Like beer, coffee is a beverage that unites. Sigh at other red-eyed, early-morning travelers in line at airport security, state your need for caffeine, and they’ll commiserate. And like beer, it’s varied, with specialty roasters, cold brew techniques and even Keurigs encouraging Americans to think more about our coffee than ever before. So why should coffee beers be a roasty, stout-dominated monolith? Increasingly, they’re not.
To appreciate the new wave of coffee beers, one needn’t rattle off single-origin beans or even know whether they’re brewed, crushed or added to the beer whole. (That’s good news if you can’t tell Yirgacheffe from Siguatepeque and have never owned a Chemex.) Instead, enjoying the new guard requires a pivot toward thinking of coffee as a nuanced ingredient, one carefully chosen like a hop or a yeast strain. Brewers are thinking beyond coffee as merely roasted flavor and are instead using it as a tool to achieve dynamic flavors, aromas, even mouthfeel. Most visibly, brewers are expanding the styles that coffee can be a part of, introducing coffee to Brett-fermented beers, imperial IPAs and cream ales. They’re building entire recipes around expressive, bright coffees, and the results are far from one-dimensional. It’s not hyperbole; these new coffee beers fully intend to blow your mind.
The best coffee beers, the ones that surprise and beguile, begin before a single bean or grain even hits the brewing tanks. They’re born in the recipe-building stage, right at the drawing board.
“You can tweak your brewing process to amplify and complement this ingredient,” says Tyler Fitzpatrick, brewer at brand-new Lamplighter Brewing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who admits to a home coffee-making routine that’s “a little too serious.” “I want to take coffee from being an ingredient that’s just tossed in a finished beer to building a recipe around the coffee instead.”
Increasingly, brewers choose fruity and herbal coffees with some acidity, which perk up beers and add citrusy and floral aromas. Finding those coffees requires detective work and tasting; varied factors affect coffees’ perceived acidity, including microclimate, elevation, plant genetics and how the beans were harvested, stored and roasted. To generalize, when brewers are looking for complex acidity in coffee, they’re seeking light coffees grown at high elevations. (Want a crash course in what they’re seeking? Buy a bag of lightly roasted Kenyan beans.) Like hops in contemporary IPAs, coffee isn’t all about the bitterness in beers anymore; it can play an unexpected aromatic role before the drinker even takes a sip.
“A good brewer isn’t just going to use the most bitter hop and put it in a beer and hope it smells good, right?” says Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Columbus, Ohio, which has brewed a number of coffee beers using beans from local roaster One Line Coffee. Clear Sky Daybreak, a coffee vanilla cream ale, became a bottled flagship brew this spring. “Why wouldn’t you use a complementary coffee that highlights the beer aromatically and elevates it?”
Both Davison and Fitzpatrick are intrigued by blending multiple coffees for use in a beer, and there’s even potential to add different beans—one cold-brewed into a liquid, perhaps, and some in whole bean form—to the beer at separate points in the brewing process, like early and late hop additions.
“Single-hopping is a great way to learn about a specific hop, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how it’ll interact,” Davison says. “Beers with multiple hops are often more enjoyable than beers with single hops because they play off each other and add complexity, so I’m starting to try to treat my coffee beans like that.”
As brewers plumb the light, acidic and fruity depths of the coffee spectrum, their beers begin to taste less like, well, what we think of as coffee. At Libertine Brewing in San Luis Obispo, California, founder/president Tyler Clark sometimes tortures himself by reading reviews of Coffeetine, a sour, Brett-fermented golden ale he brews with rotating coffees. Most of the ratings are positive, but many begin with “This doesn’t look or taste like coffee.”
“But they are tasting coffee, it’s just not your average crappy pot from IHOP,” Clark says. “They say the beer tastes like apricots, and I say, ‘That is the coffee.’”
When he encounters these skeptics in his taproom, he points them across the street to airy, brick- and wood-dressed Scout Coffee Co., a sibling coffee shop to HoneyCo Coffee Roasters, which supplies the beans for Coffeetine. There, drinkers can sip the brewed coffee and draw the line from the beans’ fruity flavors to the final beer.
