Cacao is sacred to many Mesoamerican cultures. For thousands of years, the Cacao fruit and the cacao beans played an important role in their societies, both as a drink with strong religious and royal ties, and as currency. Among the Aztecs, Montezuma II was said to have drunk 50 jars of cacao wine at a ceremonial feast, while at the same time this beverage played a key role in their sacrificial rites — sacrificial victims were given cacao drinks mixed with human blood in order to steel them for their ritual deaths, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “death by chocolate”.
The oldest known record of cacao dates back to 1400 BC, to pottery found in Honduras, and the history of cacao itself is intimately tied to fermentation and alcohol production. The actual process of separating the cacao beans from the rest of the fruit of the cacao pod involves cracking open the pod and allowing the fruit around the beans to ferment. The fruit ferments into a boozy drink about as strong as a beer (5% to 7% alcohol), while leaving behind those delicious cacao beans. Cacao, both fruit and beans, was highly prized – the beans especially. Gradually, the Mayans and the Aztecs turned to using just the beans for their cacao drinks. The beans were ground and mixed with water (or other additives like spices, chilies, and honey) to form a beverage, which was often fermented into a cacao wine, while the beans themselves were even used as currency.
Knowing the association that Cacao has with fermentation, this next brew is my attempt to recreate an Aztec cacao wine using native ingredients that would have been readily available. My base source of fermentable sugar for this cacao wine is going to be agave nectar, which was readily available through much of Central America. You can easily find Agave nectar in most health food or higher end grocery stores, usually in the same section you’d find honey. For flavoring, to go with the cacao, I’ll be utilizing Serrano chilies and mint. Annato will serve to round it all out at the end of fermentation to give it a nice blood color. I started this brew on Cinco de Mayo, which seemed perfectly appropriate for recreating a wine from Latin America’s past.
- 2 lbs Agave nectar
- 4 oz cacao nibs
- 1 serrano chile
- 1 oz Annato
FG: 1.004The brewing process for this Agave Cacao Wine is fairly straight forward. I heated about 12 cups of water up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. While the water was heating, I prepared my other ingredients.
The Serrano chili I stemmed, seeded, and chopped into several large pieces. I took 2 ounces of the cacao nibs and worked them over thoroughly with the pestle and mortar. The grind wasn’t perfectly fine, but there was quite a bit of powdered cacao and the larger nib pieces would still contribute quite a bit of flavor during primary fermentation.
Once the Serrano and the cacao was ready, I incorporated them into the water along with the agave nectar. I then held the mixture at 150 degrees for 15 minutes. This pasteurized the mix, and the heat will also served to extract flavor and aroma from the Serrano chili and the cacao. I found that the heat also helped release quite a bit of the flavors and aromas of the Agave nectar. Before heating, the agave tasted like an herbal cross between a mild honey and maple syrup. After heating, the agave took on an almost tequila-like smell that really complemented the chili and cacao aromas.
After pasteurizing, and then cooling, I removed the Serrano and transferred the liquid to a gallon carboy. Now it’s time to ferment the cacao wine. I pitched in some red star pasteur champagne yeast, as I wanted something with a mild flavor profile and a high alcohol tolerance. The yeast took off fast, and within a couple hours there was bubbling in the air lock and a small layer of krauesen. While everything seemed promising for a quick finish, and gravity would drop from 1.09 to 1.07 within the first two days, fermentation would continue for more than two weeks.
On the 19th, after two weeks of slow but active fermentation, I tore up and added 7 mint leaves. Gravity at this point was about 1.008, and the wine tasted of cacao, with a slight background of Serrano and the tequila-like agave. The aroma was a heady mix of tequila and chili. And, though the Serrano was present in both flavor and aroma, there was no noticeable heat.
After another day of fermenting, it was time to finish off the wine. I ground the annatto to a fine powder and added it to the cacao wine. At only an ounce, the impact to the color was minimal, and if I had more, I’d have added it. To get the blood red color of a sacrificial wine, you’d probably want between 2-3 ounces per gallon, if not more.
At this point, I strained the wine into a large pot in order to remove the mint leaves and the detritus from the original cacao infusion. I ground up an additional 2 ounces of the cacao nibs into a very fine powder using spice grinder and mixed it in to the wine. The wine I then poured into two 2L growlers and I then placed those growlers into a pot of water, which I gradually began to heat. This was the final pasteurization step to halt any additional fermentation, as well as to kill of any random bacteria that may have entered the wine. Keep the growlers partially-covered in the hot water until the internal temperature reaches 165 and then hold that temperature for 15 seconds. Cool the cacao wine, seal your growlers, and then place in the fridge.
After several days settling in the fridge, it was time to take out the wine and see how everything came together.
Flavor: There’s considerable warmth from the alcohol. Behind that is a slight bit of residual sweetness from the agave, which combined with the alcoholic warmth, gives a very tequila-like impression. Behind that, and the most lasting flavor overall, is the chocolate from the cacao nibs..
Aroma: Agave, cocoa, with slight hints of chili and mint. It smells like a boozy, mint, chili choloate bar.
Mouthfeel: Smooth, warming, and fairly substantial. There’s a considerable amount of ground cocoa suspended in the wine.