Caffeinated Pints: Cross-Tasting 14 Coffee Beers

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Caffeinated Pints: Cross-Tasting 14 Coffee Beers

Confession time: We really intended to do a typical, Paste-style blind tasting of coffee beers in August. It was all marked on the calendar and ready to go. Sure, there were a lot of potential issues—like how we were going to compare a 5% ABV coffee porter to a 14% barrel-aged coffee imperial stout or a sour coffee beer—but we would have soldiered on, somehow. And then something happened to make a coffee tasting more or less impossible.

That thing was called American IPA. Our recent blind-tasting and ranking of 247 American IPAs swelled far beyond the scope of anything we thought possible, and as we got deeper and deeper into it (16 days of tasting, in all), it became clear that I had severely underestimated the amount of time that putting it together would ultimately take. And with another blind-tasting coming in September (marzen/octoberfest beers, in the near future), I decided for the sake of my own sanity that we would have to scrap a coffee beer blind-tasting.

Still, not every brewery got the message, and a handful of coffee beers still arrived at the Paste office. Combining them with a few more rarities and special beers that happened to be hanging out in our fridge, we decided to put on our own one-day, non-blind tasting for fun. What I wanted to focus on, instead of which beers were BEST, was the different ways one can employ coffee in beer, and the different ways that coffee can impact flavor in various beer styles … styles that go far beyond the ubiquity of “coffee stout.” But first: A note on coffee in beer.

A note on coffee in beer

Coffee is a fairly unique beer ingredient, in the sense that there’s almost no consensus about the “right way” to use it. That makes it quite different from say, hops, where there’s a very clear understanding of what effects and flavors will be derived from adding them at specific times in the boil, or dry-hopping. Where the use of hops tends to come down to “best practices,” the use of coffee comes down to both preference and which type of coffee flavor one is hoping to achieve. To wit, I’ve heard of all the following methods, between commercial and homebrewing setups:

A. Adding brewed coffee directly to a beer

When I began homebrewing back in 2008, I remember seeing this method all the time in old-school brewing texts—literally brewing a pot of coffee and then adding that coffee to beer styles that have already finished their primary or secondary fermentation. Suffice to say, this is definitely more of a lax, homebrewers’ method, and it doesn’t even seem very common these days in homebrewer circles. I’ve never done it myself, but I’ve read accounts of others who state that straight-up additions of brewed coffee often add too much acrid roasted flavors to the finished beer to be desirable. Regardless, it’s generally understood that there are better methods.

B. “Dry-beaning,” or adding coffee beans directly to a beer

Adding coffee beans directly to beer is a method done in several different ways. So-called “dry-beaning” is more or less just like dry-hopping—coffee beans, either whole or very coarsely ground (the finer the grind, the less coffee required, but the harder to separate it from the beer), are steeped in the beer after primary fermentation. I’ve also seen people advocate for adding coffee on the hot side as well, the idea being that a small amount of coffee is added after flameout (after the heat is removed from the boil), to be extracted by the residual heat present while the wort is cooled.

C. Cold-brewed coffee/coffee extract

When I make coffee beer at home, this is the method I use, and it also seems to be the method used by many commercial brewers who make very well-regarded coffee beers. Steeping coarsely ground coffee in cold water over the course of hours or even days will yield a potent, highly concentrated cold brew or coffee extract, which tends to deliver a very pronounced, “pure coffee” flavor akin to iced coffee, without any of the accompanying acrid quality. The flipside is that it may be missing some of the varietal complexity of the beans or roast you’re trying to use, and it’s also easy to over-do the coffee using this method. I’ve made imperial coffee stouts via this method that took nearly a year to mellow out and reach the intended level of coffee flavor.

14 coffee beers, compared and contrasted

Note: As earlier mentioned, we tasted these non-blind, and they aren’t ranked in any fashion. We generally attempted to taste them from lower-to-higher gravity, starting with the coffee porters, going through the stouts and into the imperial stouts—and then tackling several unorthodox coffee sours.

