Heritage Coffee has been in business since 1974, so they’re really one of the OGs of gourmet coffee roasting in America—contemporaries of Starbucks and other Pacific Northwest coffee roasters who created the type of coffee we all now drink every day. They were enamored with the bold Italian coffees that they encountered in European travels. In many ways that coffee scene of the seventies had parallels to the craft-beer scene in the eighties and even today—small operators were trying to emulate and even surpass the flavors they craved from Europe and eventually created their own styles.
That’s how we started at Alaskan—our cofounder, Geoff Larson, was obsessed with European beers, and he began this brewery by emulating a Czech-style beer and eventually mastered smoked beers, ESBs, and a variety of European styles, all while bringing the Alaskan twist to the flavors.
So when I started looking at coffee beers, I got interested in the idea of pairing that great rich coffee aroma and flavor with a beer that wouldn’t mask or simply duplicate those qualities but would instead accentuate them. Most of the coffee beers I’ve tried have been coffee stouts and porters, which can be great but often work on the idea of melding the roast characters of the malt with the roast of the coffee.
I grew interested in the idea of letting that coffee character benefit from a neutral-to-just-a-little-sweet beer base so that the flavors were less mingled and more distinct on the roasted end. To do that effectively, I needed a coffee roast that would match with the less acidic flavor I was after.
First, we did a series of cuppings with Heritage Coffee to get to a coffee flavor that was high in vanilla and mellow richness while low on acidic dark- roast character. We picked a Brazilian blend called Paixao that is exclusive to Heritage. It’s a medium-to-light roast that we thought would work perfectly with the simple brown ale I was planning to brew—then we started brainstorming on a more radical idea.
That radical idea was inspired by one of the beers we are best known for—the Alaskan Smoked Porter. Every year we go through the pretty long process of smoking our malt for use in the Smoked Porter using a repurposed salmon smoker. Each batch takes more than twenty-four hours, and with the volume of Smoked Porter we produce, the smoking process goes on for a few weeks. That process made us think about other techniques of modifying malt once we get it here in the brewhouse and ultimately led to the idea of using a coffee roaster.
Roasting malt in a coffee roaster is actually a pretty complicated problem. We started talking to the roasters at Heritage Coffee, and we began to realize that roasting the malts on their own wouldn’t really impart any coffee flavor to the malt—that in order to get that flavor, the malt should be roasted with coffee beans. But that is a real issue, because the flash point of malt is below the flash point of coffee beans, creating a very legitimate risk of fire.
That was a fun day, watching the roasters get really nervous about the possibility of their vintage coffee roaster going up in flames! They had to be vigilant about the temperature and the amount of time they allowed for the roasts. We did a series of them, and then left the malt overnight with the coffee beans, so they absorbed the oils from the coffee and ended up smelling like a delicious sweet mild coffee roast. The malts also tasted amazing.
With the malt component settled, it was time to work through the coffee addition process. We knew we wanted intense coffee flavor, but without bitterness, so Heritage Coffee advised us to cold brew the Paixao coffee that we added to the brown ale. We used our 10-barrel lauter tun for the cold-brew vessel, added a bunch of distilled water and coffee, and kept the mix in the high 30s Fahrenheit (2–3°C). The brew that came out of that process was very strong and concentrated but very low in bitterness.
From there it was just a matter of brewing up a nice mellow and slightly sweet brown ale in the tradition of an English nut brown, using a good portion of the coffee-roasted malt and then adding the cold-brewed coffee.
Concentrating on the mellow and smooth qualities in coffee rather than the roast elements was the turning point for making the beer, and that decision was validated by a gold medal in the coffee beer category at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. Coffee is an extremely strong flavor, and the roast and bitter elements of it can overpower the relatively delicate flavors of beer. Getting that correct coffee bean and complementary roast was the key to me mastering that beer.