Not everyone loves coffee in the morning, but beer lovers tend to at least appreciate the “roasty” flavors that accompany their porters, stouts, and other “dark” styles. Those roasty flavors tend to include (or at least butt up against) the same flavors we get from coffee, so it’s no surprise that “coffee beers” are popular even among those who aren’t every day java drinkers. Brewing coffee beer isn’t hard – which isn’t to say that it’s as simple as throwing beans into the mash!
There’s a few right ways to do this, and at least one wrong way, and coffee can add interesting and unique flavors that you aren’t likely to get from roasted grains alone. Pick a good bean and incorporate it conscientiously and you can turn almost any beer – not just your favorite stout – into a coffee beer.
These beers belong in category 30 of the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Spiced Beer – specifically, 30A, “Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer.” This might end up sounding repetitive, but like most specialty sub-categories the guidelines recommend “balance” as a key attribute. The special ingredient should be noticeable (“evident”), but the beer should still be recognizable as beer.
This is, arguably, rather easier with coffee beers than with many other ingredients we might put into a beer of this category since coffee flavors already exist in the beer flavor wheel. However, the degree of difficulty goes up significantly when you start playing around with coffee in lighter styles that don’t generally see chocolate malts.
You’re also required to declare a base style if entering this category in competition, but like Fruit Beer it isn’t necessary to identify a specific classic style/subcategory. “Stout” is fine, as is “Brown Ale,” and I hesitate to go further than that. It’s easier to be judged against a generic style identifier than a specific one, so why set yourself a more-difficult challenge? Other than that, all perceptions and vital stats will vary with the beer and the ingredient, so the rest is up to you as long as (again) we have that harmonious marriage of ingredient and style.
You can coffee up most any style, but it’s hard to argue with the attractiveness of a coffee stout. It’s an easier target to hit, the secondary flavors already set up to balance the bitterness and acidity we may add with coffee, and it’s easy to explain. But do you take a good stout recipe and swap out some chocolate malts for coffee, or just add coffee to a good recipe? The latter is easier, and since we’re looking to add more roast I recommend starting with a recipe for a relatively “mild” stout: Oatmeal Stout fits the bill perfectly.
It’s not an identical recipe, but it’s pretty close. Begin with the same five pounds (2.3kg) of Maris Otter, but instead of a single pound of Munich I like to double that to two (0.9kg). Then I remove the flaked oats, but leave behind a single pound (0.45kg) of Victory malt. What about the chocolate malts? Instead of pale chocolate (which has a more-complex flavor), sub in a single pound of regular chocolate malt (350-400L). That will give a simple roasty background note that will augment (but not compete with) your coffee addition. The rest of the recipe (eight ounces/0.23kg each of Crystal 45 and Midnight Wheat) can stay the same, for consistency/access to ingredients if no other reason.
25 IBUs of bittering hops at the 60 minute mark and an ounce (28g) of Fuggles at flame-out (a little later than the Oatmeal Stout recipe – I like some earthy hops in the nose on this beer) will do for hops.
London Ale III still works well for this recipe (Wyeast 1318), but to be honest you’ll probably lose the subtle esters under the coffee.
Speaking of which, get your hands on about eight ounces (0.23kg) to a pound of coffee per five-gallon batch. You want the best-tasting, best-smelling coffee you can get your hands on. Find a local roaster and try some brewed, and also smell it dry (just roasted, not brewed). I tend to select for more cocoa, vanilla, nutty flavors and avoid anything that still smells a little too raw/green, but pick what you like!
Brew the beer as usual and don’t let that coffee ANYWHERE near the boil kettle – that’s the one way to do it wrong. Your coffee will be added on the cold side. Mash, boil, whirlpool, chill, and ferment at 66F/19C for about two weeks.
Now it’s time to add the coffee.
I prefer cold-steeping it in a sealed container for 2-3 days, then straining and adding the liquid to taste just before bottling/kegging. At the same time, I dry-bean (put some coarse-ground beans in a hop bag) with 2-3 ounces of the coffee for the same 2-3 days. It seems to add a more-apparent “this is coffee, not just roasted malt” flavor that cues the brain to pick up out the more-subtle coffee flavors in the finished beer.
Once you get the process down for your system and palate, you can play around with the amount and type of coffee involved, and you should also start playing around with the styles of coffee beer you brew!
One of the best beers I had in 2015 was a coffee blonde ale, and I still remember how surprised I was at the way the coffee flavors meshed with the lighter graininess. Think of coffee as an all-around beer ingredient like honey or fruit, and you can really have some fun with it.