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Coffee beer 2.0: Brewers get serious about sourcing, treatment of beans

Why phrases like 'direct trade' and 'cold brew' are creeping from coffeeshop to brewhouse.
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Craft breweries have churned out coffee beers, especially stouts, for decades. They marry dark malts’ inherent roastiness with coffee roast and bitterness and voila, right? No longer. As coffee geeks have known for a while (thank you, third-wave roasters), coffee beans are no monolith. Depending on where and how in the world they’re grown, they produce an entire wheel of flavors, acidity and depth.

As with hops, there’s no one-size-fits-all bean for brewing; each region and variety produces its own characteristics that may be desirable in an imperial stout but less desirable in a coffee cream ale. And it’s not just where the beans come from or how they’re roasted—the method by which a brewer brews, steeps or infuses a beer with beans changes its ultimate flavor profile. As a recent spat of brewer/roaster collaborations illuminates, carefully sourced and selected beans are the next frontier.

“A lot of people who were coffee geeks a few years ago are now beer geeks, and vice versa,” says Paul Schneider, brewer at Naperville, Illinois’ Solemn Oath Brewery, one of the featured breweries at Feb. 20’s Uppers & Downers coffee beer festival in Chicago. “The interest and level of sophistication of people drinking these beers have increased. Brewers and roasters are definitely raising the bar and experimenting in ways that make the product better. People were making coffee porters and stouts in ’90s brewpubs but there was no source of the coffee or any process or anything; you just wanted that generic, roasty flavor. Now I think there’s more consideration of acid, floral and fruit tones.”

For Solemn Oath, that means a deep dive into tasting and treatment of beans from Intelligentsia Coffee. Intelligentsia’s direct-trade ethos isn’t just a feel-good point for the brewery; Schneider says it makes the final beer better: “Since their buyers are down in these countries every year, they’re traveling and meeting farmers and getting to know which farms are the best. Being able to select specific lots [of coffee] is important. Also, a lot of their relationship with farmers involves working with them to understand how to implement quality control and helping them understand the importance of investing in parts of the process that are critical for good coffee.”

Solemn Oath plans to brew eight beers for Uppers & Downers, which required extensive tasting sessions that were less common for brewers years ago. Schneider was searching for coffees that would complement beers from an imperial IPA to a Belgian dubbel to a milk stout.

“I’m interested in acid, tropical fruit, kiwi, ginger, citrus, even floral notes if you can find it. Jay [Cunningham, of Intelligentsia] selected five or six coffees based on the profiles of the beer I told him we’d bring. We sit down with each beer and treat it with coffee and it’s a matrix of five or six beers against five or six coffees, so that’s around 30 blends,” Schneider says. Then he decided how best to treat the coffee for use in brewing; Solemn Oath generally adds cold-brew concentrate to its beers, though sometimes they quickly chill pour-over coffee and add that to a beer post-fermentation. Other breweries sometime steep whole or ground beans in beer, but that can have its own effects on beans’ flavor.

“Alcohol is a solvent, so you might pull some things out that you wouldn’t in water, and you wouldn’t be diluting the beer the same way. It would change everything, honestly,” Schneider says.

Epic Brewing head cellarman Ryan Buxton examines beans at Salt Lake City's Blue Copper Coffee Roasters; photo courtesy of Matthew Allred.

Epic Brewing head cellarman Ryan Buxton examines beans at Salt Lake City’s Blue Copper Coffee Roasters; photo courtesy of Matthew Allred.

The post-fermentation steeping method works for Salt Lake City’s Epic Brewing, which recently collaborated with 10 coffee roasters from across the country to brew 10 versions of its Son of a Baptist imperial stout. Each variation will be released into the roaster’s home market this spring.

“Something we celebrate with this beer is that we can do such an array of beans from regions and roasters,” says Epic’s head cellarman Ryan Buxton. “It’ like creating a SMASH [single malt, single hop] beer where you have kind of a base recipe, but the hop that you’re selecting is the star of the show.”

Collaborating roasters include Rowster Coffee out of Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cultivar from Dallas; and Seattle’s Conduit Coffee, among others. Buxton refers to the final flavors as “extremely nuanced,” adding that working with each specific roasters’ beans required some adaptation on his part.

“An interesting thing that we’ve been learning through this process is that you can’t add the same amount of whatever coffee to the beer. A fruity Ethiopian coffee that’s lighter roasted, I’m going to have to add more coffee per barrel to get it to shine through, as opposed to a really dark roasted Brazilian,” he says.

For now, Son of a Baptist will be a springtime, draft-only release, though Epic hopes to release 12-ounce cans of it (coffee beans TBD) late in the year.

Another new coffee beer debut came in January from Kansas City, Missouri’s Boulevard; Early Riser is a coffee porter brewed with Colombian Cauca Cajibio Estate roasted by Maps Coffee Roaster in Lenexa, Kansas.  The process began with cuppings (what the coffee world calls its tasting sessions) that led Boulevard brewers to create a porter recipe that would highlight the Colombian beans’ chocolate, toffee, honey, and golden raisin flavors.

“For this beer, we wanted a ton of coffee flavor along with aroma so we went with something darker and more prominent and put the usage rate up there versus [coffee beers] we’ve done before,” says Boulevard brewer Dustin Jamison. 

Ultimately, 2,400 total pounds of the coffee steeped in batches of chilled, post-primary fermentation porter for 48 hours, imparting aromatics and flavor but not absorbing much of the beans’ acidity.

Does all of this sound a bit lofty? It is. But as craft beer drinkers have learned how Simcoe hops impart wildly different flavors than Nelson Sauvin hops, so too will the beanheads among us learn to prefer, say, an Ethiopian coffee stout over a Colombian coffee IPA. The vast majority of drinkers, though, may just feel a bit buzzy either way.

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