By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s easy to tell when a novel flavor has arrived — you can spot it everywhere. For example, Sriracha, the tongue-tingling sauce with the distinct red rooster on the bottle, has exploded in popularity during the last few years and found its way into an interesting array of products — from Lay’s chips to popcorn, candy canes to lollipops, and even bitters and beer. When a flavor is all the rage, you can safely bet that Moonstruck’s master chocolatier was incorporating it into his confections years before it was cool. However, Julian Rose has discovered that one of the problems with being an innovator is that not everyone is ready to embrace a new taste.
“Historically, here at Moonstruck we’ve done stuff ahead of trends,” he explained. “I did a Sriracha truffle in 2008. Virtually nobody knew about Sriracha. I thought it was a great kind of cool flavor — a little bit spicy, tomato-y. So we did that and then we saw that we had to explain to people what Sriracha is.”
Let’s just say the truffle with the foreign name didn’t fly off store shelves. But Rose’s latest experiment has found the right audience at just the right time. The Moonstruck Oregon Craft Brewers Collection is selling well with both beer lovers and chocolate aficionados who wouldn’t normally lift a pint to their lips. While the bottle top-shaped treats made their debut last September, it’s hard to resist the splurge of chocolate during a month that’s practically defined by sweet offerings and significant others. And in a world of imperfect pairings, it’s worth highlighting the union of beer and chocolate this February, along with how they came to live happily ever after, together.
Ideas come to fruition at Moonstruck in a modestly sized room tucked away in the bottom floor of the chocolate maker’s Portland headquarters. Rose’s office — part kitchen, part lab — has a view of the factory on one side, where he can see a “prototype” launched on a larger scale. To the other side, a wall of windows reveals one of the best views in the city: the repeating Gothic arches of the St. Johns Bridge. That pistachio-tinted span often serves as inspiration for Rose when he develops new confections. He described how objects — both mundane and profound — can spark ideas.
“I leave my mind very open, so I can see a sculpture and it’s going to trigger something. I can see a little egg and it’s going to trigger something else,” he said while gesturing to some new Easter-themed candy under development.
The concept for the Craft Brewers Collection came in a similar fashion — one day he looked down at a dozen colorfully arranged brews.
“I had a party at home and, you know, I’ve opened a case of beer many times and when I opened — so now more than a year ago around Christmas — I opened the box, a seasonal box with four different beers,” Rose described. “And that’s what triggered, I’m like, that’s my hook. I need to make it look like a beer cap. And that was the beginning of about six months of work.”
Up until that moment, Rose had been kicking around ideas for a follow-up to his wildly successful Oregon Distillers Collection — the best-selling assortment that Moonstruck has ever done. He’d made a few beer truffles before, but the simple, brown squares were missing that “Wow!” factor.
“There was no — what we call in the business — no hook,” Rose said.
But he found his attention getter for the new collection the day he hosted that party. Rose then got to work on the sample — he used a tube-like mold that’s tapered on one end to mimic the shape of a bottleneck for the truffles, secured the tops with real bottle caps as placeholders for the chocolate versions he’d later create, and placed them in a box that opened with top flaps just like a case of beer. The master chocolatier with more than three decades of experience in the sweets industry then made some house calls. That’s right — Rose didn’t send some marketing rep or salesperson. He personally visited four different breweries — Deschutes, Full Sail, Rogue and Widmer — to pursue a partnership. It didn’t take much convincing. Everyone was on board. Rose had just one moderate obstacle once he got the unanimous “Yes.” He wasn’t sure he could produce the truffles.
“I sold the idea that I could make it without knowing if I could make it!” Rose laughed. “It was a great creative incentive to make it happen, because now I saw that people were excited with it.”
Rose ended up sending an actual bottle cap to a chocolate mold maker who was then able to manufacture sheets featuring rows and rows of crown-shaped depressions. Cap colors were carefully matched to what’s used by the breweries in order to silk screen images with cocoa butter on the flat surfaces. But a “stop-the-presses” moment occurred not once, but twice during the process. Widmer ended up changing its Hefeweizen cap from gold to black initially, and later Deschutes altered the shape of its logo from an oval to a circle while shifting colors as well. Fortunately, the requests came before anything was finalized. All of the tops so closely resemble those that seal the actual bottles, people aren’t sure you can actually eat them.
“And that’s the No. 1 question we have when people see it for the first time. They think it’s a real beer cap,” Rose said, emphasizing they are, indeed, edible. “You can pop the cap with your teeth and your dentist is not going to freak out.”
