In Issue Two of Cacao Magazine, we invited David Nilsen to tell us more about the wonderful world of pairing beer and chocolate. David is a beer journalist and educator living near Dayton, Ohio. He’s a certified Cicerone who leads beer tastings & pairing events, and his beer writing appears in numerous food & beer publications. He’s a National Book Critics Circle & North American Guild of Beer Writers member, and his writing was recently awarded by the NAGBW.

In his article in Issue Two, David gave tips on how to run a tasting session and even revealed some great combinations to get you started on a pairing journey (buy the magazine here). Many of our readers were fascinated by this topic, so we thought we’d catch up with David and asked him a few questions which you can find below; enjoy!

Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a certified beer Cicerone, what’s your background and how did you end up in craft beer?

I became a full-time freelance writer and educator about three years ago. Before that, I worked in adult programming at a public library. I’ve been a writer since childhood and started drinking craft beer when I came of age in the early aughts. When it came time for me to leave my job, I decided to combine a few different areas of interest and start writing and speaking about beer for a living.

I became a Certified Cicerone a couple of weeks after I left my job. The Cicerone Certification Program is intended to be a direct beer equivalent to the Court of Master Sommeliers for wine. When I get into a new area of interest, I tackle it from an academic standpoint and want to learn everything I can about it. I had been doing that for a few years before I decided to carve out a living within the craft beer world, so getting certified was a natural step.

When did you first discover pairing beer and chocolate?

I got into bean-to-bar chocolate just a few years ago because of a shop owner here in Dayton, Ohio. London Coe runs Peace on Fifth, a chocolate and gift shop organized around the desire to end global slavery. She talks about chocolate in such a holistic, passionate way, and it’s contagious! I led my first chocolate and beer pairing a couple years back, and enjoyed how combining two things most people don’t think to put together forced them to pay more attention to each.

There’s something about chocolate that makes people contemplative. It’s inherently indulgent. People don’t always default to thinking about beer this way, even though it has centuries of tradition behind it. So putting them together not only draws a group of people who are willing to go deeper, but encourages people to slow down and really pay attention to their senses.

If you could only have one beer and chocolate combination for the rest of your life; what would it be?

Why would you do this to me, you monsters?

My first moment of chocolate and beer pairing revelation was a white chocolate bar spiced with cayenne pepper and orange peel with a Belgian witbier, and that remains one of my favourites. People think of “real” chocolate as dark and rich, so combining lighter, bright flavours like this are unexpected and opens eyes. It certainly opened mine.

If it has to be just one though, it would be for a beer that isn’t currently being produced, though I’m hopeful it will get another release. Ommegang Beekman 1802 Goat Milk Stout paired with Patric The Salty Cow is just…I can’t put it into words. Take that most comforting flannel shirt that you wait all year to wear on those perfect fall days, and then imagine a perfect s’more by a campfire, and the promise of a hayride later. Strip all the yee-haw out of that image, and add in a little hallelujah. It’s refined but rustic, flashy and funky in equal measure. Pure bliss. It’s why I included it in my story for Cacao issue 2.

What do you think the chocolate industry could learn from the craft beer industry?

I would mostly say to learn from something craft beer is struggling with right now. 

Don’t be afraid to be esoteric, emotional, weird, holistic, passionate, and ephemeral in the way you experience and describe chocolate. In fact, defend the right to do that. Set the rules. Enforce that chocolate doesn’t get taken over by too-cool-for-school dudebros who consider such things silly. 

Craft beer was mostly a boys club for a while, and while that’s thankfully starting to change, there are still too many manchildren who don’t want us making their beer fussy by talking about emotions and memories. There are a few of us fighting for the right to write and talk about beer in that way, but there are far too many who consider it childish. Chocolate is absolutely kicking craft beer’s butt when it comes to holistic description and freedom of experience.

Here’s the thing: Our senses are made of magic. They have the power to influence and evoke memory, emotion, imagination, creativity. They are gateways to other worlds. Chocolate knows that and for now, chocolate folks get to freely express within those spheres. Keep it that way. Don’t ever become self-conscious. Lead in this by example. 

For now, I feel like the beer world has far more to learn from chocolate folks.

As well as beer, are there any other food or drinks you like to pair with chocolate? 

Coffee is an obvious one, though I haven’t yet had the chance to attend a really well-done pairing for these. I might try to put one together myself sometime soon. To be honest? I mostly pair with beer for now, because I’m considering a larger project around this beautiful marriage. Stay tuned!

Do you have any advice for any chocolate lovers interested in learning more about craft beer?

In-person beer education is still a growing field, but beer scholarship has thrived for some time, so there are plenty of great books out there. Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer is a great general primer on beer styles and history that also gives fantastic sensory advice. 

While there is, of course, specialized knowledge of ingredients and processes within any food or drink field that will inform vocabulary, learning how to taste any one type of indulgence will give you most of what you need to taste another. If you’ve learned to really pay attention when tasting chocolate, you can apply those same things to beer. Open your mind, shed any cultural baggage you might have related to beer, and give it the same attention. You’ll be surprised by what you find. Just be sure to let me know about it when you do!