Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.
–The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1674
OK, that quote was just too hilarious not to share. I love coffee, and I don’t know what those women were drinking but it sounds horrifying, and nothing like coffee at all.
The coffee that I know has myriad descriptors that go far beyond simple dark, medium, or light roast monikers. Today’s market of artisanal-everything has afforded the modern consumer coffee choices as complex and varied from one roast to another as one might find in the craft beer aisle.
Take a deep breath now, like you’re Donny Osmond and company, about to sing Joseph’s Coat from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dream Coat:
Coffee and beer are
Nutty and sweet and chocolatey and acrid
And citrusy and lemony and fruity and floral
And smoky and cocoa-y and complex and dry
And bright and smooth and acidic and bitter
And rich and buttery and syrupy and full
And clean and spicy and cinnamon-y and fine
And earthy and herbal and grassy and fresh and
winey and woody and wild and weak
And tangy and roasty and oily and big
Anyway, my point is that the vocabulary shared by these two beloved beverages is directly indicative of something many brewers are recognizing: coffee and beer just make a whole bunch of sense together.
Not only do beer and coffee share a descriptive language, but they’re also both surrounded by a certain sense of reverence. This special status seems to linger near the liquids that people love, especially when they’re relied on to provide a buzz that we humans crave.
So what IS coffee? I turn to one of my favorite books to share a quick explanation:
“What we refer to as a coffee bean is actually a pair of seeds found inside a small, red fruit: the coffee “cherry.” The fruit grows on an Ethiopian shrub … [which] produces a remarkable poison that will paralyze or kill an insect attempting to feed on it. That poison, caffeine, is exactly what drew us to the plant seven hundred years ago. … it would take over fifty cups of coffee, downed in rapid succession, to deliver a fatal dose.”
–Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist
And how is coffee added to beer? There are a handful of coffee-making methods for brewers to use when adding coffee to their creations:
This process that I probably don’t have to explain, but will anyway, consists of heating water to a certain temp, and pouring that water over ground coffee beans (this process can happen manually or inside a coffee maker). The coffee aficionados out there know that there are many sub-methods within this particular category, but without getting into the weeds of hot-brewed coffee, this includes automatic drip, pour over, percolator, and French Press, for example.
From here, you could add the coffee right to the boil, or let it cool and add it to the fermenter. The ratio really depends on a) what style you’re making b) how well the coffee melds with the flavors of your beer and c) how strong you want the coffee flavor to be. As with adding chocolate, I find that the best way is to take a small sample of the finished beer before bottling (1oz, for example), and slowly adding measured amounts to this ounce. Once your sample tastes the way you want it, scale this small sample up to the appropriate size for your brew.
However, when you brew coffee using hot water, you not only extract coffee and caffeine, but also some acidic bite. For this reason, adding hot-brewed coffee is not as popular as adding cold brew.
When you extract coffee from ground coffee beans using cold water, this is known as cold brewing (shocking, I know). The advantage of this method is that the acidic qualities of coffee will not be extracted–this produces a super smooth brew that is often a bit sweet.
I’ve successfully made cold brewed coffee by adding 1 part coarsely ground beans to 4 parts cold, filtered water. I put this combo into a tightly sealed mason jar, and let it sit for 8-12 hours in the fridge. If you use this method for a beer addition, it’s a good idea to first boil, then chill the water you’ll be using for steeping to eliminate any chance of infection in your beer.
The cold brew can be added to the boil, or directly to the fermenter before bottling, to the bottling bucket along with the sugar solution you’ll use to carbonate beer in the bottles, or right to a kegged beer. In judging how much to use, I would experiment with small amounts, then scale up this experiment just as described above with hot brew.
I kind of made that term up, but this method is not unlike dry-hopping, so that term actually makes a bit of sense. In this method, a brewer can put coarsely ground coffee beans into a mesh bag (all sanitized of course), then put the bag directly into the fermenter to soak for 8-12 hours. Essentially, you’re performing a cold brew of coffee right in the fermenter, using beer as a replacement for water.
I tasted five coffee stouts, and ranked them in order of Least to Most Coffee-Forward:
Pipeworks Hyper Dog (7.5%)
Milk Stout w Cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, and Dark Matter Coffee
A delicious creation, but really not much coffee flavor coming through other than a drying, cherry-like finish. This beer was deep, dark brown and clear, with red highlights. An amazing ice cream nose, with berry/jelly aroma in the background. Very chocolatey overall & boozy, sweet raspberry flavor.
This very dark dark brown beer smelled a tad off– I got an initial wave of buttery, metallic odor, but this was taken over by vanilla graham cracker. It tasted of thin chocolate marshmallow and vanilla; any coffee flavors were masked up front but came forward in the roasty finish.
März Francie (6.4%)
Cream Ale with cold-pressed Columbian Dark Roast
Appearance-wise, this one stood out as completely unique; this cream ale was a crystal clear golden color with towers of bubbles speeding towards the top. Also unique in aroma, it smelled like peanut butter, green pepper, and nuts. Very creamy, effervescent, light, and vegetal (like pepper flesh), this had a semi-sweet peanut buttery, tannic finish. For me, this peanut buttery flavor was all coffee. In fact, it reminded me of one of my favorite espresso drinks, the F*cking Amazing Double Americano (not its actual name, I just call it that) from Donut Vault’s loop location. Much like this beer, that coffee tastes like liquid peanut butter.
Clear, and reddish brown with a persistent, tan head, this one smelled first of coffee, then toffee, cherries, and roasted malt. A medium-thin, incredibly creamy body transported flavors of cocoa and coffee with a touch of sweet cream into my tummy. Nom nom nummy. I just wrote a poem. Did you like it?
A little background on this one: In the ’90s, Kaldi’s Coffee employees used to visit the Schlafly Tap Room, asking for a shot of espresso to drop in their pint of Oatmeal Stout—and thus, the idea to make a locally inspired coffee stout was born. The two St. Louis companies have been collaborating ever since with regular tastings to refine and perfect the coffee stout. Shaboom!
This big, dark brown beer poured a very fluffy tan head of creamy bubbles. I detected a subdued aroma of coffee in the boozy nose. The body was medium, creamy, and tasted of sweet vanilla, and rich & roasty coffee with chocolate.
This is only a tiny fraction of the possibilities in this category, but it’s a sample that’s indicative of what’s surely more to come. Coffee beans come in as wide a variety of flavors and personalities as craft beer–you can even attend coffee-tasting seminars and classes at your local roasters. As this category grows, the best brewers will continue to work closely with their favorite roaster to come up with beans that are tailor-made for the beer they want to create. It’s an exciting and delicious prospect!