Consumers may also wonder whether Rose has recreated the flavor of the beers with other ingredients or if full kegs are part of the recipe. The answer will likely please beer geeks.
“So it’s got a very organic approach to it that it’s actually made with the given beer,” said Rose. “It’s not flavor-enhanced or any kind of masked. It’s the beer.”
Rose uses a beer reduction, boiling it down to eliminate the alcohol and carbonation, which raised some questions early on.
“And a couple of brewers were like, ‘Isn’t that, like, very bitter?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but the chocolate is sweet, so it all balances out.’”
Rose developed about three versions of the chocolates, taking them to the owners, brewers and marketing employees for taste tests. He explained that their descriptions and feedback were valuable and allowed him to return to his kitchen and create something that accurately represents the flavor profiles of the beer. For example, since Hefeweizen is often served with a slice of lemon, Widmer asked Rose to add a touch of citrus oil.
“So it’s not obvious,” Rose said, “but it’s there. And it reflects closely what your experience would be with a Hefe, with chocolate of course.”
If you could taste Oregon, the truffle collection would stand in as a pretty delicious summary. The featured ingredients, such as hazelnuts, hops, chocolate and craft beer, are also part of the state’s identity. One of Rose’s favorite aspects of this endeavor was creating something that represented the area.
“What I discovered with pairing up with these four companies is all of them and us [Moonstruck] were basically founded within a five-year span,” he shared. “So all of these breweries started in the late ‘80s and we started in the early ‘90s, so I realized these were the pioneers also. These were the people that fought for having more liberal laws and more distribution and more tasting rooms, so they’re kind of the fathers of craft brewing in Oregon. And they happen to be great people to work with, so it was a fun project overall and I think it’s very Oregon.”
Rose expressed some concern about beer drinkers questioning or perhaps even criticizing the collaboration with four of the state’s larger breweries instead of up-and-comers. In addition to serving as a nod to some of the industry’s groundbreakers, working with established businesses helped launch the project. Rose had several more breweries in mind if any of the participants had declined. He sounded enthusiastic about future editions of the collection with different beer makers and mentioned that a second round of truffles could possibly be developed next year.
Brewers often say their profession is a mix of art and science and Rose can draw parallels to that description of work. Consistency, of course, is key and part of the science in beer and chocolate. Creating the ganache for the truffle is all about precision, too. Unlike a restaurant chef, a pinch of this and a splash of that won’t lead to a good product “because percentage, proportion, and speed and temperature all play a little role in executing this little filling, over and over, well,” Rose explained. Additionally, he believes that both Moonstruck and brewers pride themselves on taking advantage of the best ingredients and, when possible, locally sourced ingredients.
Collaboration is nothing new in the world of craft beer, and Rose also adheres to the ethos that sharing and transparency only make you better.
“Well, No. 1 for me — there’s no real big secret. Years and years ago, I realized that everyone has access to the same ingredients,” Rose said of him and other chocolatiers. “They can buy the same, virtually the same, chocolate. They can buy the same cream. They can buy the same butter. And what makes my chocolate so good — well, it’s the workmanship. It’s the knowledge. It’s the good palate.”
He went on to say the same applies to brewers. Despite their ability to obtain similar adjuncts, the beers don’t turn out identical. Learning from others and watching innovation forces everyone to work a little harder — at least those who are truly passionate about their craft. Rose acknowledged that he could just rest on his laurels, but that would be pretty dull.
As Feb. 14 approaches, Rose’s workdays will get a little busier. It’s one of several times throughout the year where chocolate is in high demand. When Rose used to teach, he looked into the research behind the chocolate/romance link. He posited that women interact with and experience chocolate differently from men.
“And you can easily prove it. You can open a box … you offer it and a guy’s going to take all of it and put it in his mouth and go, ‘Ah, it’s great,’” Rose said. “You offer it to a woman, she’s going to bite a little piece and then roll the eyes [with pleasure] and it’s like passion. It’s sensual. It’s flavor. It evokes emotion more in women.”
So what will the man who makes so many Valentine’s Day gifts for others be doing on one of the most romantic evenings of the year?
“Probably not eating chocolate,” he laughed. “I shouldn’t say that, but probably not. I’m not sure. In our world, when it’s the actual holiday, that’s our downtime. So I’ll probably just not go to a restaurant, not go out. I’ll go out before Valentine’s or after — I’m not stuck on the date — and just kind of relax and have a beer or two and take it easy.”
Relaxing and having a beer or two — now that sounds like a date any craft lover can appreciate.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.