Many of my friends in Durango know that I love coffee. If I was not in a bar or a brewery I was definitely in one of Durango’s many awesome coffee shops. I love the life, the vivant, the atmosphere of a coffee shop, just as much as I love the life of a bar. The sights, sounds, smells, and people taking up space and time make a good bar or coffee shop what it is at the core. Many might not know it, but my first real beverage love was coffee. I worked for a good chunk of my undergrad as a barista at the start of what is now the third wave of coffee.
Working in coffee was my first job where my senses were fully engaged in my daily work life. What does this coffee look like, smell like, taste like, and feel like? What components will heighten or diminish my experience of this beverage? What food will pair with it? What’s the proper vessel, temperature, and presentation for the serving of this beverage? How do I prepare this beverage in a way that is respectful of the precious raw ingredient, and deliver a flavorful and memorable experience to the one enjoying the beverage?
Not only did those skills and experiences carry over into my career in beer, but coffee is literally getting into beer. Coffee Beer is its own category at the Great American Beer Festival. The majority of the entries and winners are still stouts and porters and brown ales that are obvious pairings with coffee, but there are also very adventurous brewers brewing with adventurous coffee ingredients.
New Belgium has a beer, La Folie Grand Reserve Geisha, that is a dark sour ale with Geisha Hacienda La Esmeralda. Geisha is an incredibly rare and sought-after coffee bean grown only in a few select coffee farms around the world. Its flavor, aroma, and color is closer to a tea than a coffee. It’s also incredibly expensive. I recently had a 16-ounce pour of a this same coffee, Geisha Hacienda La Esmeralda, roasted by Sey Coffee in Bushwick, New York, and it cost $16. It was the most expensive coffee I’ve ever had and it was easily the single best coffee I’ve ever had. It’s an incredible coffee to experience by itself, I can’t even imagine it in a dark sour ale. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to coffee beers: there’s an entire festival dedicated to coffee beer, called Uppers and Downers. At the festival there are all kinds of crazy collaborations between coffee roasters and brewers. Oskar Blues is so invested in coffee beers that they started their own coffee roastery, Hot Box Roasters.
Even with all of this great collaboration and innovation, most coffee beers don’t attempt to elevate their beer this way. Most coffee beer is just coffee plus beer. Brewers do it in all kinds of different ways: adding cold brewed coffee, steeping the coffee in finished beer, “dry beaning” the fermenting beer with coffee beans, or any combination of the above. The results are usually mixed and have all kinds of different shelf stability and flavor qualities. Because coffee beer is so driven by maltiness, most coffee beers are dark malty beers. There are some coffee IPAs and coffee blondes and kolschs, but you’d be hard pressed to find one in a store.
Doing a recent tasting of random coffee beers I found at a local bottle shop, I tasted beers that showed the range of quality, the importance of freshness, and a fair representation of what you can expect when picking a coffee beer.
Fuel Cafe, an organic coffee stout, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WisconsinIt poured a light creamy tan head that fell pretty quick (coffee with too much oil or acidity will do this). A slight ashy note on the nose with burnt nut background and a smudge of vanilla and cola. Because of the low-foam, this beer had a surprisingly rich mouthfeel and solid coffee flavor with a strong finish of vanilla.
Espressway Stout, Two Roads Brewing Company, Stratford, ConnecticutPours dark with light tan foam that also falls flat. Nose of cigarette and vanilla. I could be polite here and say “smoky” or “tobacco” but this is an ashtray with a vanilla bean in it. Very acrid old coffee flavor, but the vanilla really hits and tells me this was a good beer at one time. Despite the initial flavor, it finishes smooth. (Note: I didn’t realize until after I wrote all the notes on this beer, but it was bottled on 2-10-17, so please, check dates!)
Hotbox Coffee Porter, Oskar Blues Brewery, LongmontDark tan foam (a little too dark for a porter?) that sits super firm on the top of the glass and laces all the way down. Aroma of cocoa, vanilla, dark roasted coffee, and a hint of tobacco. Full-bodied and a rich flavor of chocolate milk and vanilla with a dash of espresso that makes it feel like a boozy latte.
Robbie Wendeborn is the head brewer at Svendæle Brewing in Millerton, New York. He is also a former beer plumber at Ska Brewing.