning of professional brewing was lab work at Otter Creek and helping Paul on the side. Eventually I worked my way through the cellar and up to the brewhouse at Otter Creek, and was there for about 4 years. Then I was with Paul as he was opening up the Farmhouse Tap and Grill, as well as other restaurants, and they needed another full-time brewer so I came on board. And I’ve been at Flatbread ever since! (laughs)
Nick: What was the inspiration for using cacao nibs in your beers?
Destiny: We’ve used nibs in a couple of beers. I think originally we used them in a milk stout. A milk stout has lactose sugar added to it, which doesn’t ferment with brewer’s yeast. The nibs added a residual body, not sweet, but more of a mouthfeel that turned it into a sort of chocolate milk stout. The one we did for our grand opening was a New World Vienna. We ended up really liking the Dominican Republic nibs with that and found that the flavors worked so well together it was almost hard to pick them apart. You couldn’t really tell where the malt finished and the nibs began.
Paul: You know with the stout, a lot of the dark malts in stouts are complimentary to chocolate flavors, so chances are that particular use of nibs is going to be enormously successful. Now in the case of the New World Vienna, that was a little more exploratory, because it is basically the Vienna larger style that Dos Equis and Negra Modelo are described by. Since it is a relatively dry lager with a lighter color from the specialty malt, the New World Vienna is going to show everything. It was fascinating to me to see how the flavors of the different cacao nibs would work with or maintain a dynamic distance from the beer. So, it was a conscious choice to go with the Dominican nib, because we found that all the other chocolates we tried with the beer were interesting, but the Dominican nibs allowed the chocolate and beer to function together as a [cohesive] final product. That was our goal, and always has been our goal, when we work with ingredients and other products and bring them together; that both products survive and maintain their integrity through the process.
Destiny: I think for a lot of people who are starting to experience all these new craft products, craft beer, artisanal baking, the food scene here, they kind of have to wake up to new flavors. Because, we’re used to, from the old days before this movement, some pretty dull flavors. When we were doing the pairing for this New World Vienna, Eric [Lampman] was saying we’re not looking for flavors like a Nestle [chocolate bar], rather you’re finding all these fruity, nutty flavors that people aren’t used to finding in chocolate.
Paul: I think the powerful thing about using an ingredient that’s not traditional to the brewing process is that we’re craftspeople that love the ingredients we use in our products. When we’re lucky enough to work with other craftsperson, like Blue Bandana, who have a set of flavors that are profound and deep and complex and aren’t necessarily accessible to the general public. This collaboration affords us (and more importantly the consumer) the opportunity to learn something about that other product that they might not have gotten otherwise. It opens the consumers’ minds to the idea that there’s more to chocolate than just what their own personal trajectory of tasting chocolate might be. In other words, that the essence of cacao has much more expression than some of the chocolates they may have tasted in their life. This kind of takes them outside their comfort zone and makes them reappraise what they are tasting. It’s one of the things that I love about American craft products — that they give people these stairs to understand the ingredients and from the final products in a way they’ve never had before.
Destiny: When we do chocolate and beer pairings at the Vermont Brewer’s Festival, we always discover new surprising combinations. Stout and porter seem like they’ll work and they usually do. But you get surprises like the Adelaide Pale worked really well with the Tanzania chocolate. That [combination] was actually my all-time favorite chocolate-beer pairing, so unexpected.
Nick: How exactly do you use cacao nib in the brewing process?
Destiny: We’ve tried to work with them on the cold side of brewing because we don’t want to drive off any delicate character by adding it to the boil. We get a much more fresh and vibrant character using nib at room temperature or colder.
Paul: There are so many different points at which we can add, but cold side generally means at the end of primary fermentation. Right when it’s starting to condition.
Nick: What’s on the horizon? Do you have plans to incorporate Blue Bandana Chocolates or Lake Champlain Chocolates in any future products?
Paul: We’re interested in a blonde beer that has coffee, cacao nibs, and vanilla in it. Using cacao shell is also an area we’d like to explore.
Destiny: Using nibs at multiple points like maybe during the brew day, the hot side, and then the cold side too to bring out full flavor.
Nick: Thanks so much for telling me about this collaboration between Zero Gravity and Blue Bandana. Any parting words you would like to share?
Paul: We’d love to keep working with Blue Bandana and hopefully in the coming months, now that we’re through the ringer of the first year, we’ll be able to work on something like the coffee and cacao nib beer we talked about.
Thank you to Paul Sayler and Destiny Saxon for taking the time to sit down and talk about the incredible things they are doing at Zero Gravity Brewery. We will be eagerly awaiting the release of the next Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker and Zero Gravity Brewery craft beer collaboration!