Oskar Blues Hotbox Coffee Porter

It’s Oskar Blues, so naturally you’ve got a weed pun in the name, dependably as ever. Hotbox is sort of like an English brown porter, except burlier, but retaining that substyle’s sweeter and nuttier impressions. This one was in fact sweeter and richer than almost all of the other non-imperial beers on the table, with bigtime chocolate impressions in particular—a touch of the “Hershey’s Syrup” flavor note that you get in some chocolate-added beers, although thankfully without the artificiality. Coupled with the cold-pressed coffee, it reminds one of a frothy, slightly syrupy mocha. This would probably make for a badass beer float with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Wiseacre Brewing Gotta Get Up to Get Down

Of all the beers on the table, this milk stout is the most singleminded and focused on its delivery of pure coffee flavors. It’s the closest to what I described while writing about the use of coffee extract above—a very clean, unmistakable, intensely aromatic type of coffee impression that is difficult to pin down in terms of flavor notes, but is unmistakably “coffee.” Of all the beers we tasted here, it’s by far the one that tastes most like a pint of iced coffee, albeit with a reasonable amount of cream and sugar—although perhaps not quite as much as you’d actually expect, given that this is a milk stout. The body is quite light, as is the overall malt presence, leaving you to simply mull the silky-smooth coffee flavors. If there’s one beer here that is perfectly suited to hot-weather consumption, it would be Wiseacre’s offering.

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Night Shift Brewing Awake

We all quite enjoyed the can design for this coffee porter, while it also pointed out something of an inevitability of the style—they’re pretty much universally dark labels. The coffee flavor here is significantly more subtle and balanced than in the first two beers, in a porter that is also a good deal more dry. Woodsy, almost oaky flavors are present, while the coffee contributes a pecan-like nuttiness and a flavor that is not quite “chocolate” but more like the nutty character of roasted cocoa nibs. Less decadent and dessert-like, the coffee here feels more like a well-integrated supporting player rather than the total star of the show, complementing a dry, drinkable porter that is more sessionable than one might expect for 6.7% ABV.

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Lakefront Brewery Fuel Cafe

This beer was likely the “lightest” of the standard coffee stouts, both in terms of the coffee’s assertiveness and the base beer behind it. Neutral and quite dry, with a bit of ashy roast and a fairly light mouthfeel, this stout understandably drinks very easily. The coffee seemed a bit muted to us, or possibly a little on the stale side, but at the same time you could say that this would make for a very approachable coffee stout. Still, in a lineup full of coffee beers that are simply more characterful, this one likely wouldn’t be the beer we’re eager to revisit.

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Stevens Point Whole Hog Espresso Stout

Stevens Point isn’t the kind of brewery that gets a lot of salivating beer geek attention, but their Whole Hog series is capable of occasionally producing some really great beers—including our favorite pumpkin beer of 2015, in fact. On the coffee front, however, this beer has a hard time standing out in a lineup of heavier hitters. Although the label reads “stout,” this malt-forward beer comes across with more toasty, almost bready malt flavors rather than the more expected roast, and its malt flavors, while fairly pleasant, also overwhelm a meager charge of coffee. It was perhaps the only beer on the table where in a blind tasting, the coffee addition might not have been perceptible. Regardless, when one picks up a beer bottle with images of coffee beans on the label, they’re probably looking for something a bit more overt.

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Speakeasy Ales & Lagers Payback Porter

There were a fair number of these stouts and porters that were stretching the boundaries between single and double/imperial territory. At 7.5% ABV, it’s hard to really think of this one from Speakeasy as a straight-up “porter,” but whatever it is, it’s very tasty. Somewhat similar in its profile to the Oskar Blues Hotbox, Payback is packing a very nice, deft balance between sweetened espresso-like coffee roast and bitter baker’s chocolate—a combination that makes us think of one of my favorite snacks: chocolate-covered espresso beans. On the sweeter side, but very clean, it features a milk stout-like creaminess and a bigger, chewier body that is likely amplified by its higher-than-average ABV. This is a well-executed coffee beer that presents oily, sweet coffee flavors while still maintaining an admirable degree of balance.

