Coconut is a versatile tropical fruit that has a range of flavors depending on how it’s prepared. It can taste nutty, roasty, rich, silky smooth, or sweet, or even a combination of all of those. Because of its ability to morph into so many flavors, as well as its own amazing flavor, it’s one I’ve used several times in my beer-making.
Where to Get the Flavor
Depending on the resources around you, your ability to use coconut flavors in your beer should be pretty easy. And when you’re just getting acquainted with coconut, you might want to brew up a big batch of base beer, then divide it three or four ways to experiment with additions to find your favorite method.
Fresh coconut might be tricky to come by locally, depending on where you live and the season. You’ll want to separate the white meat from the outer brown shell and chop the meat into small pieces, or use a peeler to get some nice-sized flakes.
Flaked coconut is found in most baking sections of the grocery store, usually in 1-pound (454 g) bags. Be very careful when making your selection that you choose the unsweetened variety, or you’re going to have some very different outcomes than expected!
When using either the fresh or flaked coconut, you’ll want to think about the flavors you’re shooting for. Toasted/roasted coconut brings out a rich, nutty, earthy flavor, which goes beautifully with darker beers such as stouts, browns, and porters. Roasting also cuts down on the oils that can lead to a reduced flavor, mouthfeel, and head in the beer. If you throw coconut in fresh, you’re going to have quite a bit more oil in your batch, but the flavors will be sweet and more tropical-leaning.
Because of coconut’s oil issue and lack of availability, many opt for coconut extract, liquors, or tinctures. Using real coconut produces a more subtle coconut flavor profile whereas these liquid additions could be much easier to overuse. Start by adding a very small amount at a time, stopping occasionally to taste the beer—if it’s underflavored, slowly add more, and repeat the process until you achieve the desired flavor.
Extracts are great because they’re very easily available, inexpensive, and fairly easy to add to a batch. Be sure you’re using an actual extract rather than the coconut “flavoring” because you’ll get a much better flavor out of the extract.
Coconut liquors are pretty easy to come by in liquor stores. Not long ago, I made an Almond Joy Milk Stout with coconut-spiced rum that was phenomenal. But I also found coconut-flavored vodka that gives a cleaner coconut flavor, if the rum and spices aren’t your thing.
Some have tried using coconut milk with good results. However, it’s very fatty and oily, so you’re definitely going to have to either sacrifice mouthfeel and carbonation or make some adjustments to your grain bill by adding flaked oats.
Making a tincture is another route to take. This way you can choose your base alcohol and have a nice reserve for batches down the road or to add more to your keg if the coconut flavor turns out a little light.
And finally, hops. Unexpected as it might be to some, the Cashmere hops variety (introduced in 2014) has some melon and coconut flavors. You’ll want to look at various ways to get the best coconut flavor to show through, but many have reported that dry hopping is the way to go.
The Best Base Beers
I’ve already mentioned porters and stouts (and let’s not forget brown ales!) being great base beers for coconut, and most of us might feel more at ease going with the darker beers—at least to begin with. But there are so many others to get creative with. Once you feel confident enough to get outside of that comfort zone, it’s time to go for some other styles, too!
Lighter-colored beers such as IPAs, hefeweizens, witbiers, and Berliner weisses work well with coconut, especially when complemented with citrusy or melon flavors. You can add the citrus flavors with actual fruit or juice, use citrusy hops varieties, or a little of both. Depending on your personal taste, you might want to avoid using roasted coconut in these types of beers since the nuttier flavor that results from roasting could clash with the brightness typical of these styles of beer. If that’s the case, I recommend opting for the extract or tincture.
Coconut on its own is delicious. But once you’ve nailed the type of coconut addition you’re going to use, along with the type of beer you want to brew, try having some fun with additional flavors.
For darker beers, I love how coffee, caramel, chocolate, and other nutty flavors (almond, walnut, and hazelnut, for example) play with coconut. The result is a rich drink that would be tempting to swap for your morning coffee (on your days off, of course!). One of my favorite batches yet is my Almond Joy Milk Stout, which inspired me to play with hazelnut and whip up a batch of Nutella Milk Stout.
On the lighter side, banana and lime with coconut would be amazing in a hefeweizen or witbier. In an IPA, pineapple—whether from fruit or hops or both—and coconut would almost taste like sipping a Pina colada right from the coconut. In a saison, I’d recommend tart cherries or stone fruits with the coconut to play nicely with the fruity esters.
And now that we’re all thirsty and craving these beers, let’s talk about when to add the coconut so you can get to making them.
When to Add Coconut
When you add the coconut flavor is important to your final result and greatly impacts how much flavor you get. Most brewers don’t add enough coconut in their first batch, thinking that adding a pound or more seems crazy. It’s not. Coconut is a bit subdued and has a tendency to take a nap in the corner while the other flavors are having a food fight.
Adding fresh or flaked coconut to the boil probably isn’t my first choice, but it’s definitely an option. As with most other fruits, you should add it late in the boil—as close to flameout as possible is ideal. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting some not-too-great off-flavors if the coconut is boiled for too long.
Adding coconut during fermentation is a better option. However, the fermentation process might eat up all the coconut flavor, so many opt for adding it to a secondary for as long as a few weeks. If you go this route, I recommend checking the flavor every week or so until it’s right where you want it.
If you’re using extract, liquor, or a tincture, I’d recommend adding it right at bottling/kegging for the strongest amount of flavor. Again, fermentation might eat some of the goodies you’re trying to bring out, so don’t be counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve!
Have you brewed with coconut? We’d love to hear about your successes—and disasters!
From coffee and spices to chiles and fruit, CB&B’s online class Adding Flavors to Beer shows you how to complement malt and hops with flavors that flagrantly violate the Reinheitsgebot. Sign up today!