SWEET BABY JESUS, it's Holy Thursday!
The end of Lent is upon us, and so is your 40-day fast of beer, chocolate and/or peanut butter. What better way to celebrate your penance than with, yup, a chocolate-and-peanut-butter beer?
I'm talking about one of the hottest brands on shelves right now: Sweet Baby Jesus from Baltimore's DuClaw Brewing.
Store owners can barely keep sixpacks in stock, and the unusual brew has suddenly and surprisingly become 18-year-old DuClaw's top-selling brand.
That's partly because of its creamy, full-bodied flavor. The dark porter tastes unmistakably like a pint full of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
But the brand also owes some of its explosive popularity to its unconventional name.
"It definitely grabs people's attention," said DuClaw's owner and founder, Dave Benfield. "So many people are anxious, they want to know how to get a hold of Sweet Baby Jesus."
Indeed, until five years ago, almost all of DuClaw's beer was sold in its own restaurants in the Baltimore suburbs. Largely propelled by Sweet Baby Jesus, the company now distributes throughout Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, with plans to expand even farther.
The beer got its start in a 2011 homebrew contest, with a recipe submitted by a pair of amateurs. DuClaw brewer Jim Wagner adapted the recipe and brewed a batch that sold out in a month - with $15,000 in sales donated to a local charity.
Brewing a peanut-butter-and-chocolate beer is no easy trick. For one thing, chocolate and peanut butter contain oil, which confounds both fermentation and carbonation.
"After about two or three weeks, a beer made with peanut butter can just break apart and go to hell," Benfield said.
The larger challenge, though, is creating a chocolate- and peanut-flavored beer that tastes like beer.
"You want a bold flavor but something with balance, something that's drinkable," Benfield said. "With Sweet Baby Jesus, we wanted something that wouldn't wear you down after half of a glass - to get that flavor that won't kill you at the end."
Benfield acknowledged that the brewery uses various dark-roasted malts to mimic the flavor and character of chocolate. However, the secret behind the peanut-butter flavor will remain just that.
"To crack that code and get that to happen was a little bit of a breakthrough for us," Benfield said. "So you won't mind if I don't share that."
Clearly, DuClaw isn't the only brewery that's learned to brew with peanuts. Locally, Iron Hill and Evil Genius have created rich, delicious chocolate-and-peanut-butter porters in recent months.
DuClaw's brand name, well, that was just pure inspiration. The brewery had been close to registering the porter as "Bad Samaritan," but neither Benfield nor Wagner felt it fit the beer.
According to Benfield, the striking name came about from the mild epithet Wagner uttered after he savored a full taste.
Yes, the name is edgy. But Sweet Baby Jesus is hardly the first brand with a religious reference on its label. Great Lakes Holy Moses, Epic Big Bad Baptist, He'brew Messiah, Avery Karma - not to mention a chorus of patron saints (e.g. Pauli, Peter, Bernardus and Ides) - come to mind.
Not surprisingly, though, about three or four times a week DuClaw hears from people complaining about sacrilege.
For example, after spotting a stack of sixpacks at her local grocery store, blogger Mary Hasson, who describes herself as a Catholic conservative, observed:
"Slapping 'Sweet Baby Jesus' on a bottle of beer profanes his sacred name. Downing a 'cold one' that bears the name of Jesus, and then tossing it in the trash . . . alongside half-eaten chicken wings, soggy paper towels and the dregs of last night's party communicates a profound disrespect for the reality of the person whose name it bears."
Benfield said the name has no religious connotation, and he's cautious to underscore it's "just an exclamation."
There are no portraits or caricatures of the savior on the label, just the phrase punctuated by an exclamation mark. Last year, he said, the brewery asked a retailer to dismantle a display that featured a candy chocolate Jesus figurine atop a stack of cases.
A chocolate-filled son of God? The Easter Bunny does not approve.
"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.