All About Beer Magazine - Volume 35, Issue 2
June 16, 2014 By John Holl
Coffee Beer
Coffee is regularly finding its way into beers, thanks in part to the ingenuity of today’s brewers, their relationship with local roasters and customer demand. Photo by Bryan Regan.

Augie Carton had the usual morning routine. Commuting from his New Jersey shore town into Manhattan, his first stop would be at his local deli, where he’d order a breakfast sandwich and a regular coffee. In his mind, Carton, a native of Atlantic Highlands on the Jersey shore, regular always meant black. When he got a few miles down the road, however, and took the first sip from the paper cup with plastic lid, he’d be greeted by a burnt roast lightened with cream and sweetened with two sugars, the deli’s version of “regular.”

“Every time I hoped they would get it right,” he says. “Every time it bit me in the ass.”

He kept the memory, and when he finally opened his Carton Brewing Co. in Atlantic Highlands, NJ, several years ago, and the customer requests for a coffee beer kept coming and coming, he worked with a local roaster and his brewers to create a beer that would taste like the light and sweet coffee he painfully remembered.

The brewery’s “Regular Coffee” is a cream ale, brewed with lactose sugar and Sidamo and Chiapas coffee beans. The result is what Carton calls “a cool version of shitty coffee, the kind that’s been in the urn since 6 a.m. when you get there at 9.”

Using a half gallon of doubled-brewed coffee for every 20 gallons of beer, the ale has taken on a darker yellow color, not quite the tan of milk in actual coffee and not dark like many other coffee beers.

“We didn’t want it to be a weird brown color,” Carton says. Since being released earlier this year, Regular Coffee has quickly become one of his brewery’s more popular offerings, much to Carton’s delight and chagrin.

Coffee and beer are a lot like beverage bookends. One is typically consumed in the morning and one at night, and on certain days or occasions the two can be flipped. For longtime drinkers of stouts and porters, the taste of coffee is apparent in the brew, even if no beans were used. Thanks to roasted grains, the longer the kiln, the more likely a beer will take on notes of coffee.

Coffee and beer are not dissimilar. Both require roasting, be it beans or grain. They offer effects after drinking, due to caffeine or alcohol. Both are widely consumed, have passionate followings—even have their own geek communities. And at first blush, while it might not seem the two have a lot in common flavorwise, they share many taste similarities.

Beer and coffee are each aroma-driven, and each is a regular part of many people’s daily lives.

While it’s traditionally considered a morning drink—cream and sugar optional—coffee is regularly finding its way into beers, thanks in part to the ingenuity of today’s brewers, their relationship with local roasters and increasing customer demand.

Putting the Beans in Beer

The combination is an obvious one. Many brewers are mashing in while most of us are still in bed or just coming back from the bar. They are there in the brew­house, coffee in hand as the sun rises and the mash boils. Generally, the brewers of today are a discerning lot, so when it comes to the coffee they drink, they seek out the good stuff, often supporting other local businesses like coffee roasters.

Todd Haug Surly Brewing
Todd Haug of Surly Brewing Co.

“You can’t always be lucky to have a local hop grower, but in most areas you can have a local roaster,” says Todd Haug, the brewer at Surly Brewing Co., in Minneapolis during a recent interview, not hiding his excitement for the caffeinated beverage. As a younger brewer he began experimenting with coffee in his beers 15 years ago and was immediately enamored.

“At first it was working in the subtle character, bringing it in as a separate ingredient. I didn’t want to go over people’s head with it,” he says. When Surly opened in 2007, one of the first beers Haug made was Bender, an American brown ale, which was followed by a coffee version two months later.

There were just three kegs of the first Coffee Bender, going to select events, and despite its quickly growing popularity, thanks to word of mouth and internet reviews, Haug continued to brew just 45 gallons at a time for about a year. Then, thanks to new equipment at the brewery, he scaled up by an additional 30 barrels, then 30 more. Surly today has the capacity to brew up to 120 barrels of Coffee Bender per week.

For that amount of beer he needs a lot of coffee, and for that he goes “old school” to Jim Cone, a roaster who has been in the coffee game since the 1970s. Three to five days before brewing, Haug calls Cone’s Coffee & Tea Ltd. and orders a few hundred pounds of a specific Guatemalan coffee, ground and packaged into bags.

“When picking the bean, I needed to consider availability,” Haug says. “Or at least make sure it wasn’t some crazy estate-grown thing, only available in tiny amounts. I wanted consistency from raw material.”

Although some breweries interviewed for this article were not willing to discuss their specific methods for adding coffee to beer, citing proprietary technology or a specific recipe, there really aren’t any huge secrets in the brewing world.

Stephen Hale, the former head brewer of Schlafly Beer in St. Louis, MO, (he currently serves as  Schlafly’s ambassador brewer) says the process known as “cold toddy” has been proved to work best when it comes to adding coffee flavor to beers.

“Essentially, instead of extracting all great things coffee from the grounds by using hot water, we use cold water,” Hale says.

Brewers will typically steep the grounds in the cold liquor (brewing water) for between 24 and 48 hours, letting the water take on the rich coffee aroma and flavor, and it is then blended with the beer.

Haug, of Surly, says he uses a similar method, but adds the coffee to his bright tanks, for a 24-hour period. “We’re making cold-pressed coffee, but instead of water, we’re using beer,” he says.

The cold toddy method is the reason why when you smell a beer made with coffee, it’s almost like opening a fresh bag of beans just before the grind. Some brewers will use ground coffee in bags, others the beans themselves. Some will have a roaster prepare for them, and others will do it in-house, but what most agree upon is that the cold toddy method works best.

This is because over the years, as American brewing ingenuity has increased, the brewers have worked out the kinks, trying all manner of coffee-infusing methods, constructing specific seeping equipment and usually sharing their knowledge with others. That’s left brewers with a consensus on how coffee should be used in brewing.

Schlafly produces a coffee stout—among the most popular styles when it comes to coffee additions—and Hale says it took a while to dial in the recipe to get it where they wanted it. “The roast used has changed moderately over the years. Our early favorite was a dark Italian roast, and we now use a slightly lighter roast.” Now, instead of adding the coffee grounds or the toddy to the mash or the kettle, the brewers add it directly to the finished Schlafly Coffee Stout.

Brewers from around the country that were interviewed for this article agree that the taste and aroma that comes from some variation of the cold toddy method produces the best coffee flavors in a beer. This may be in part thanks to the fact that a cold-brew method on coffee releases less acid from the beans than the hot method. Less acid means a  minimal impact on the overall flavor of the beer itself. Hot-brewed coffee added to a beer quickly becomes too astringent a drink, brewers say.

“It’s really that simple. I can vouch for the aroma that comes from the cold-water method being one of the best,” Hale says. He continues that it might be “even better than passing yet-another café on the streets of Rome, which is hard to beat.”

John Holl
John is the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the author of three books, including The American Craft Beer Cookbook. Find him on Twitter @John_Holl.