Ask a brewer why (s)he adds coffee to his or her stout and the answer tends to go a lot like this: “We all love coffee, and we drink a lot of it around here. We also drink a lot of beer, so putting the two together just made sense.”
However, ask brewers how they add coffee to their stout, and the results vary as widely as the coffee varietals used.
Fresh Ground Coffee, Straight in the Beer
The first coffee beer ever created at Epic Brewing Company (Salt Lake City, Utah) was the now infamous Big Bad Baptist, an imperial stout with added cacao and coffee that’s aged in whiskey barrels. “Coffee selection that went into that beer was based solely on types of coffee that we liked,” says Ryan Buxton, Epic’s head cellarman. “We were working with a local roaster here in Salt Lake City—Caffe Ibis—and it happened to work pretty well.”
Since its debut in 2011, Epic has released sixty-two batches of this “over-indulgent” coffee stout, as Buxton jokingly puts it. The beer has won multiple awards at the Denver International Beer Competition, and last year it won a silver medal at the Brussels Beer Challenge in the Coffee Beer category. “One of the things I feel that makes Big Bad Baptist so amazing is the bourbon character,” Buxton says. “We’re able to blend that beer and create big vanilla notes and caramel from the barrel.”
Next up for Epic Brewing in the coffee-beer category is an experimental, non-barrel-aged coffee imperial stout called Son of a Baptist. This time around, the coffee selection process is extensive, including sensory analysis of coffee varieties from across the country. The brewery has partnered with ten of its favorite coffee roasters in the United States to create a stout flavor profile designed to highlight small-batch coffee varietals. Accordingly, this 8 percent ABV imperial stout will vary widely from batch to batch.
One of these batches, for example, uses a Rwanda Buremera coffee variety from The Red E Café and Roastery in Portland, Oregon. The coffee imparts notes of honey and apricot jam. Another batch uses a Costa Rican coffee variety roasted at Cultivar Coffee in Dallas, Texas, that gives this imperial stout pomegranate and chocolate flavors.
The Son of a Baptist series is a lot like the single-hops IPA series that we’re seeing from craft breweries across the country, Buxton says. “If we respect hops so much and their regions,” he affirms, “then we should be doing the same thing with our roasters and coffee varietals.”
“These beers let the coffee variety speak for itself,” adds Matthew Allred, Epic’s communication director. “The flavor spectrum of these beers is amazing—you get everything from sweet blueberry pancakes to tobacco and leather notes, and everything in between.”
Big Bad Baptist and Son of a Baptist are both created with fresh-ground coffee that goes into the beers before they are filtered. “A lot of breweries will make a cold brew and add that to the beer,” says Buxton. “The fact that we grind the coffee and put it directly into the beer is pretty unique.
“We’ve been working on Son of a Baptist for more than eight months, and like everything here it’s an evolution,” Buxton adds. Whereas he used to use a Turkish grind (the finest grind possible) for the coffee in the beer, sensory evaluation has determined that a coarser French-press grind yields the flavor profile that he’s looking for in the beer. “While a Turkish grind is good for extraction value, I find that the tannins and bitterness come out more. That leads to more of that burnt, acrid character that I don’t really love in coffee beers,” he explains. “A coarser grind makes for a more full-bodied, balanced, drinkable, and approachable coffee flavor.”
Buxton and his team also tested whole coffee beans in their sensory on this beer and didn’t think they imparted enough coffee flavor.
The Cold Toddy Method
“I can’t speak to the actual differences in coffee extraction methods as I’ve never done a side-by-side comparison where the extraction method is the independent variable,” says Perennial Artisan Ales Owner and Brewer Phil Wymore, “although I plan to do this someday when I have time.”
Unlike Epic, Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis, Missouri, is using a “cold ‘toddy’ extraction method” to infuse coffee into its Sump Coffee Stout. This seasonal release literally has crowds lined up outside the brewery door on release days, and the barrel-aged version of this beer earned a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013.
Similar to Epic, Perennial Artisan Ales uses a coarse coffee grind for this method. “Basically, we take coarse-ground coffee and steep it in cold water for about twenty-four hours,” explains Wymore. “We coarse-filter the toddy and blend it in with the stout, post-fermentation, just before carbonating and packaging the beer.”
Using cold water instead of the alcohol in the beer to extract the flavor from the coffee minimizes potential acidity from the coffee, Wymore continues. “Also, this method allows us a degree of control in bench-blending trials to find a ratio in which the impact of the coffee is in balance with the body of the stout,” he says. “Because the toddy is mostly water, there is an inverse relationship between the two. As coffee intensity increases, the stout becomes more diluted.”
When it comes to choosing the coffee for Sump, Perennial relies on a local roaster to suggest the varietals. “Scott Carey at Sump Coffee Roasters sources several different lots of coffee that he thinks will work well. He roasts the samples, and we do a cupping at his shop. We then blend the coffees individually with base stout, evaluate each one, and make choices based our impressions.”
Advice For Homebrewers
“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” suggests Jeff Griffith, head brewer at Fate Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado, to homebrewers using coffee. “Coffee can be used and introduced in many ways into a beer. I’ve done them all, and I don’t think there is a wrong way. You can get different flavor results depending on how, when, where, and what form of coffee is used.”
Phil Wymore of Perennial Artisan Ales suggests that homebrewers should select great coffee based on aroma and flavor. “Make a cup and give it some sensory evaluation, rather than just buying a bag and using it blindly,” he says. “Try to buy direct from a small roaster (or roast your own) and pay attention to the roast date. Coffee can die pretty quickly—I would try to use coffee that has been roasted within ten days. Buy whole bean coffee and grind it fresh, just prior to use. Experiment with different extraction methods and take good notes!”
Award-winning homebrewer Karl Weiss and his brother Joseph, a coffee-roasting guru, guide you through everything you need to know to brew with coffee in Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online course Coffee & Beer: From Roasting to Brewing. Sign up today!