The Case for Coffee Beers

Once upon a time, coffee beers were a simple enough affair. But then again, so was coffee. For years, brewers “spiced” up their stouts by aging them on coffee beans or steeping them in coarse grounds using coffee that did little more than lend a generic coffee character to the beer. Roasty, chocolatey and coffee were about as specific as you could get when it came to identifying tasting notes and flavor characteristics. But as this little experiment attempts to illustrate, much like many others that have come before it, both craft beer and specialty coffee have evolved dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

Whereas craft breweries once did well enough to feature the commonly asked-for styles of the day (IPAs, ambers, browns, stouts, etc.) and specialty coffee was simply anything beyond Folgers or Maxwell House, today’s brewers and roasters alike are elevating their craft thanks to better technology, a more educated clientele, and an overall demand for both creativity and authenticity. For the brewer this means everything from bending and blending styles to experimenting with new ingredients to developing proprietary house yeast characteristics. For roasters it means coaxing nuance and subtlety out of lighter roasted coffees, establishing direct trade relationships with farmers, sourcing single-origin, microlot coffees that display unique terroir, and even experimenting with new processing and fermentation techniques (yes, coffee is the product of fermentation as well!).

So it should come as no surprise that the overlap of these two crafts – the coffee beer – has also evolved. Coffee is being used in myriad different ways to flavor and enhance craft beer. Instead of speaking in terms of the general coffee-ness that the ingredient adds to the beer, today’s coffee beers are spoken of in terms of the notes they contribute to the beverage. Oskar Blues Hotbox Coffee Porter uses a blend of Burundi and Ethiopian coffees that lend flavors of plum and blueberry. Recognizing the flavor potential of coffee beyond the roast, brewers are using coffee in styles they never would have before such as Allagash’s James Bean, a Belgian-style strong ale or Rogue’s Cold Brew IPA. Even beyond that, they are adding additional ingredients that compliment the marriage of coffee and beer, some breakfast-centric like Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout or the extra weird Dogfish Head Beer for Breakfast Stout which uses coffee, maple syrup, and scrapple?! Others use ingredients that complement the specific coffee notes like the tart cherries in Triple C’s Golden Girl.

It’s a truly exciting time for the coffee beer and last month’s Get Jacked collaboration between myself and Intuition Ale Works validated this notion for me. We went out on a limb to test this theory and the response was nothing short of amazing. Beer drinkers are opening their minds and their palates, seeking out new experiences and trusting beermakers to get creative with their recipes. Suffice it to say, I’m eagerly looking forward to what comes next.

Read more about the Hopped Up X BREW Five Points X Intuition Ale Works Get Jacked collaboration, here.

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