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The countdown is on for the return
of Chocolate Ale

Boulevard's Chocolate Ale comes back next month.

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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.)

As Pauwels and Elbow return to Tank No. 8 for a second pull of beer, a worker carries long-necked glass bottles to a conveyor belt, and a red forklift prepares to move shrink-wrapped pallets of cardboard boxes. The 750-ml bottles roll down the line in diagonal rows, six across. The thick brown bottles are imported from Germany. Traditionally used for champagne, they're able to withstand the higher pressure that accompanies the greater carbonation levels used to balance the higher alcohol content of the Smokestack Series, bottled exclusively at Boulevard's Roanoke plant.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store," Elbow says. "I could never get tired of this." This being December, he's also glad for a break from 15-hour days packing chocolate for the holiday season.

The bottles are first cleared of any air by the filler, which pressurizes them by creating a carbon-dioxide vacuum. Beer then fills the bottles. A second blast of carbon dioxide removes any air between the top of the bottle and the cork, inserted by two metal prongs that squeeze it like robot fingers. Air is blown across the top in an attempt to remove any residual beer, because the sugar in the liquid acts like glue and can make popping the cork difficult. (To further ease opening, Boulevard has switched to larger corks.)

"We are now known for those corks," Pauwels says.

"I like the wine ritual of opening corks. It says this is something special," Elbow adds.

A magnet grabs the cork cover, a thin metal cage, before the bottles proceed to the labeler, a machine purchased from Stone Hill Winery. The labels are rolled on with a sponge, and the finished bottles are hand-packed into cardboard boxes by the case. They roll off the line at a rate of 35 to 40 a minute. The beer is chilled and bottle-conditioned for a period of weeks, not far from a wall of Boulevard founder John McDonald's wine casks.

"In this city, there's a chance to work with a lot of people on great projects. It gets me through the day-to-day," Elbow says. "It's like cross-training."

He then tells Pauwels that he has held on to a bit of Chocolate Ale from last year, in his beer cellar, drinking it as recently as November.

"The chocolate subsides a bit. It was drinkable, but it wasn't what it was," Elbow says.

"This is not a beer to hold on to. It's meant to be drunk," Pauwels says.

Beer drinkers are already lining up to take the brewmaster's advice — and marking their calendars for 2013.


Tank(s) 8

The Boulevard Brewing Co.'s original cellar is getting a makeover, courtesy of eight new fermentation tanks that are being installed at the northwest corner of the plant. Kansas City's El Dorado architectural firm has designed the 35-foot-tall glass enclosure that will house the cellar expansion, extending from the original cellar walls. The tanks, each of which weighs 12,000 pounds, hovered above Southwest Boulevard last Thursday, manuevered into place by a 200-foot-tall crane.

In 2011, Boulevard made approximately 158,000 barrels of beer, now sold in 21 states. When the installation is complete, the brewery's fermentation capacity will increase to just over 200,000 barrels a year. The tanks, designed and built by the Paul Mueller Co. of Springfield, Missouri, are expected to be operational in April. Each tank holds the equivalent of 100,000 12-ounce beers.

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