Brews brothers

Coffee and beer, on the face of it, may not appear to share many things in common. One’s a stimulant; one’s a relaxant. One’s mostly drunk in the morning; one’s mostly drunk at night. But as we all know, opposites attract, and the marriage of these two beverages has been giving pleasure to drinkers for the past couple of decades. Photo by Bentley Creative

It’s impossible to know exactly when home brewers put the two together but it’s been happening since at least 1991, when beer writer Charlie Papazian published The Complete Joy Of Home Brewing. This best-seller not only suggested coffee as an ingredient but also discussed the intricacies of overextracting coffee, the temperature at which to brew the coffee and the effects it has on a beer’s flavour. In the recent fourth edition, Papazian mentions that coffee beers are now available from both craft and large breweries. The US Open Beer Championship now has a coffee beer category (number 73, to be exact), while the World Beer Awards honours chocolate and coffee flavoured ales. Meanwhile, home-brewed beers also made an appearance at this year’s CupNorth in Manchester.

And despite those superficial differences, beer and coffee pair remarkably well for a number of reasons. When making beer, malt is toasted to produce similar flavours to coffee, and it’s even rested in a much the same way, allowing for the aromatics and flavours to balance. Stouts and porters – while they may not use the detail of a roast curve, with its balance of Maillard and caramelisation processes – are the prime candidates for partnering with coffee flavour-wise, and yield the most commonly found results. However, you’ll find more and more variations are appearing – perhaps the beer brewer’s equivalent of discovering a lighter roast.

One interesting parallel is the understanding of water, and how it affects the brewing process in both drinks. As champion barista Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood and chemist Christopher Hendon explained in their exploration of water chemistry for coffee, the pH level and mineral content of water are crucial to coffee – and the same is true for beer, where they play a big part in style and behaviour of a beer, controlling many elements in the wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process), protein formation and clarity.

Temperature also plays a key role in the extraction process and the balance between hops and bitterness. During the boil – the part of brewing when the hops are added in stages to produce bitterness, flavour and aroma (in that order) – a beer brewer is using their knowledge of temperature and timing to produce the desired effect, in a manner not far removed from what you might see in a coffee bar. Since it’s starting to seem that coffee and beer actually have more things in common than points of difference, perhaps the next crossover will be a way to measure the IBU (international bitterness unit, the means of measuring the bitterness of beer) of a coffee as standard…

So what next? Given the growth of both speciality coffee and craft breweries, including the founding of some breweries by ex-coffee people, there will undoubtedly be more collaborations to come and more products to enjoy. Perhaps in an unexpected way – using spent grain to make bread and smearing it with Square Mile’s chaff butter? Using wort as an alternative to sugar in a café? Whichever it is, it will help us gain a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of brewing, extraction and flavour.

Here’s our pick of the best coffee beers we’ve tasted. 

 

NORTHERN MONK & NORTH STAR

Leeds-based Northern Monk, which started brewing in 2013, has produced a number of coffee beers in collaboration with North Star Coffee Roasters, including Northern Star Mocha Porter (5.9%), which is a part of its core range.

We tried two of the three beers created for the Northern Monk Patrons project, an initiative set up to foster collaboration, creativity and community between artists, athletes and creatives across the north of England. As well as the two below, there is a Rwanda Gashonga.

Northern Monk Patrons 1.02 Coffee Porter Costa Rica San Isidro (7.4%)

Surprisingly hoppy, good green sweetness and fresh fruity dried pineapple notes. Caramel and treacle undertones pair well with the honeyed sweetness and balanced fruit tones, moving a little more to red berry as it sits and warms. Impressive amount of coffee character shining through. A good pairing.

Northern Monk Patrons 1.03 Coffee Porter Nicaragua Cerro De Jesus (7.4%)

Tarter than the 1.02, leaving a slightly drier aromatic tone to the toasted malt. With a cleaner, clementine/mandarin quality to the fruity side, the lightness of acidity doesn’t quite sit as well with the expected body, but it’s a pleasant drink nonetheless. The mandarin moves more to orange peel as the drink opens up, but not in a way that truly feels balanced.

