If you've read the E2 node on real ale you may recall that one of the strongest ales sold in the UK is Old Tom, a very dark winter beer packing a terrific punch at 8.5% ABV - so much so apparently that it is only sold in 330 ml bottles instead of the usual 500 ml (a pint being 568 ml). Although I have never bought it in a pub, in one of our stops during A Decade of Decadence: Britnoder Memorial Pub Crawl I found a beer of similar strength, and was informed by the bartender that it was so strong one could only be served it in half-pints*. Therefore, my excitement upon discovering a bottle of what purported to be a "chocolate" variant "Chocolate Tom" in Morrisons the other day, quite out of season, was followed closely by a certain disappointment that it was only a comparatively mild 6% ABV. However, I was still reasonably tempted to try it, and purchased a bottle.
Now "chocolate beer", for those who've not had the pleasure, is for the most part almost, but not quite, entirely unlike chocolate. It's perhaps a bit darker, perhaps a bit sweeter, perhaps a bit richer in flavour, but nothing that would make you think "chocolate" if no one told you, especially as plenty of beers not specifically marketed as "chocolate" have certain subtle chocolatey overtones anyway. In all my experience of drinking beer, I've never come across a "chocolate" beer that reminded me of real chocolate more than, say, coffee ice cream reminds one of a double espresso.
Chocolate Tom tastes astonishingly like someone melted a galaxy bar into a bottle of nice dark beer. While it isn't sweet, it is CHOCOLATEY. As you bring the glass to your face, the scent puts one in mind of nothing so much as a melted Easter egg, and there is a strange moment of disconnect as the first bitterness of the beer hits your tongue - this gives way to an even more bizarre sensation of resolution, as the chocolately flavor hits and reconciles with the chocolatey aroma. Even more strangely, it continues to taste like chocolate all the way through the process of swilling it around and swallowing - even the aftertaste is similar to chocolate's! All in all, it is a not entirely unpleasant experience (chocolate being what we call in the tasting business "nice") but it's distinctly... odd? confusing? puzzling? Neither I nor CheshireMog, who also tasted it, could quite find the right word, but those are the candidates.
The blurb on the back of the bottle describes it as follows:
Old Tom with Chocolate is a sensuously rich, warming combination of Robinson's award winning Old Tom Ale and the finest cocoa. It is a superior, full-bodied strong ale, filled with the flavor of ripe malt and velvety smooth chocolate teased together with an inspired touch of Madagascan Bourbon vanilla. Old Tom is recognised as one of the most famous strong ales brewed in England and the addition of this original recipe developed by Robinsons with the renowned chocolatier, Simon Dunn, makes for a deliciously indulgent winter treat.
So, what's the verdict? Is it an enjoyable 330 ml (because yes, even this "lite" beer at 6 percent still only comes in the tiny bottles)? I'm actually not sure. My feeling is that while it certainly delivers on the promise of being chocolately, insufficient effort was expended on integrating the flavor with the rest of the beer - it is disturbingly similar to simply eating a chocolate bar with your beer. Personally, I felt a niggling desire afterward to wash it down with a more traditional beer to take the taste away, so that's not exactly a good sign - however the end of the bottle was more agreeable than the beginning, suggesting it might be an acquired taste. If I see it again, I'll probably buy another bottle. Perhaps it has a future in tempting chocolate-mad, beer-shy sweethearts over to the dark side?
*naturally I promptly ordered two half pints and an empty pint glass. My dad tells me of a similar story where he tried to order "beans on toast" in an American restaurant and was informed that while beans and toast were both individually available, "beans on toast" was off-menu. He claims he managed to transfer the beans to the toast before the waitress had even let go of the plate.