Ingredient Study: Coconut

“Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate?”
– Monty Python and the Holy Grail

No of course not. But they have managed to find their way into quite a few modern-day craft beers! Some of them taste like sunscreen juice (not naming names here) and some of them taste like a tropical breeze that wafted through your head holes, touched down on your tongue and gave it a sweet, pineapple kiss (Upland Brewing Co.‘s Latitude Adjustment comes to mind).

Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine would say that I’m late to the coconut party – they proclaimed 2016 the “Year of Coconut” due to its sudden burst in brewing ingredient popularity. But whether I’m late or right on time, I’ve decided to try a few of these still-popular brews, rate them on their coconut-iness, explore how coconut is incorporated in the brewing process, and learn a bit more about coconuts themselves.

Why The Drupe-y Face?
A coconut is not a nut at all. Coconuts are actually fruits, and if you want to get all botanical, they are technically drupes. “Drupe” is a classification of fruit with a hard, stony covering enclosing the fruit’s seed (like a peach or an olive) and comes from the word drupa, meaning overripe olive. A coconut, and all drupes, have three layers: the exocarp (outer layer), the mesocarp (middle layer), and the endocarp (hard, woody layer that surrounds the seed) (Library of Congress).”

The layers of a drupe, on a coconut.

When still bound to the tree, a coconut’s exocarp is smooth and can be green, orange, or yellow. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. So, coconuts in their supermarket-ready form have already had their exocarps and mesocarps removed.

Coconuts grow on two main varieties of coconut trees, tall and dwarf. Tall coconut trees grow to about 85 feet tall whereas “dwarf” varieties reach (a still respectable) 40 feet. Coconut trees grow all over the world but they tend to thrive around the Earth’s equator in sandy soils. They can be found growing as far north as Hawaii and as far south as Madagascar (Library of Congress).

Coconut cross-section

You Put The Beer In The Coconut
You can add coconut to beer in a few different ways, at a couple different times during the brewing process depending on what results you’re looking for.

Probably the most common method I’ve come across is adding toasted, flaked coconut to the secondary stage of fermentation. In this method, the brewer will toast coconut flakes in the oven until they’re golden brown, throw them into a muslin bag and soak them in the secondary fermentation vessel until the beer tastes the way the brewer desires. You could also add these toasted flakes to the mash and allow the coconut flavors to infuse at the beginning of the brewing process.

One of the most delicious coconut beers I’ve ever had in my mouth was Goose Island’s Prop 2014, and according to the label it was made using coconut water. While I don’t know how they incorporated it into the recipe, a number of homebrew forums recommend either A) using coconut water as your mash water or B) using it as your sparge water. However, the most reliable (and common) method seems to be adding toasted flakes.

For this post, I tasted five coconut beers and rated them on their coconut-iness with my very own Coconut Scale. Imagine a personified coconut, each with its own unique personality, as shown:

Coconut Scale

Coconut Hiwa Porter (Maui Brewing Co.) 6.0% ABV
This one is widely accepted as the first craft beer to include coconut, and what better brew than a Hawaiian-born one to claim that title? More porter than coconut beer in my opinion, this has a slightly sweet, toasty and roasty quality with some dry grain astringency in the mouthfeel. Overall, a really nice porter with a subtle coconut quality.
Coconut: Level 1 – Quiet Coconut
Quiet Coconut

Coconut Crème Ale (Schlafly) 5.5% ABV
This American-style wheat ale is brewed with real coconut and pineapple, then aged on toasted coconut flakes. Slightly hazy, this sweet beer smells of sun tan lotion and tropical fruits. The flavor is very pineapple forward, but also malty with a hint of corn, reminiscent of a traditional German Helles style beer.
Coconut: Level 2 – Polite Coconut

Polite Coconut

Coconut Bernie Milk Stout (Noon Whistle Brewing Co.) 5.0% ABV
This milk stout is made right down the street from my house, in Lombard. When it’s poured, immediately a tan bubbly head fizzes up, then mostly dissipates. This beer smells of coconut and caramel with a slight sweetness (as if from lactose sugar). It drinks  light and smooth with a coconut-caramel finish, mingled with roasty malt.
Coconut: Level 3 – Social Coconut
Social Coconut

Watch for Falling Coconuts (Hop Butcher) 5.5% ABV
This slightly hazy pale ale is brewed with El Dorado and Cashmere hops, and it has a creamy head of think bubbles that won’t go away. It smells pleasantly boozy, with pineapple, tropical fruit, mango, pine, vanilla, and peach fuzz all on the fragrant nose. A creamy mouthfeel with a dry finish, this beer tastes of sticky strawberry, slightly bitter pineapple, and is very floral.
Coconut: Level 4 – Party CoconutParty Coconut

Coconut Jones Dog (Pipeworks) 8.5% ABV
Milk chocolate brown in color, this beer smells like roasty malt and all the berries (blackberry, raspberry, strawberry). Very creamy, milky and sweet, it’s all chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and fruit with a nice coconut-pineapple bite in the back for balance.
Coconut: Level 5 – Coo Coo Coconut
Coo Coo Coconut

Since tasting the beers for this post, I have visited two Chicago-area breweries and both of them had a beer with coconut on tap. Old Irving Brewing just tapped their tropical stout, Dunes of the Cape, a collaboration with Horse Thief Hollow that has pineapple, coconut and rum-soaked oak, and Skeleton Key has a golden ale made with coconut called Migratory. So, if last year was truly The Year of Coconut, then 2017 must be TYoC, The Sequel: Still Coconutting.

Cheers, and thanks for reading!


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