Each winds up as a finished liquid product, but the process of making coffee and beer is similar, their ingredients are similar, and the tastes present are similar, says Timothy Hill, coffee buyer and quality manager for the Durham, NC-based Counter Culture Coffee.
When beer comes together, the combined flavors of water, malt, hops and yeast impart a wide swath of flavors that mimic many familiar food flavors and aromas. In coffee, with just beans, the flavors range from floral and fruity (blueberry, lemon, peach, apricot, etc.) to nutty, to smoky.
“Not quite the range found in beer in my mind, but still a big range,” says Hill.
The other major similarity Hill sees is the trend of the coffee tree variety. In coffee there are about 10,000 to 15,000 varieties of the Arabica coffee tree, he said.
“Right now there are probably only about 100 in some sort of commercial production, and realistically over 90 percent or more of the world’s production comes from one type of tree and its offspring,” explains Hill. “So the hot trend now is different tree varieties that have wildly different flavors.”
These are varieties with names like Gesha, SL28, Bourbon pointu, Pacamara, Mokka and Sudan Rume that translate to the hot names in coffee.
It’s “just like Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy, etc. in terms of hops,” he says.
Temperature is also important when consuming hot coffee, just in the way beer should be served at cellar temperature, or slightly above/below depending on the style. For coffee, Hill says, it is best consumed at about 95 to 130 degrees, because the flavors are a lot more articulate at those levels.
And as beer drinkers have come to learn that proper glassware is key, the case is the same with coffee. “Vessels that allow you to smell the aromas as you are drinking are best,” says Hill. The “best vessel is basically anything but paper.” It is a similar thought and general dislike that people in the beer industry have towards using plastic Solo cups or nonick pint glasses to serve lagers and ales.
One of the more popular beers on the market is the Breakfast Stout from Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, MI (along with its boozy brother, the bourbon-barrel aged Kentucky Breakfast Stout, known as KBS). The beer, whose bottle has a label with a round-cheeked kid eagerly lapping up a bowl of cereal, is a creamy, luscious stout brewed with coffee and chocolate. It is also a “complete pain in the ass to make,” says fo-founder and Vice President of Brand Dave Engbers.
“It smells great in the brewery, but between the coffee-handling equipment and chocolate equipment, it adds multiple steps to the process,” he says. “It’s a matter of keeping morale up while brewing, keeping the brewers happy, because it’s not the easiest day in the brewhouse.”
The idea for Breakfast Stout (a seasonal available from September to December each year) came to Engbers in a roundabout way. More than a decade ago he was working behind the bar at the brewery’s taproom when a regular customer came in with some chocolate-covered espresso beans. Engbers was offered one, happily accepted, chewed it down and then took a sip from his glass of Founders’ porter to wash it down.
“It was just one of those sips where I knew it was special,” Engbers said in a telephone interview . He conducted a quick focus group with those assembled at the bar, giving them a bean and a sip, and soon had his brewer on the line hatching plans for a coffee chocolate porter, a recipe that would later become the stout. After years of dialing in the recipe, Engbers says, the brewery is now pleased with the resulting product.
“It’s still beer; it just has this wonderful flavor components,” he says.
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.