Beer Man

Liquid Chocolate Manufacturer Stumbles on Untapped Beer Market

Oskar Blues is one of several breweries using Cholaca.
Oskar Blues is one of several breweries using Cholaca. Oskar Blues
Boulder entrepreneur Ira Leibtag wasn’t that surprised last year when he started getting cold calls from breweries around the country asking for the liquefied chocolate he sells under the name Cholaca: After all, “chocolate is the most popular flavor in the world,” he says. But he was taken aback at how the companies had learned about it. “We are dealing with a culture and an environment made up of artists. This industry isn’t like other industries I have seen. It’s much more collaborative than competitive.”

In other words, brewers were talking with each other about Cholaca, recommending it and helping each other figure out how to use it in their beers. "A lot of these guys know each other...and they are always so excited to be able to hang out and talk to peers,” Leibtag adds.

Leading up to Saturday, National Chocolate Day, a number of Colorado breweries will tap sweet, dark beers made just for the occasion. But many more celebrate chocolate every day by regularly brewing and serving every manner of chocolate beer — among them Oskar Blues' Death by Coconut, Great Divide's Imperial Chocolate Yeti Stout, Copper Kettle's Mexican Chocolate Stout and Left Hand Brewing's Chocolate Porter.

Over the past eighteen months, hundreds of these breweries have started using Cholaca as a replacement for cacao nibs, chocolate bricks and cocoa powder because it dissolves completely in beer, can be easily cleaned up and can be measured more accurately and consistently than other forms of chocolate.

click to enlarge Ira Leibtag (right) talks about Choloca with brewers during the Great American Beer Festival. - CHOLACA
Ira Leibtag (right) talks about Choloca with brewers during the Great American Beer Festival.
Cholaca contains nothing but water, coconut sugar (although there is a version without the sugar) and cacao sourced from organic, sustainable farms in Peru and Ecuador. Created in 2012 and marketed as a nutrient-rich superfood or ingredient that can be used as “a natural stimulant and mood enhancer,” Cholaca has no preservatives, emulsifiers or additives — and Leibtag realized in 2016 that he’d also found a need in the brewing industry.

“We had developed and put this product out and were selling it to coffee shops and things like that. We also had a retail presence in places like Whole Foods and Natural Grocers,” he recalls. “But then we started getting phone calls from brewers who wanted to make chocolate beer. I hadn’t...even known that there was chocolate beer out here. But what we discovered is that Cholaca was a better mousetrap than the current tools they were using.”

One of the earliest adopters — as usual — was Longmont’s Oskar Blues. “I was in Lyons at the Barking Dog Cafe back in early fall or late summer 2015, grabbing a coffee before checking on some Lyons beers,” says Oskar Blues head brewer Tim Matthews. “While waiting for my coffee, I noticed a leaflet, or something, with Cholaca being advertised. Pourable cacao — very intriguing. That night I called up Cholaca and spoke to Ira and heard the story.”

click to enlarge Oskar Blues added the Cholaca logo to its can. - OSKAR BLUES
Oskar Blues added the Cholaca logo to its can.
Oskar Blues
The next day, Matthews went to a Natural Grocers, bought a few bottles and began comparing Choloca side by side with beer made with cocoa discs or cacao nibs. The brewery had been trying to figure out a way to expand production of Death by Coconut, but it was having trouble with the time, mess and consistency of other chocolate products in its enormous tanks in Longmont.

“Once we validated the flavor, we bought one hundred gallons of Cholaca in one-liter jugs and poured it in a big tank of Death by Coconut. It took our cellar manager about four hours,” he continues. “We actually liked the flavor better and were able to get the flavor in just one to two days rather than the week-plus average using the discs.”

The brewery has used Choloca in its seasonal Death by Coconut, which was released last week, for two years now, and even added the company’s logo to the can this time.

Jeremy Gobien of Denver’s Copper Kettle Brewing was also an early advocate of Cholaca. “It's easier to add to and clean out of the fermenter compared to using cacao nibs,” he says.

click to enlarge Copper Kettle's Mexican Chocolate Stout is made with Cholaca. - COPPER KETTLE BREWING
Copper Kettle's Mexican Chocolate Stout is made with Cholaca.
Copper Kettle Brewing
Together with Oskar Blues, Copper Kettle helped Cholaca “set the typical use range” for Cholaca “depending on intensity of flavor desired,” Gobien says. Other breweries now follow those guidelines — or they call up Matthews and Gobien to ask questions. Matthews says he’s taken more than twenty phone calls over the past year, maybe more.

In just eighteen months, Cholaca has gone from having just a handful of brewery customers to more than 300 — and it's heading toward 400 in the new year.

That’s a big win for Leibtag and, he says, for the rainforests where the cacao is grown. Since the pods are harvested on regenerative farms, they are continually regrown.

And Leibtag isn’t done. “We have plans for some new items that we are looking to put out...other flavorings that people have asked about. One of those is vanilla, which has faced a severe shortage in the past few months, causing breweries to raise prices on beers made with vanilla beans. But Leibtag says he may have an answer. Next year, he says, "is going to be a big year for us.”
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes