When does a collaboration beer between two brewing companies only include one brewery? When the partner brews coffee. More and more, coffee beers are brewed with help from a craft brewery’s local roaster who likely understands their individual needs and personalities, for the ultimate friends with beanies.
Though hops often do the heavy lifting for beer’s aroma and flavor, when coffee is added, it contributes quite the pick-me-up. So just as not all stouts are the same, coffee stouts allow for increased variation. Then again, why stop at stouts? They’re an obvious choice for coffee additions as stout is one of the few styles that calls for roasted barley. While malts and beans can be roasted similarly from light to dark, variables such as origin and acidity give coffee different nuances than barley.
With coffee as a natural complement to certain beers, surprisingly there were only a few drips into this style at first, due to unclear regulations. Lagunitas Brewing Company was an early adopter with their Cappuccino Stout that starred beans from nearby Hardcore Coffee in Petaluma, Calif. But shortly after premiering in 1994, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) forced them to stop making it because “coffee was not an approved beer additive,” said Lagunitas’s Ron Lindenbusch. Same story for New Glarus Brewing’s Coffee Stout, brewed with coffee sourced from Just Coffee Co-op in nearby Madison, Wis.
To percolate doesn’t just mean to brew coffee, it also means to grow and become spirited. Here’s a look from coast to coast at how the art and science of coffee beers continues to do just that.
When Elysian Brewing Company was asked to create the official beer for Seattle Beer Week, they came up with Split Shot Espresso Stout. “Beer and coffee are Seattle siblings, jealously dividing the day,” reads the label, though the two converge nicely in this quintessential breakfast beer. Dual 10-hectoliter tanks (over 500 gallons) were used to cold extract finely ground beans from local Lighthouse Roasting before being pumped into the brewery’s first milk stout. The result deftly mimics espresso con panna as opposed to a full-bore latte.
In San Diego, on the desert end of the state, Ballast Point Brewing Company’s Victory at Sea is a 10% ABV imperial porter spiked with Caffé Calabria coffee and vanilla beans, resulting in a beer as rich and viscous as French drinking chocolate. Brewmaster Colby Chandler solicited Calabria’s owner, Arne Holt, to create a blend exclusively for a winter seasonal he was conjuring up. Chandler initially developed a dark, yet hoppy beer and then chipped away at his creation’s bitterness and acrid notes, finally smoothing it out with coffee and vanilla. Holt’s mix of Colombian and Costa Rican beans undergo what is called a Full City Roast (quite dark and sweet). The blend is then coarsely ground and cold brewed to retain aromatics and keep it more stable (so the beer, too, can hold up to cellaring).
Portland, Ore., another bastion of coffee/beer love, recently celebrated Portland Beer Week, which included a beer and coffee brunch-seminar that featured six brewer/roaster collaborations, each with a different base beer style. From Laurelwood Public House & Brewery, came Cascara Obscura, a Belgian-style dubbel brewed with coffee fruit. Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos says his inspiration for the beer actually hit while working on an espresso stout. While at Portland Roasting for a cupping session—familiarizing himself with various beans and roasts—Gletsos said he “chatted about the different impressions you can get from coffee.” The discussion turned to the cherry-looking fruit of the coffee tree that typically houses two seeds. Once dried, these green “beans” head to roasters. But the fruit isn’t dissimilar from the cherries they resemble. Gletsos made a tea from the fruit and says, “It reminded me of some of the dark cherry notes I get from a baltic porter or Belgian dubbel.”
Other great examples along the Pacific:
- Hopworks Urban Brewery | Portland, OR | Survival Stout: Seven grains are used for this beer that is finished with Stumptown Coffee’s Holler Mountain blend.
- Midnight Sun Brewing Company | Anchorage, AK | Arctic Rhino Coffee Porter: This award-winning porter is named after the original coffee blend by local artist and roaster Michael Allen.
- AleSmith Brewing Company | San Diego, CA | Speedway Stout: Ryan Bros. Coffee is used in this 12% ABV imperial stout.
At the 2011 Great American Beer Festival® (GABF), judges awarded Sun King Brewing Co.’s Java Mac, a BJava coffe-infused iteration of their Wee Mac Scottish Ale, the gold medal in the decade-old coffee beer category. This medium-bodied ale contains no roasted malts and tastes more like a cup of nutty coffee than a blended mocha. Fortuitously for this Indianapolis brewery, BJava’s roaster is Sandy Cockerham: homebrewer and national BJCP judge. Co-owner/brewer Clay Robinson says that because of her brewing background, Cockerham was easy to work with and he fully trusted her recommendations. After experimenting with a few dark ales, they decided “it would be fun to add coffee to something that people wouldn’t normally expect,” like Wee Mac. She suggested going with a Sweet Blue—a Brazilian coffee from Daterra Farms—which was coarsely crushed and then infused in secondary fermentation.
