I seem to have accumulated several coffee beers in my trusty beer fridge recently. Coffee in beer is by no means a new trend, but more breweries are using it these days and are certainly using it better than in the past! I remember making a coffee stout back in the 1990's, where the recipe called for adding coffee grounds to the last 15 minutes of the boil. The resulting bitter and disgusting beer promptly turned me off of the idea for several years. After learning of the cold-press technique of adding coffee to beers from the brewers at Surly (when tasting one of the first kegs of Surly Bender) I tried doing that myself. One of my personal homebrewing high points was getting the chance to let John Maier from Rogue try my coffee infused sweet stout at the AHA conference when it was held in Minnesota! I recently took another try at that recipe and made it to second round of NHC. Unfortunately the coffee flavor faded by the time second round came along and I didn't win a medal.
I thought I would go through some of the commercial examples of coffee beers.
Lets get one thing straight before we begin--not everyone likes coffee. I find that a good number of people do, and many brewers appreciate the differences in roast and bean variety, but a fair number of folks just can't stand it. For many people this may be as simple as not liking that watery bitter brew that is served throughout diners, offices, and hospitals across the USA. The equivalent in beer would be deciding that you don't like any beer because you can't stand Bud Light. The variations in coffee can be intimidating but with some experience and education you can learn to appreciate the differences. I actually roast my own coffee beans from time to time, after Andrew Klosinski did a demonstration for our homebrew club several years back. I still order my beans from a friend named Sam who runs the quaint Coffee Tree & Tea Leaves in Chicago. Sam has a blend of light and dark roast coffees named after himself that merges the best of both light and dark into one complex and wonderful brew. Despite my coffee geekery, I also still appreciate flavored coffee and use cream and sugar in my daily brew. Because of different tastes (or dislikes) regarding coffee, your agreement with my reviews may vary! If you haven't had much experience with coffee beers, keep an open mind and maybe try some of my higher rated beers as a starting point. I find that (like all beers) my favorites tend to be the well balanced ones where the flavors all compliment each other. However I do enjoy a few that are a bit extreme…
Indeed Burr Grinder: This is a lower alcohol beer, coming in at 5.1% ABV and 15 IBU. Indeed has paired with local Northeast Minneapolis neighbor Dogwood Coffee to make this particular beer. It is infused with ground Colombia El Meridiano coffee before being finished with cold brewed Dogwood NEON. I've been pretty happy with Indeed's beers and love their Northeast taproom, so I was happy to get to try this one. The namesake for this beer is the burr grinder, a coffee grinder thought by most coffee aficianados to be the best. I have cheaper model at home and it certainly improves the coffee consistency versus the blade grinder I used to use. The beer comes in a 750 ml bottle with an attractive design and wax-dipped top.
Aroma: Bright light roast coffee aroma up front with a bit of sweet malt and caramel. No hop aroma. Fairly subtle overall.
Appearance: Pours a ruby to nearly brown color with excellent clarity. A fine off-white head that is od medium size.
Flavor: Strong coffee flavor at the start and really is present throughout the whole tasting process. Some malt sweetness and toffee flavors balance the astringency of the roasted beans. This is a lighter bodied beer with an off-dry finish.
Overall: A good use of coffee as the star of this beer. The coffee is fresh and bright tasting without the burnt character that often accompanies the style. A well balanced creation and very drinkable. 4 out of 5 for me.
Fulton War & Peace: This is Fulton's Worthy Adversary Imperial Stout aged on whole dark roast coffee beans from Peace Coffee. The regular version of the stout is O.K. in my book, but not in my favorites. This is 9.5% ABV, so most definitely a sipper! The day after Winterfest this year Sj and I hung around Minneapolis and ended up walking into Fulton's tap room randomly on the release day for this beer. That was a happy experience and we were able to talk with one of the brewer/owners and also try samples of the Peace Coffee they were serving that day. I bought my allotment of beers that day, but there are still some to be found around the twin cities right now.
Aroma: Sweet cocoa and roasted dark grains are dominant. I get a slight yeasty aroma as well. As it warms I get more coffee and even some dark fruit aromas.
Appearance: This is nearly opaque and black as night. A fine tan head that fades quickly.
Flavor: Sweet malted milk and chocolate up front that drifts off to a bittersweet chocolate off-dry finish. Dark roast espresso coffee comes in on the second sip and lingers after the finish. A hint of dark cherry as it warms and some caramel as well. Mouthfeel is a bit lighter than many RIS beers. The end is nearly astringent. Mild alcohol warming effect.
Overall: For me this is Fulton's best beer by far. The coffee flavors in this ratchet up the complexity and make this far better than the Worthy Adversary. In a milder beer the dark roast beans would make this astringent and undrinkable, but I think they hit the balance just right for my tastes. 4.5 of 5.
Alesmith Speedway Stout: This is a 12% ABV Imperial stout, brewed in 2013 and accumulated at Cassanova in Hudson, WI about a month ago. They include Ryan Brothers Coffee in the beer, but I'm not sure where in the process they add it in. The web page suggests food pairings and aging of the beer.
