Coffee Beer: An Expert’s Tour

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Award-winning beer author and national rank beer judge Doug Hoverson and coffee roaster Eric Faust sat down recently to taste a variety of local and international coffee beers including offerings from Flat Earth Brewing and Surly. James Norton and Becca Dilley from The Heavy Table joined them.

The popularity of craft beer and the marketing and flavor challenges of “extreme beer” have encouraged brewers around the world to experiment with new ingredients. As with many beer styles, the impetus seems to have come from homebrewers — who have the inspiration (and low cost of failure) to test new flavors.

A few commercial brewers introduced coffee beers in the 1990s. New Glarus Brewing Co. of Wisconsin was earning medals with its Coffee Stout as early as 1996. By 2004, the World Beer Cup had created a category just for coffee beers, and entries grew from nine that year to 24 in 2008. Coffee beers are also popular seasonal features in many brewpubs, including Minnesota’s own Town Hall Brewery of Minneapolis and Fitger’s Brewhouse of Duluth.

The complicated flavor combinations created by roasting share a common chemical background, but they become evident in different ways. The flavors created depend upon the composition and moisture level of what is being roasted.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Applying dry heat to an organic substance (as opposed to boiling it) accelerates several chemical reactions — most important for flavor are the Maillard reactions. These follow when a sugar or carbohydrate is combined with a nitrogen-bearing material (usually a protein) and heated in the presence of some moisture — the process commonly called caramelization.

Barley malt and coffee beans are both roasted to provide color, flavor, and aroma to their respective beverages. As technology improved over the centuries, it became possible to control temperature better and to create lighter, more delicate roasts (and similarly lighter and more delicate flavors). While dark-roasted ingredients are popular for both coffee and beer, some experts prefer lighter roasts since one can actually taste the original character of the bean or malt instead of just the results of the roasting process.

Combining coffee and beer requires many careful choices by the brewer. “Oatmeal stout and dark coffee — it makes sense — but not all good tasting things make sense,” says local coffee roaster Eric Faust. Brewers typically start with base beers which already have a prominent roasted or caramel character such as stout, porter, or brown ale.

Most brewers then select a very dark roast coffee to ensure that there is enough coffee flavor and not just a hint which could be confused with dark malt. A further consideration is how a coffee tastes at different temperatures. As Eric pointed out, not all coffees cool well, so brewers must recognize that their favorite cup of morning coffee might not be the best blend with the pride and joy of their brewhouse.

For many brewers, economic and social concerns also factor into the choice. Most craft brewers and brewpubs get their coffee from small, local roasters who usually feature fair- or free-trade coffee.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Creating the proper blend requires extensive testing and consultation. When Jeff and Cathie Williamson of Flat Earth Brewing Co. in St. Paul, MN, decided to brew a coffee beer, they first created a test batch of oatmeal stout on Jeff’s old homebrewing system. They worked with representatives from their coffee roasters through a series of tests to select the right coffee and the right proportion. Since they switched from Paradise Roasters to Dunn Bros. between batches, they had to redo the whole process. The flavor and intensity will vary depending on whether coffee is added as a liquid or if beans are added to the brew at some point in the process, so brewers also must consider how the coffee should be added.

To see how this plays out in practice, let’s get to the beers. Coffee beers come and go, but when it was time to taste, six beers ended up on the table. Most were poured from bottles which had been removed from the refrigerator about a hour before tasting, allowing them to warm better show off their flavors.

The experiment was not perfectly controlled, since one sample came from a half-gallon growler jug and another was the first known canned coffee beer.

To provide a base for experiment, we started with a can of Coffee Bender from Surly Brewing Co. of Brooklyn Center, MN (5.2% alcohol by volume; 45 International Bitterness Units), because we could try the base beer and the coffee version back to back. Surly Bender is best categorized as a brown ale, but like all Surly beers, it resists being locked into the style guidelines generally used to judge beers.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As Surly’s website describes it: “Bender begins crisp and lightly hoppy, complemented by the velvety sleekness oats deliver. Belgian and British malts usher in cascades of cocoa, coffee, caramel and hints of vanilla and cream.” To this, Surly then adds Guatemalan coffee: Finca Vista Hermosa roasted by Jim Cohn of Coffee and Tea, Ltd. of Minneapolis. All of Surly’s beers are complex, but taster James Norton found Coffee Bender to be “less of a traffic jam” of flavors than expected. Eric detected a clear coffee flavor balanced with chocolate from the malt, and found it to be a well-balanced product from a brewery famous for tilting the balance toward hops.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Staying local, we moved to Flat Earth Brewing Co., where Jeff and Cathie find inspiration for their beer names in conspiracy theories. Black Helicopter (5.2% abv; 28 IBU) is named after rumors of craft allegedly flown by the United Nations over Idaho as part of some poorly explained plot to take over the world. Flat Earth cold steeps 15 pounds of coffee in oatmeal stout, then adds it to the bright beer (conditioning) tank along with the rest of the stout. Eric thought the Dunn Bros. version was less sour than the earlier Paradise edition (not that this was good or bad, just a change). Some of the panel suggested that Helicopter had less aftertaste than Coffee Bender, but this may have been due to the growler pour or the lower bitterness.