 

MAGIC ROCK & DARK WOODS

With its promise to deliver a “taste experience… magically removed from the mundane”, it makes sense that Magic Rock has paired up with its Huddersfield counterpart Dark Woods Coffee. While Dark Woods has been making quiet but consistent inroads to the northern coffee scene, Magic Rock achieved the rating of “2nd Best New Brewery in the World 2012” on beer scoring website RateBeer, and regularly produces “hop forward beers” – think big explosions of flavour – and some cracking artwork too.

Common Grounds Triple Coffee Porter (5.4%)

Brewed not only with coffee but with cacao nibs and vanilla too, this is about as close to a mocha as you’ll find in a can. There’s a pleasing mouthfeel, good lingering sweetness and a touch of balancing bitterness that works really well. I can’t help but think of ice cream with this one – it would be fantastic after lunch.

 

SIREN & TAMP CULTURE

Siren Craft Brew, based south of Reading, has a great line-up of adventurous beers. Among its core offering is Broken Dream, a breakfast stout developed with fellow Reading stalwart Tamp Culture Coffee.

The brewery has also recently launched Blacklight Banana, an imperial stout/imperial brown ale hybrid developed for the Rainbow Project. This project, initiated by Siren in 2013, sees seven breweries come together each year to brew beers inspired by the colours of the rainbow. Blacklight Banana was brewed for indigo, as ripe bananas glow bright indigo under UV lights. The coffee in this was stored first in sour mash bourbon barrels before being hand-roasted and used in the beer, enhancing the coffee notes of the stout and introducing a slight whisky edge.

Siren Craft Brew Broken Dream Breakfast Stout (6.7%)

A simple yet not displeasing stout, with a touch of bitterness and a lactic tang for a little edge. Toasty, with oats and coffee more dominant than any hops. This was made using Sumatran coffee, and the simplicity of this belies a well-made beer. Up against a challenging field, this beer doesn’t shine, but pitted against a broader selection it would more than hold its own.

Siren Craft Brew/Garage Project Blacklight Banana (9.2%)

There’s definitely a touch of banana from the yeast, but it isn’t as dominant as in a wheat beer. The whisky edge is there, but much more subtle than you’d perhaps expect, and it’s all the better for it. The alcohol level reminds me a touch of Bush and other Belgian-style, high-alcohol, malt-heavy beers, with treacle notes and heavy sweetness, although the coffee definitely adds depth to this hugely complex beer. It’s one that will no doubt cause a disagreement or two about which flavours are contained within.

 

WEIRD BEARD & HAS BEAN

The highly regarded Weird Beard Brew Co, based just off the M4 in west London, has been experimenting with coffee beers for some time. Its original concoction is a milk stout called Black Perle, brewed in conjunction with Has Bean, which is one of the company’s core beers. Double Perle is Weird Beard’s 100th brew, and has a few tweaks, less water and a little more kick. It uses the ever-awesome Finca Limoncello pacamara from Has Bean, and is available as a regular in Weird Beard’s line-up but in limited quantities owing to its popularity.

Weird Beard Double Perle Coffee Milk Stout (8.6%)

This is dark and the pour made me think it would be syrupy, but it actually displays a pleasant, honey-like body. The milk comes from using lactose, or milk sugar, which makes it a sweet stout and works well with a great balance of dried fruit and coffee notes. There is no aggressiveness despite the 8.6% strength, and there’s a complexity to this that really reveals itself during a slower drink.

 

The UK’s best?      

Electric Bear Mochachocolata Ya Ya! Caramel Coffee Milk Stout (5.1%)

This beer from Bath brewing company Electric Bear was judged the UK’s Best Chocolate & Coffee Flavoured Beer at the World Beer Awards. Electric Bear is a relatively new brewery that sits nicely alongside the region’s speciality coffee companies. The nose on this beer is flowery and zesty, with a dried floral aromatic quality and incredible lightness. The distinct coconut note works excellently with the caramel tones, and the coffee, though not from a speciality roaster, is there, albeit in a supporting role. Understandably an award winner, even against some stiff competition.