Those who took in the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest last weekend found many wonderful treats and inspired pairings. One of many pairings that stood out started with an Imperial Stout named Big Swede from the small Viking Brewing Company of Dallas, Wis.
Style: Viking's Hot Chocolate does not fit neatly within a specific style. The base recipe is that of a stout, which is stylistically an ale. However, Viking brewmaster and owner Randy Lee uses a lager yeast. Typically, the sweet stout is medium- to full-bodied, with a solid malty flavor and a lightly roasted aftertaste. It ranges from 4% to 6% ABV.
Background: The Viking brewery is owned and operated by the husband-and-wife brewing team of Randy and Ann Lee. Based in tiny Dallas, located to the west of Chetek in Barron County, their beers have been appearing in the Madison area for over 13 years. The Lees started the brewery in 1994 in a brick and stone building that was constructed in the early 1900s for a local Model-T dealership. Randy says that the building has no insulation, so in the winter it's too cold to brew ales, although if it stays barely above freezing, it's okay for cold-loving lagers. (The conditions, however, aren't so great for those who work in the brewery, he laughs.)
The inspiration for Hot Chocolate came one February when the Lees were hosting brewery tours on an exceptionally cold Saturday. Ann asked her husband, "Why can't you make something that would warm me up?" Randy took the request to heart and formulated a recipe that emerged from a big, bold sweet stout. This beer gets 10 pounds of Fair Trade organic cocoa from
The Verdict: Viking's Hot Chocolate offers a lot of warmth in a big, bold winter beer. This warmth comes from the heat of the cayenne, which makes it unique and a diversion from the big, in-your-face, high-alcohol beers often found this time of year. It is not a beer I would drink very often, and some beer aficionados don't give it very high marks, in part because it doesn't confirm to well-known styles. But I say try it, because it'll make you stop and think about the flavors that are deep in the glass, especially as the beer warms.
I even took Lee's advice and drank a glass with a little French vanilla ice cream. The ice cream really did accentuate the cocoa sweetness while at the same time contrasting with the cayenne, for more dry, bitter pepper flavor. Viking Hot Chocolate is a fun beer. While it's perhaps frivolous to some, I enjoyed the treat.