We encountered the first disappointment upon leaving the Twin Cities area. Redhook Brewery recently reintroduced its double black stout with coffee (7.0% abv; 47 IBU). Redhook’s website claims that the base beer is an imperial stout, though at only 7.0% abv it is closer to a foreign extra stout. The beer was rather bland, and while both the beer and the coffee were in balance, neither was really inspiring. Eric also wished that Redhook had put the variety of coffee on the label, or the method of adding coffee, or almost any additional information.

The next disappointment came from overseas, and was a somewhat surprising one. Meantime Brewing Co. of Greenwich, England brews fine IPA and Porter, so I expected the Coffee Porter (6.0% abv; IBU n/a) would be up to the same standard. It’s possible that something was wrong with this particular batch, but the overall impression was an unpleasant sourness. This beer is probably worth revisiting, since it has won awards in major competitions. According to Meantime’s website they use fair trade Arabica Bourbon beans from Rwanda’s Abuhuzamugambi Bakawa Co-operative provided by Union Coffee Roasters.

The other European representative was more satisfying. Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Brunch–Weasel was created by the small Danish brewery Mikkeller and brewed at Nøgne Ø in Norway (an outstanding craft brewery in its own right). Weasel weighs in at 10.9% abv and features civet coffee (in this case, Vietnamese ca phe chon). These prized and expensive (and in Faust’s view, overrated) coffee beans are picked from the droppings of the weasel-like civet, cleaned (thank goodness), and yield a particularly strong aroma and flavor. All the tasters picked up a somewhat musty aroma, but any concern quickly dissipated. For Norton, Kahlua was the dominant flavor, taster Becca Dilley emphasized the velvety mouthfeel, and everyone found different complex flavors succeeding each other as the beer continued to warm.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery started as a sake brewery in 1823, and started brewing craft beers in 1996. The name [Hitachino] Nest Beer comes from the translation of the name of Kounosu village where the brewery is located, and is applied to all their beers including Espresso Stout (7.5% abv; 47 IBU). Here, espresso beans are added to the boil where they interact with the other raw ingredients. While the rich beer flavor made it difficult to distinguish between espresso and plain coffee, the tasters unanimously agreed this was a truly outstanding effort. The coffee flavor was evident, but blended beautifully with chocolate, dark fruit, and other flavors common in an imperial stout.

The side-by-side tasting was evidence that the combination of these two flavorful ingredients offered as many taste possibilities as coffee and beer each present individually. However, as Faust pointed out, “when you drink coffee itself you look for nuance, but in beer it’s just a flavor — you can’t get the nuance.” Much of this may be because the base beers have such strong flavors to begin with — including dark malt that mimics some of the flavors of coffee. Faust hoped a brewer would try creating a beer which would allow the distinct flavors of a lighter roast to come through. Perhaps a Scotch ale would be the answer (Dustin Brau, want to give it a try?). Oscura, from Furthermore Beer of Spring Green, WI was not available for this tasting, but is based on a dark Mexican lager, with whole Nicaraguan coffee beans soaked in the beer during the maturation cycle.

Coffee beer probably won’t change your breakfast habits, but it could deepen your appreciation of the qualities of both beverages.

Doug Hoverson is the author of Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).


  1. Aaron

    Great story, and you’re absolutely right in that there are many variables to think about when combining beer and coffee. I’ve experimented with when to add coffee into my brewing process (primary fermentation? secondary conditioning? bottling?) as well as what type of coffee to use. Some of my homebrewed coffee beers have turned out well, and some have flopped. But that’s the fun of homebrewing.

  2. Shawn

    Love the article as I’m fascinated by the intricacies and similarities of specialty coffee and beer.

    One question I have is: why do you use the term “fair trade” as an indicator of coffee quality? Fair Trade certification applies to all sorts of varying levels of coffee quality.

  3. Doug

    You’re quite right that fair trade is no guarantee of quality. In this case I was using it more to refer to the economic and social aspects which concern some brewers and roasters–the idea that the actual grower should get a fair price and profit rather than the large multinational. For this article I was erring on the side of precision and using the terminology that the brewer or roaster used. Hopefully our importers and roasters are making decisions based on coffee quality rather than simply trying to direct money to a particularly photogenic coffee-growing family. There is, of course, also the issue of who certifies free and fair trade, and on what standards, but that is an entirely different article (and one probably better written by someone else).

  4. Michael Agnew

    Great story. A note on the Meantime Coffee Porter. I have had this beer on a few occasions and have always found it to taste “off”. Mostly I find that it has a distinct green pepper taste similar to jalapenos without the heat. While I love the other Meantime beers, this one has never been a favorite.

  5. Eric

    Great article. Founders Breakfast Stout is another fantastic coffee beer, available in Wisconsin but not Minnesota.

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