On Saturday, March 3rd, Beer Sessions Radio™ and host Jimmy Carbone will be programming two seminars during NYC American Craft Beer Festival on to be held at the Lexington Armory (tickets available here). Jimmy Carbone and esteemed guests from the popular Heritage Radio Network beer show will lead select guests at the fest in two special seminars:
- A chocolate and beer pairing with Discover Chocolate author Clay Gordon with select brews available for tasting;
- Highlights from the NY International Beer Competition’s award winning beers, presented with Adam Levy, President of All Spirits Events.
We recently had the chance to chat with Clay Gordon, who was kind enough to put down the chocolate and pick up some hot sauce while judging the Hot Sauce For Ohio Farm Relief tasting. Here’s what Clay has to say about chocolate, beer pairings, and having the odd piranha for dinner.
While most people love to eat chocolate, you apparently love to live chocolate. In fact, your view of chocolate reaches far beyond the ordinary, with your philosophy sounding more like the introduction to a college class: “Chocolate is a lens through which I learn about geopolitics, history, agronomy, science, technology, cuisine, cultural anthropology, and much more.” How did you become so engrossed in the complexity (beyond taste alone) of chocolate?
I had the idea of becoming a professional chocolate critic back in 1994, well before chocolate was on anybody’s radar. I didn’t make the decisions because I loved chocolate, I made the decisions because I saw the business opportunity—there were no professional chocolate critics. (To this day, there are still only a very few; most are hobbyists.) As I started researching chocolate, I quickly realized that there was far more to it than just letting people know what it tasted like and what I thought of it. I wanted to learn why chocolate tasted the way it did. I found that in order to answer that question I needed to broaden my research—including traveling to countries where cacao grows—to get answers to those questions. I am a hands-on guy, and just reading someone else’s stories wasn’t enough. I needed to see and smell and taste in person and get to know the people and the cultures. It’s like a complicated, fascinating puzzle where fitting in new pieces makes the whole picture clearer.
Your website is an insider’s world to all things chocolate (from chocolate art to traveling to cacao plantations to finding the perfect tempering machine). You’ve managed to carve out a niche online for more than a decade. That’s very impressive. To what do you owe this continued success in the virtual world?
TheChocolateLife is an online community now counting over 5,500 members in more than 140 countries. Members include cacao growers, chocolate makers, confectioners, celebrity chefs, and chocolate lovers of all flavors. I think the success is attributable to the fact that I work hard to make TheChocolateLife an inclusive community. I’ve tried to ensure that there is very little spam and that everyone’s opinions and needs are respected. In other words, it really is a community, not a blog or forum.
It’s widely assumed that—when pairing—wine goes best with chocolate, but you claim that beer can be paired more effectively (you mention, for example, pairing milk chocolate with an English Pale Ale). When did you first discover that chocolate and beer went well together?
The conventional wisdom about wine and chocolate is like the advice about red wine and meat and white wine and chocolate. It’s okay as far as it goes, but it’s when you go against the crowd that truly stellar pairings can occur. Thus, I find it easier to find good pairings between white wines and dark chocolates and red wines and milk chocolates. My all-time favorite pairing wine is Prosecco, and one of the reasons is the soft bubble structure. I realized that beers often have that same texture and that the roasting flavors complemented the roasting flavors in chocolate. From there it was just a matter of blissful experimentation. Some beers are much more challenging to pair with, but that’s part of the fun.
You’ve traveled extensively. What’s the most unusual food/beer adventure you’ve had?
The most unusual food adventures have been in Bolivia drinking the local brews, mostly pilsners and lagers meant to be thirst quenchers drunk cold and fast; nothing really to be savored. I’ve had a lot of Huari. In the town of Caranavi we had agouti, a rainforest rodent, which was first roasted and then deep fried. First time I’d ever had rodent. A couple of days later in the town of Rurrenabaque, which is on the Beni River, I had piraña frita for lunch.
What can participants at the March 3 beer/chocolate pairing look forward to (i.e. can you give us a hint of what will be offered)?
For the NYC Craft Beer Festival I’ve selected five very different beer styles ranging from a witbier flavored with unusual spices to a dark brew aged in bourbon barrels. The chocolate selection is also unusual and includes a chocolate made in Mexico, one made right here in NYC, and a couple of selections from a highly respected international brand. I will also be pairing a milk chocolate and English Pale Ale. Rather than just presenting the matches, I will also be talking about why the pairings work (or don’t!) and how people can take this learning and apply it to every days situations—not just beer and chocolate pairing.
While most kids dream to grow up to be Willy Wonka (or at least Charlie Bucket), did you ever imagine as a child that you would grow up to be a chocophile? Had you planned to become a doctor or fireman instead?
I wanted to be a photographer since before I entered high school, and I went to art school (RISD) and came to NYC to become a photographer but then got involved in high tech. I found that there are a lot of similarities between my art education and my tech experience that I use in my chocolate work every day. And of course, I take pictures everywhere I go.
How did you meet Jimmy (everyone has a Jimmy anecdote!)?
I met Jimmy when I came to my first formal chocolate and beer pairing event hosted by Chris Cuzme and Mary Izett in the back room at Jimmy’s No. 43 at least three-four years ago. Since then, I’ve worked with them on several events at the restaurant as well as hosted a couple of my own chocolate events there. I’ve also learned a lot about beer and my beer horizons have definitely expanded, all because of Jimmy’s No. 43.
You recently served as a judge for our Hot Sauce for Ohio Farm Relief. How does hot sauce compare to chocolate?
You can’t compare hot sauce with chocolate with beer. They are their own worlds. The crossover is that they have ardent fans who love to taste and learn. What I find compelling is that all of these things make people happy and that the people who are really into it wear that passion on their sleeves and want to help others become just as passionate as they are. In the end, it’s about community. It’s getting together with friends and sharing and enjoying special experiences, learning and growing. It also helps keep things in perspective because, in the end, it’s just chocolate. Or hot sauce. Or beer. It’s okay to take them seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. That’s why we wanted to have fun with the categories for Hot Sauce for Ohio Farm Relief. It would have been easy to do “Hottest” or “Best” or really obvious categories. Instead, we (Regan Hofmann, Matt Levy, and I) decided to let the categories suggest themselves based on the selections we made. What better way to award a hot sauce made by a heavy metal musician than naming the category after heavy metal icons Iron Butterfly? Besides, we couldn’t resist the pun: Inna-Gadda-Da-Hotta.