Eating the Woods, Part 4: Xocoveza

(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, Eating the Woods: Other Traditions of Spicing and Tannic Structure.  This post introduces the beer Xocoveza.) 

We come closest to the dead by experiencing their subjective experiences. For Patrick McGovern that has meant drinking their booze as accurately as he can. 

McGovern is the scientist and historian behind Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series and the author of fascinating books on various different ancient folk zymurgy practices. His analysis of jars and bowls from 1400 BCE at a site in Puerto Escondido revealed that at least that far back inhabitants of Central America were fermenting the pulp of the cacao and drinking the light and refreshing result. Probably, based on later accounts, they would have filled a canoe with the cacao pulp and let it spontaneously ferment. That must have been a very fragrant canoe to paddle afterward.

By the time the Spanish arrived, myriad spicing practices had been applied to this brew and other fermentable sugars had been added, most characteristically corn. The prevalence of peppers as a spicing agent, whether hot or mild, fresh or aged, has struck the European audience as the most distinctive element of this spicing tradition, probably because of its radical difference, to the extent that the word “mole”, which merely means “sauce” and can refer to many different sauces, has come to mean in modern American parlance a mixture of chili peppers and chocolate. The fermented cacao pulp with chili peppers and other spices would be drunk out of handsome clay vessels shaped like cacao fruit. 

The prevalence of the mole stout in American brewing of late probably dates back to the release of Mexican Cake by Westbrook, which set of a little vogue for the style. (Westbrook is also the reason you are drinking that gose.) However, Mexican Cake uses fresh habanero peppers and has notable capsaicin heat. The beer we are looking at today has essentially no heat to it at all. Xocoveza uses the pasilla pepper, which is the dried and aged version of the chilaca pepper. The pasilla has notable similarities to the ancho pepper, which is an aged and dried poblano. You can expect chocolate, tobacco, leather, and raisin notes with only the slightest peppery heat. This complements the flavors of a stout wonderfully as well as the coffee, cacao, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The tannic elements in the pasilla, the cacao, and the coffee balance what could very easily have syruped over into dessert or pastry stout territory. Xocoveza is beautifully balanced, incredibly complex, and digestible, to adopt a Belgian compliment. This is the only imperial stout we have in store which I think would work wonderfully as an accompaniment to a meal, and for that we can thank the pasilla and the beautiful tradition behind it.            

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