Beer and Coffee Connoisseurs Join Forces to Create Unique Beverages

It’s tough to know which group takes their craft beverages more seriously: coffee or beer aficionados. But more and more, these groups are literally combining their passions into coffee beers that are uppers and downers all in one.

At the heart of this scene is a culture of experimentation and curiosity, Brett Smith told The Boston Globe for a Nov. 19 article. “The cultures are one of experimentation with the product, trying to push the limits with the products and look for nuances,” he said.

Smith is the co-founder of Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C., which just collaborated with Sierra Nevada on a new coffee beer.

Letting the Flavors Shine

Coffee beers have traditionally been dark stouts and porters combined with bold, dark-roast coffees. That’s probably because of the flavor affinities that already exist between these products.

“For longtime drinkers of stouts and porters, the taste of coffee is apparent in the brew, even if no beans were used,” John Holl explained in All About Beer Magazine earlier this year. “Thanks to roasted grains, the longer the kiln, the more likely a beer will take on notes of coffee.”

But breweries are increasingly working with beers such as IPAs to bring out the flavors of lighter roasts of coffee.

Not all critics are convinced that such coffee beers are a good idea. For example, when listing his recommendations on good coffee beers, Jon Katz of Food Republic concluded that “While a coffee IPA might sound like an interesting experiment, it’s only been pulled off a few times successfully.”

Brew-roast teams seem game to take on the challenge. An Acton-based roaster, George Howell Coffee, is teaming up with Mystic Brewery to highlight single-origin beans and their unique characteristics.

Even though only about 20% of a coffee bean contributes to the aroma and flavor of the brewed beverage — the rest consisting merely of plant fiber — the variety of the beans and the country, soil, altitude and weather where they were grown all lend distinct aspects to the final product.

“My vision is a light beer, probably an amber ale, nothing too crazy hoppy so you can taste the coffee,” Sal Persico, a trainer at George Howell Coffee, told The Globe. “I’d like to use an Ethiopian washed coffee so you can taste the lemon, the fruity taste being strong enough so you can taste it.”

Caffeine Concerns Assuaged

It’s not always a good idea to mix caffeine and alcohol, and over the past five years the FDA has cracked down on alcoholic energy drinks (even telling seven manufacturers to remove products from shelves because they constituted a “public health concern”). At least thus far, coffee beers haven’t attracted much regulatory attention.

But brewers want to reassure consumers that these coffee beers contain a relatively small amount of coffee, being included for flavor rather than for a stimulating jolt.

“It’s probably a trivial amount of caffeine,” Jean-Claude Tetreault of Trillium Brewing explained. “It’s far less than even a cup of drip coffee, I’m sure.”

The goal of coffee-beer teams is essentially to explore flavor possibilities, according to Bill Manley, who develops beers for Sierra Nevada. “As people are exploring different expressions of coffee — where your beans come from, how it’s roasted, how it’s prepared — [they’re finding] there are so many ways you can tweak the body and the flavors and the notes you can get out of the beers,” he told The Globe. “The sky is the limit as far as what you can do with coffee and beer together.”