Welcome to “I’d Tap That,” in which Aaron Goldfarb and a panel of tasters pit “whales” against “shelf turds” in an effort to understand everything from Imperial IPA to Saison. This round: a look at the coffee beer explosion.
Every February for the last three years, Chicago has played host to the beer world’s most niche festival. A partnership between World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey and beer industry impresario Michael Kiser, Uppers & Downers, as it’s cheekily called, is an all coffee beer festival. This year, paying guests can attend one of two Saturday afternoon sessions where they will have unlimited access to single-origin coffees, cold brew, coffee cocktails and, most importantly, 20 experimental coffee beers made specifically for the event.
There have always been beers that tasted like coffee, but for most of brewing history, that was because these beers—usually stouts and porters—were made with roasted malts. As anyone who’s ever drank a Guinness knows, dark roasts often express themselves with espresso-like notes. But adding actual coffee to beer is something else entirely.
Coffee-infused beer has been discussed in homebrewing circles as early as 1991, when a coffee beer recipe appeared in Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing (he recommended adding freshly ground beans in the final five minutes of the brewing process). But the first commercial appearance of coffee beer is generally attributed to New Glarus’s Coffee Stout. Launched in 1994, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle with the ATF, who claimed it was illegal to add caffeine to packaged alcohol.
Fast-forward a decade and geeks were lining up to nab the then-No. 1 beer in the world, 3 Floyds Dark Lord, which featured Mexican vanilla, Indian sugar and Intelligentsia Coffee’s Black Cat espresso. Pretty soon nearly every brewery would have a big, bold imperial stout packed with a local roaster’s coffee on offer. Brewers have now moved beyond the coffee stout.
“Coffee beers have undergone a bit of a renaissance,” wrote Michael Kiser, introducing the first Uppers & Downers event in 2013. “While the porters and stouts that define this style have been tweaked, refined and nearly perfected, others have branched out into new styles, techniques and coffees to try and find new territory in the brew.”
Today, nearly every style has been paired with coffee. No longer is it just dark roasts with dark beer; these days, you’re just as likely to see fruity, citrusy, lightly roasted beans matched to lighter beers. In fact, many modern coffee beers are less about smacking you over the head with dark-roasted coffee than trying to seamlessly integrate it into the brew, using the coffee variety’s unique aromas and flavors for added complexity. But, as we found out, it’s a tricky balancing act.