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Wild Heaven Craft Beers Ode To Mercy Nitro Coffee Brown Ale

Ode To Mercy Nitro Coffee Brown Ale is a fairly unique take on the nebulous idea of “coffee beer,” and the only non-sour beer on the table that didn’t classify itself as a porter or a stout. NitrOde, rather, is a coffee-infused imperial brown ale, canned and nitrogenated rather than carbonated. As such, it’s lighter on the malt-derived roast, with a very creamy, velvety mouthfeel and nutty maltiness. The coffee comes across as nicely integrated, with a more herbal and spicy character than in many of the other coffee brews we sampled. There’s a specifically spicy coffee note that I sometimes think of as “bell pepper,” and it’s present here in a pleasant way. All in all, the coffee flavor blends well and is enhanced by the nitrogenated mouthfeel, which replicates a cap of steamed milk on a latte. It’s a nice change-up from trying to simply complement the roast of coffee via more darkly roasted malt.

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Half Acre Big Hugs

Alright, now we’re officially into imperial stout territory, although despite being 10% ABV, Big Hugs is curiously thin of body—certainly much thinner and easier drinking than any of the other imperial stouts on the table. This particular bottle of Half Acre’s annual coffee stout release has been sitting in our fridge for quite a long while, maybe as much as a year, so this may also have contributed to it. The nose on the beer is very clean and roast/coffee-forward, suggesting a dry, roasty imperial stout—something I personally love. This proves true on the palate as well—the coffee is deep, clean and roasty, similar in character to the Speakeasy beer. Unlike the other imperial stouts, this one isn’t awash in big dark fruit, booze and residual sugar flavors. This is an imperial coffee stouts for drinkers whose first priority is specifically the coffee.

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Tallgrass Big Ricc

It’s amazing how two beers can come along that, on paper, are fairly similar, but in execution are so very different. Big Ricc is all of .5% ABV stronger than Big Hugs, but tasting it you’d swear it had at least a few more percentage points on it. Boozy and strapping, with raspberry-like red fruit flavors and a touch of something darker (plum?), it revels in dark fruitiness that transitions into a firm roast on the back end. The coffee is a little bit more of a background player, or perhaps it’s just the stout itself that is more assertive, but it meshes well with the ashy, classic roast of unmalted roasted barley and chocolate malt. Regardless, pretty much every taster’s sheet on this one notes the booze and fruity influences more than the chocolate and coffee added to it. Still a very tasty concept, Big Ricc is a complete concept rather than specifically a coffee showcase.

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Heavy Seas Blackbeard’s Breakfast

Blackbeard’s Breakfast is an imperial coffee porter aged in bourbon barrels, and it’s pretty easily among the best barrel-aged beers we’ve had out of the venerable Baltimore brewery. It’s nice to occasionally taste a BBA stout where the barrel is just used in an accentuating way, rather than completely taking over the proceedings, and that’s the case here. From one tasting sheet: “Easygoing bourbon barrel.” From another: “Hangover beer,” meaning more or less the same thing. The spicy Indonesian coffee character of Blackbeard’s Breakfast competes ably with the sour oak and caramel/vanillans delivered by the whiskey barrel, and each is easy to single out. In fact, one of the tasters compared the smooth, rounded whiskey notes to Irish whiskey rather than bourbon, citing its light, honeyed maltiness. Regardless, this beer is quite pleasant, either as a “coffee beer” or as an easier-drinking BBA stout.