“I believe lighter coffee beers should be made and consumed at the peak of freshness so that beer geeks get all the wonderful notes that coffee has to offer,” says Cockerham. Incidentally, when she pitched infusing “a fruity, lightly roasted Ethiopian coffee into Sunlight Cream Ale, Sun King introduced “Coffee and Cream,” possibly the lightest commercial coffee beer out there.
Just as Java Mac comes in a pint-sized can, so does another Midwestern offering, which also took home GABF gold. Minneapolis’s Surly Brewing Co. makes Coffee Bender, the coffeed version of their Bender Brown Ale. Head brewer Todd Haug says they went with Bender—a silkier version of a brown ale enriched with oatmeal—as the base because founder Omar Ansari wanted to roll out with two brands (the other being Furious). Haug knew a brown ale allowed for versatility and this coffee beer became one of the earliest variations. “I wanted to have intense coffee aroma but not bitterness,” says Haug. He didn’t design the beer to taste like drinking a brewed pot o’ joe, but instead like sticking your nose in a bin full of beans. Those beans come from Finca Vista Hermosa in Guatemala, which are given the Full City Roast by Jim Cone at nearby Coffee and Tea Ltd. Cone roasts on a Monday, grinds on Tuesday, and Haug begins steeping on Wednesday.
Other great examples from the heartlands:
- Bell’s Brewery Inc. | Kalamazoo, MI | Java Stout: John Mallett uses pounds of Sumatran and Italian coffee freshly roasted directly across the street from Bell’s Eccentric Café at Water Street Coffee Joint.
- Real Ale Brewing | Blanco, TX | Shade-grown Coffee Porter: The dark roasted Mexican, organic, Fair Trade coffee used in this robust porter comes from Katz Coffee Roasters some 200 miles away in Houston, but in Texas, that’s virtually your neighbor. Fans can buy the exact Coffee Porter roast at Katz.
- Great Divide Brewing Company | Denver, CO | Espresso Oaked Yeti: Brewery operations manager Ryan Fox previously worked at Pablo’s Coffee, whose signature espresso blend is added to the Great Divide brite tanks luxuriating with Yeti Imperial Stout.
- Upstream Brewing Company | Omaha, NE | Iowa Coffee: This “Imperial Rye Milk Stout” garners its name from a local cocktail. It’s made with malted rye, locally roasted Sumatran coffee, and milk sugar. The beer is then aged in Templeton Rye barrels, a distillery just over the Iowa/Nebraska state line.
Florida’s large Cuban influence has popularized café Cubano—an espresso shot which is sweetened with sugar as it’s brewed. Fittingly, Cuban-inspired Cigar City Brewing in Tampa brews just that with their popular Cubano-style Espresso—loaded with hints of espresso, chocolate and caramel.
Cigar City felt it important to partner with, and support a local business, and Mazzaro’s Italian Market owner Kurt Cuccaro was only too happy to invite the brewers in for a cupping session to create the perfect blend for this beer. Cuccaro notes that it took about 10 different attempts to formulate the right blend that features four different beans including Brazilian and Colombian.
Cubano-style Espresso is made in small batches of only 15 barrels at a time, with the espresso beans, nibs, and Madagascar vanilla beans cold-extracted concurrently by Brewmaster Wayne Wambles to smooth out the bitterness. Just don’t look for any lactose in this beer. They save that for their even rarer Café con Leche. Harder to find still is Zhukov’s Final Push, an imperial stout augmented with Kopi Luwak coffee, made from the infamous beans that have passed through a civet’s digestive system.
Up the coast in Portland, Maine, the organic brewers at Peak Organic Brewing take a decidedly more delicate approach. Their Espresso Amber allows for a bitter java bite up front that segues into a sweet, caramel finish over any expected roasted malts. Because the organic espresso is roasted down the block from the brewery at Coffee By Design, who work with only Fair Trade coffee, this beer is the first in the country to be designated Fair Trade Certified.
Other examples from the Atlantic:
- Tröegs Brewing Company | Hershey, PA | Java Head Stout: This oatmeal stout packs a whopping 60 IBUs resulting from running it through a hop-back embedded with espresso and Kenyan coffee roasted by St. Thomas Roasters. The addition of Cluster, Chinook, and Cascade hops makes this one of the most unique stouts, coffee or otherwise.
- Highland Brewing Company | Asheville, NC | Thunderstruck Coffee Porter: This robust porter goes the extra distance with four grains including Midnight Wheat and a pound and a half of coffee per barrel from Dynamite Roasting Co.
- Southern Tier Brewing Company | Lakewood, NY | Jahva: The beans for this sweet and rich imperial coffee stout come from Blue Mountain Coffee in Jamaica.
Red, White, and Brew by Brian Yaeger, pursues the roots of brewers who brought their craft with them from their homeland and investigates how the tradition is faring today and where it may head in the future. Covering everything from fifth-generation family-run brewing companies to first-wave microbreweries, this book is a travelogue, guide, and genealogical study of beer families and homebrewers from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. It is filled with eclectic characters and shrewd businesspeople who populate an industry as old as the New World, and who produce liquid philanthropy, one keg at a time…
Last Updated: June 4, 2012