“People get stuck on coffee as just a bitter thing that you choke down on your way to work to wake you up,” Clark says. “But there are so many regions and variations and the process matters so much. For example, the Ethiopian Coffeetine we did six months ago had so much plum and berry in there that really came through in the beer. Every version of that beer is different.”
Bean choice aside, why add them to a funky, Brett-fermented beer? Brett and coffee can actually enhance each other’s flavors, especially fruit notes, says Lamplighter’s Fitzpatrick. He ferments about half of Lamplighter’s beers with Brett, and he has an aforementioned AeroPressing obsession, so the two spheres were destined to meet at some point. (Lamplighter also houses a coffee shop, Longfellows, in its taproom.)
“Under certain conditions, Brett has a tendency to create a lot of flavors that can go anywhere from mango and pineapple to strawberry-raspberry. So I really like the idea of using a specific strain of Brett that smells and tastes super fruity,” Fitzpatrick says. “I look at finding a coffee roast that exhibits that berrylike and slight chocolatey flavor, so I get a beer that has a layered, berry-chocolate thing going on.”
Libertine’s Clark sees coffee-spiked funky and sour beers as a chance to surprise people, and maybe to thumb his nose at the doubters.
“I think there are a lot of combinations that work that people don’t try because they think you can’t do that, like ‘You can’t put coffee in a sour golden ale,’” he says. “It’s like a challenge for us. What else can’t we do?”
If the combo of coffee and funk seems avantgarde, the intersection of coffee and hops may be an even further frontier.
Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, Illinois, brews a small-batch, draft-only series of coffee double IPAs with Intelligentsia Coffee that proves hops and beans needn’t clash.
“The flavors I’m always looking for in coffee closely track with the aromatic qualities of our favorite American and Southern Hemisphere hops: grapefruit, tangerine, lime, lemon, clementine,” says Solemn Oath production manager Paul Schneider. “The herbal qualities you can get from light-roast coffee are interesting too: jasmine, lavender, ginger. The coffees that tend only toward chocolate and roast—those don’t work for us.”
Beyond flavor and aromatics, Schneider’s explored how cold brew concentrate added to a beer changes its mouthfeel, adding roundedness that’s especially needed in thinner IPAs. He’s currently working with Intelligentsia to quantify how much body certain coffees could contribute to his beers.
“The ‘wow’ moment is when you taste the beer, and you get clarity around all the flavors,” he says. “The biggest payoff is that retronasal experience where the combination of all the aromas from the hops and coffee and, to a small extent, the yeast combine to create something different and worthwhile.”
If that seems to border on a near-obsession with coffee, perhaps it does. But the same level of attention to hops—standing in the fields of Yakima, rubbing and sniffing cones, measuring dissolved acids—is to be expected. Why not expect the same sophistication for coffee? After all, it’s responsible for helping us get out of bed in the morning to drink more beer.
Upper & Downers
Michael Kiser of brand strategy firm Good Beer Hunting and Stephen Morrissey (then of Intelligentsia coffee roasters, now senior creative advisor for the Specialty Coffee Association of America) combined their mutual loves of beer and coffee to found the Uppers & Downers festival in 2013. The festival and its satellite education events are a tipsy, buzzy melange of beanie-wearing beer and coffee aficionados, offering a peek at some of the most interesting and unusual coffee and beer experiments. Last year, the festival saw a handful of beers made with cascara (the dried skin of coffee plant berries), as well as an uptick in coffee saisons and farmhouse beers.
Why? The festival deliberately discourages breweries from creating another safe coffee stout or porter (“The best coffee stouts and porters kind of already exist,” Kiser puts it). This nudges brewers to take a leap, pair up with a roaster and think outside the stout box. Sometimes those leaps turn out to be smash hits: Off Color Brewing’s Hyper Predator, a coffee farmhouse ale, and Goose Island Brewing Co.’s Fulton St. Blend, a coffee blonde ale, both grew out of the festival and became packaged beers.