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Fremont Brewing Co. BBA Dark Star /w Coffee

Holy shit, guys—what a beer this is. The coffee variant of Fremont’s already epic 14.5% ABV barrel-aged stout, this is a truly epic expression of both barrel-aged beer and coffee. The coffee shows up big on the nose, which is impressive, considering that it’s competing against wave after wave of jammy dark fruitiness, vanilla and molasses-like caramelized sugar. On the palate, this beer just feels massive—chewy, creamy and packed with vinous dark fruit (blackberry) and dried fruit flavors. You never quite lose the coffee either, but it’s all too easy to just get swept up in all of the other huge flavors on display—no one would probably describe this as “coffee stout,” so much as it is a world-class barrel-aged stout that has had an extra coffee addition. And when we say “world class,” we’re not kidding around here—this is one of the best, most decadent barrel-aged stouts we’ve tasted in a long time. The booze never runs away with the beer, and the synthesis between barrel flavors, malt and coffee is exquisitely balanced. Fremont has crafted a whale of a beer here, and if you love both coffee and BBA behemoths, you owe it to yourself to seek it out.

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Avery Brewing Co. Tweak

Highest ABV award goes to Avery because, well, it’s Avery. At 17.5% ABV, it’s pushing the boundaries of even imperial stout as a style, but incredibly, it manages to keep “booze” from being the leading force in its flavor profile. It is, however, a very sweet and rich take on the style—“for the two-sugars coffee drinker,” according to one of the tasting sheets, followed by “boozy, sweet frappucino.” Our particular bottle of Tweak had been hanging out in the Paste fridge for quite a while, maybe as long as a year, so it’s likely that the age has also changed it quite a bit. Regardless, you can certainly feel the presence of the ABV in your throat and in your chest, even with a bit of age. The coffee character is a bit more straightforward and pure than in the beautiful synthesis of the Fremont beer—you might almost say it’s what you would get if you upscaled the Half Acre Big Hugs all the way to 17.5% ABV; a sort of alcoholic coffee cocktail. Regardless, anything in this ABV range is always going to be a sort of novelty—this is the kind of beer that you bring out of the fridge when you’ve got half a dozen people over and portion it out in little taster glasses as a nightcap.

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Wicked Weed Silencio

Now we tackle something really unusual, in the first of our two coffee sours. Wicked Weed describes Silencio as a sour “black ale” (how does the malt bill compare to stout/porter?) that has been further aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla beans and coffee—so in short, this is quite the Frankenstein’s monster of a beer. I’ve very rarely ever described something a “dessert sour,” but that’s unmistakably what this beer is, and a pretty damn well executed one at that. Prominent but tactful vanilla richness melds with cherry and maybe a touch of peachy stone fruit and nutty coffee. From one tasting sheet: “gorgeous oaky, coffee-tinged nose.” From another tasting sheet, where the taster ranked the influences in order of prominence: “1. Sour 2. Oak 3. Vanilla 4. Bourbon 5. Coffee” As that would suggest, the coffee is one of the more subtle players here, although not by much. It’s the flourish on top of everything else that makes Silencio such a unique beer.

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Orpheus Brewing Coffee Minotaur

This new sour from Atlanta’s Orpheus Brewing is another whiskey barrel-aged sour ale with coffee added, but it’s much more directly for the coffee lover than the above beer from Wicked Weed. With plenty of roast on the nose of a beer that is actually lighter in color (an amber mahogany sort of tone) than most of the others on the table, it pairs deeply roasted, oily, almost smoky, French roast-style coffee flavors with significant lactic sourness to create a beer that simultaneously delivers strongly on both “coffee” and “sour.” If a sour coffee beer is what you were looking for, it would be hard to find one that more obviously delivers on that premise than this one. Simultaneously, Coffee Minotaur stays fairly dry, and certainly isn’t the rich, dessert-like experience of the Wicked Weed. Rather, its increased sourness, dryness and pure coffee flavors almost make it seem like something you might drink on a hot day for refreshment. Sure, the tartness makes it not quite a conventional replacement for iced coffee, but if you like tangy, lactic sours and coffee equally, it’s a concept you should seek out.

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Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer guru, and he drinks his coffee black, unless he puts cream and sugar in it. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer-related content.