Crafting the perfect chocolate pairing is like setting up a good blind date; it’s important to know where each participant will complement and contrast the other. You can pair chocolate with cheese or coffee, and for those of us of-age, with wine, beer, and spirits. The art of pairing chocolate involves a matching of flavors and aromas, as well as temperatures, textures, and the taste of the crowd.
Cheese and chocolate are often boxed into savory and sweet, but there’s lots of flavor overlap therein; consider goat’s milk or mascarpone cheese truffles.
Harder cheeses (like an aged parmesan) are saltier and more savory, pairing well with dark chocolates.
Softer cheeses (like a fresh chevre) have a higher residual sugar content and pair well with creamier dark milk chocolates.
Pairing chocolate with cheese involves a little preparation, as tasters will need some plain bread and water to cleanse their palate, and cheese must be removed from the refrigerator about a half hour before a tasting. Be sure to try the cheese first and then the chocolate, as the chocolate will melt in your mouth much faster than the cheese.
Coffee and chocolate are often compared thanks to the overlap between their growing regions and the similarities in flavor notes. When planning a pairing, we can use this to our advantage, because the roasting process actually brings about comparable flavors in both foods, thanks to the Maillard reaction. For example, a chocolate made with dark-roasted cacao and a dark roast coffee often both have high chocolaty and slightly bitter flavors, complementing each other with a touch of sweetness from the chocolate. Lighter roasts tend to maintain more acidic and earthy notes, lending vibrancy to a pairing.
For beginner tasters, stick to dark chocolates while you’re figuring out your tastes. I wouldn’t recommend pairing chocolates and coffees based on origins. Not only do the two crops develop flavor differently, but countries can have many different terroirs, and cacao and coffee’s flavors change completely depending upon roast time and temperature. For a chocolate maker which lists their roast on their packaging, check out Fresco Chocolate.
Pairing chocolate with wine is a classic, and unlike coffee, wines should be paired with chocolates based on sweetness and body. Fuller-bodied red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, have less sugar and more tannins, pairing well with fruitier dark chocolates of high cacao percentage, around 75-100%.
For those with bittersweet taste, medium-bodied reds, like Grenache, pair well with sweeter dark chocolates, below 75%. Milk chocolate is the marriage of cream and cacao, and pairs well with Ruby Port, whose high alcohol and sugar percentage contrasts beautifully.
Pairing white chocolate is largely about the sugar level, and good matches include Moscato or Prosecco. Look out for harmonizing flavor notes, with fruity and chocolaty notes being most common.
The key to pairing beer and chocolate is matching intensity level and bitterness. Even the roastiest of white chocolates lacks bitterness, so beer pairs best with dark and milk chocolates.
While milk chocolates pair well with chocolaty beers, like stout, there are a number of flavors found in single origin chocolates which matched well with beer. Like goes with like, so if a chocolate has notes of vanilla, look for a barrel-aged beer, such as a porter. For dark chocolates, a fruity IPA contrasts well with an acidic or cocoa-heavy chocolate. But try not to go too dark, as the overall bitterness can overwhelm your palate.
Unlike beer and wine, pairing spirits and chocolate can be a tricky feat. Because they have such high alcohol levels, it’s important to purchase only high-quality spirits for your pairings.
Rum is distilled from sugar cane, and pairs nicely with dark milk chocolates, which are just sweet enough to complement the lingering sugars. Barrel-aged whiskeys usually have strong vanilla nuttiness, and pair best with dark or dark milk chocolates with similar flavors. Fruitier dark chocolates pair with fruitier spirits, such as mezcal or tequila, but don’t go too dark or the lack of sweetness could become unpleasant. Try pairing high percentage white chocolate with gin, to contrast the florality of the liquor and emphasize the cocoa flavor of the chocolate.
If you’re still not sure how to go about crafting chocolate pairings, look to the experts for inspiration. Professional chocolatiers and chocolate makers often post their bonbon and bar menu online, and some of the flavor combinations are very inventive. Some places to draw inspiration are: Zotter Chocolate, and Ritual Chocolate