Coffee and beer-is there anything humankind loves more than these two beverages?
Experts in each respective field spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting the craft of growing, processing, brewing, and preparing each beverage. But in combiningthe two for the ultimate in libations – the coffee beer – questions remain.
There’s a world of roasts, origins, and price ranges to choose from, so how does a homebrewer who specializes more in the beer aspect than the coffee know where to begin? In lieu of conducting experiments that could cost one a great deal in time and potentially undrinkable beer, a team of experts on each side, in cahoots with Philly Beer Scene, gathered to find some of the answers to these age old questions.
The beer itself was prepared by Brett Mullin of Brew Your Own Bottle (BYOB), a homebrew supply store in Westmont, NJ, and Barley Legal homebrewer, Jim Fish. Mullin chose a simple stout that wasn’t particularly surprising on its own, but would serve as a good base for other flavors to stand upon. Stouts are a common coffee beer choice, as well as porters. “They’re a little bit bolder than other beers, sometimes a bit sweeter, too,” says Mullin. “The bitter of the coffee balances out with the sweet of the stout or porter.”
Coffee, much like beer, is a casual interest that can spiral into a chasm of learning. The more you learn, the more there is to learn. The experts at One Village Coffee, roasted in Souderton, PA and found in your local Whole Foods, helped guide this experiment through the many options. Woody Decasere, chief roaster at One Village, prepared a selection of their very best, a range not unlike what one might find in any coffee shop: French roast, espresso, and a couple of single origins (meaning a coffee which comes entirely from one region of the world, sometimes even one farm; see sidebar for more on the specific coffees used). And our control, the most readily available and cheapest: a bag of ShopRite Whole Bean Classic Blend which costs a whopping $2.50 for a 1-lb bag, on sale.
While this motley crew of intrepid discoverers were not entirely scientific, pains were taken to treat the various coffees equally, so as to highlight their strengths and weaknesses in a fair manner. Each coffee was coarse ground and cold-brewed, which means precisely what it sounds like: brewed without hot water. In this case, four ounces of each ground coffee was combined with 32-ounces of filtered, room temperature water. This mixture was allowed to brew for 24 hours and then triple-strained for clarity. Our goal was the strongest brewed coffee possible, in hopes that the coffee flavor would still be apparent once diluted by the beer. The resulting 16-ounces of each cold brewed coffee was added to the six stouts. When they arrived at the tasting site, each was identified only by a number for blind tasting by our group of experts.
They were not what anyone expected. Attempts were made to stifle preconceived notions, but it would be dishonest not to reveal that every coffee expert suspected that they would be able to pick out the “control coffee” (ShopRite), as well as identify their own favorites between the other mixtures. Each could have been identified easily if offered as pure coffee; imagine the Yirgacheffe and the Costa Rican as not unlike a lager and a porter side by side. An expert would taste the difference immediately. However, the addition of the beer changed everything known about the original coffee. It made up for deficiencies in some cases, and masked other flavors in unexpected ways. While each coffee beer did indeed taste unique, not even the most refined coffee palates amongst the tasters was able to pick out the ShopRite brand coffee in the final products. Even more surprising was the fact that some enjoyed that product above other beers that held high-quality coffees within.
Some generalizations can be drawn:
Go blond. Avoid darker roasts like espresso or French roasts. In our experiment, these resulted in a more bitter beer with a small range of flavors; definitely not the most exciting of the bunch. “The coffee flavors were too ‘in front’ with the darker roasts,” says Decasere. “The lighter roasts resulted in subtler, more complex notes when combined with beer.”
Be economical (if you must). You can splurge on a coffee you love and it will create a unique flavor palate in the final product, but a delicious coffee beer is not contingent upon spending big money. There are plentiful reasons you should spend the extra money for hand-crafted, quality roasted beans, however: organic farming practices which better the earth; fair compensation for farmers who grow and process the coffee bean; and receiving a fresh product created by artisans who take pride in their work which will make “leftovers” into quite a treat.
Think outside the box. Tasting the full range of what coffee beer has to offer is one of the great mysteries this experiment began to unravel. For instance, after our official experiment, Mullin did his own experiment combining the leftovers from all six coffees into one milk stout: “It was 10 times better than anything we tasted at the experiment; [those beers] couldn’t touch the milk stout.”
Keep an open mind. “I had hoped I would be able to tell [the coffees] apart, but the beer covered up some of the noticeable notes of the single origin coffees,” said Decasere. “Some of them were clearer than others, but not as much as I had expected.” Even if you brew your coffee beer with your everyday java, you might be shocked by what flavors are highlighted once all the ingredients are mixed together. Decasere, a roaster who tastes cup after cup of his wares and is intimately familiar with their nuances, was still shocked by some of the outcomes.
While these results are not wholly conclusive, that may in fact be promising for the homebrewer. This experiment indicates that all manner of delicious coffee can create an equally delicious homebrewed coffee beer. So go out into the world, support your local homebrew stores and specialty coffee roasters, and happy brewing.
10 lbs. of Maris Otter
½ lb. roasted barley
½ lb. chocolate malt
¼ lb. Black Patent
1 lb. flake barley
3 ounces of East Kent Goldings hops
1056 American ale yeast/WLP001
yeast/SAF Ale 05 — Chico-strained