Aroma: Milk chocolate with a malty sweetness. Roasted dark grains and mild fresh coffee aroma. No hop aroma. Minimal esters.
Appearance: Poured into a snifter glass (as suggested by the bottle), at 50 degrees F. Pitch black! Huge fine head that is nearly auburn in color. Head is persistent.
Flavor: A burst of expensive dark chocolate up front with a slow fade to a professional coffee shop Mocha, with coffee and chocolate finish. There is a slight roast bitterness, but this is balanced much more to the sweet side without being cloying. Alcohol is mild and not distracting. Mouthfeel is incredibly creamy and smooth.
Overall: This beer has wonderful balance and drinkability despite its high alcohol content. The coffee is mellow and not the star of this beer, but does add complexity to the beer. The mouthfeel on this is without peer. I give this a straight up 5!
Emelisse Espresso Stout: This is a beer from a craft brewery in Holland. I tried this at the recommendation of the owner of Café Frape while staying in Maastricht, Netherlands this spring. I was not sure what to expect but ended up with one of the most "American" style beers I had during my whole trip. This was an Imperial Stout clocking in at around 10% ABV. I don't know much about the beer since the website is in Dutch! This one had a strong sweet Russian Imperial style base, with a lot of roast malt presence. I could pick up dark roasted coffee, but it bordered on the astringent side. A great beer, but the coffee could have been a bit more balanced with the beer. 4/5.
Flying Dog Kujo: This is a 8.9% ABV Imperial Stout, brewed with Black Dog Coffee out of Summit Point West Virginia. I have really not loved Flying Dog beers in the past, but one of the guys from the Four Firkins opened one for me to try and I'm a convert! I brought a couple home for more intense "study".
Aroma: Cinnamon, milk chocolate, roasted grains. Sweetened condensed milk and light roast coffee as it warms up.
Appearance: Deep black in color. Rich dark tan to brown head. Head fades to sides of glass fairly quickly.
Flavor: There is very bright and flavorful coffee up front in the beer. The initial smack in the face of coffee fades to a semi-sweet chocolate flavor and a bitter finish. There is a bit of grain sweetness, but the coffee is strong in this one and dries the beer out. The roast seems lighter, with a zippiness and lack of burnt flavor I tend to note in darker roasts. This beer has a rich and creamy mouthfeel.
Overall: This is outstanding! An incredible use of coffee, where the beer is elevated by it and not over-run by it. Also a great base beer. 5/5!
Evil Twin Imperial Doughnut Break: This is a brewery that has only recently come the Minnesota market and I'm still trying to get a handle on their beers. This is an 11.5% ABV Imperial porter with coffee and "natural flavorings".
Aroma: Dark, almost burnt coffee aroma. Sweetness, chocolate, and a lot of alcohol. Hints of cinnamon as it warms.
Appearance: Deep black and oil-like with legs on the glass. Dark tan to almost full brown head that persists well for such a high gravity beer. Opaque.
Flavor: Sweet at first but not cloying. Mild brown sugar and cinnamon flavors in the middle. The finish is fairly dry and borders on too astringent. The coffee flavor mimics the aroma--dark espresso, almost charred. Mouthfeel is thick. Semi-sweet chocolate at finish as it warms up more. 4/5
Surly Coffee Bender: I couldn't do a coffee beer write up without including one of the most easily accessible (and one of the very first available) coffee beers in Minnesota. As mentioned above, I remember tasting one of the very first versions of this at a Surly beer dinner at North Coast Restaurant nearly 7 years ago. At that time they were adding coffee beans directly to a small keg of Bender and only serving it at special events. Now they are canning this beer and one can find it all over. Looking back at that first time--the incredible coffee aroma and flavors--I still smile! Bender is a brown ale, brewed with oats, that doesn't quite fit any BJCP beer style. Add coffee and it just gets more interesting. My thanks to Derek Allmendinger for giving me this one--I actually haven't had one of these in about 2 years!
Aroma: Very strong medium to light roast coffee right away. Earthy, smooth, roasted. This strikes me as the aroma of cold-press coffee and is quite intense. Light chocolate notes and a hint of sugar sweetness as it warms and the initial SMACK of coffee fades.
Appearance: Deep brown, but not black. Ruby highlights at edges and clarity is slightly hazy. Fine off-white head that fades slowly.
Flavor: Smack-you-in-the-face fresh cold-press coffee. Almost like drinking a lighter iced mocha. The coffee is quite strong up front, and continues through-out the entire taste--changing as it hits different areas of the tongue and palate. There is some mild malt sweetness, but the coffee does dry this beer out compared to regular Bender. There is a lingering coffee and dry cocoa flavor on the finish and a light astringency.
Overall: A very good beer that uses the coffee to its utmost. The base beer gets lost a bit in this intense coffee flavor, but is a nice vehicle for it. 4/5