The two men don't toast. Absorbed in their work, they bring the matching snifters up to their noses, letting the aroma of the room-temperature, slightly flat beer stand in for conversation. This is the smell of collaboration.
"I smell the nibs, but it's the cacao instead of the cocoa smell. I also get malt," says chocolatier Christopher Elbow as he lowers his glass. On this chilly Wednesday morning in December, he's wearing a thin black jacket over his usual black T-shirt.
"There's rye and malt — those give it that little bit of spiciness," replies Steven Pauwels, the brewmaster at Boulevard Brewing Co. They're in Boulevard's production plant at 3030 Roanoke Road, about a mile from the brewery's main facility on Southwest Boulevard. "I didn't want to overshadow the chocolate," he says. "It's all about layers of flavor."
It's then that they both sip, taking a silent moment to take in the Chocolate Ale. The only sound is the hiss of the nearby assembly line and the clanking of its bottles.
Pauwels and Elbow stood in this spot a year ago, contemplating the first batch of their Valentine's Day gift to the city. Their idea for a chocolate brew was a lark, as much a result of mutual respect as a creative exercise. That first run of Chocolate Ale followed the principles of the Smokestack Series — small-batch, unique brews that Boulevard debuted in 2007 — rather than rehashing the familiar pairing of chocolate and stout.
But bottles at local liquor stores sold out in less than 48 hours, and tales arose of desperate customers tracking beer distributors' delivery trucks and turning to profiteers on Craigslist and eBay. The search for the limited-release beer captivated Kansas City for two weeks last February, and the memory lingered through 2011.
"We knew it wasn't for everyone, but I guess we were wrong," Pauwels says. "You don't always have to drink wine."
"It became somewhat of a game," Elbow adds. "If you got some, you won."
The game is afoot again — Chocolate Ale returns in February. So 11 days before Christmas, 10 men work on this slightly humid production floor as Boulevard prepares for the second coming of a product that has taken on mythic proportions. This time, the bottling run is up from 1,600 cases (12 bottles to a case) to 4,500.
That's not the only lesson that the Kansas City brewery learned last year. Pauwels recalls the hassle of trying to extract loose cocoa nibs from the beer tank, a problem for which his staff found an unexpected solution this year.
"We asked an employee to go to the store to buy extra-large pantyhose," Pauwels says. "He said he would never do that again."
The recipe for Chocolate Ale remains the same, a carefully concocted base beer that uses those nibs (from the Dominican Republic) and vanilla along with rye and malt. The 2010 edition was thought to be a bit sweeter on tap and drier in bottles, so Pauwels has taken pains this time to lessen the differential between the keg and bottled versions. (The variance was the result of the bottled beer being bottle-conditioned, with yeast muting flavors over a period of several weeks.)