Hops, barley, and coconut: one of these things is not quite like the others. Coconut obviously does not usually thrive in traditional barley and hop-growing regions, and is a fairly contemporary addition to beer profiles and recipes. And yet, it’s cropping up in quite a few places. I like coconut, and I like beer, so let’s take a look at why brewers might be interested in the combination, and why beer-drinkers are excited about the products.
First, although coconut is a somewhat newer ingredient in beer, it’s key to note the long tradition of using imported and exotic ingredients in many craft products, especially high-end and/or long-aged products. Depending on when in time and where in the world, coriander, black pepper, bitter orange, cinnamon, chocolate and vanilla could have all been pretty hard-to-acquire ingredients. While we now have essentially obscured the exoticism of most imported agricultural goods with our access to a thriving global market, some of those ingredients (ie., pepper, orange, etc.) in their time would have been rather inaccessible to the average consumer. Many of those ingredients came with a high price, but some were more moderate. For all costs, the producers tried their best to showcase the products–often in a beverage (beer, and others) or dessert–in other words, highly-prized but actually non-essential consumable items. Wait, did I just say that? Strikethrough. Beer is essential. Truth.
Coconut has many friends in flavor, but some tend to recur. Top choices: chocolate, caramel, nuts, vanilla. Some classic dessert elements, yes, but I’m most interested in the first two in this discussion. Roast barley and caramel malt share many flavors with chocolate and caramel, so it’s a pretty natural combination to use coconut in a stout or porter. Yes! Sometimes brewers choose to barrel-age these styles, and sometimes they leave them as they are. Intriguingly, one of the major flavor compounds in coconut, gamma-Nonalactone, is also present (and often prominent) in, wait for it, bourbon! This flavor comes from the spirit’s time spent in charred virgin American oak barrels, where it picks up a variety of flavors including another friend to beer: vanilla! So it’s not too much of a stretch that coconut works great in beers where bourbon, oak and vanilla flavors also work.
So now we’ve explored a little more about why coconut and beer can be friends, how do brewers actually utilize it? There are a range of options, with varying flavors and outcomes. The simplest option is to use a coconut extract and just add it to a finished beer. Some of the danger here is a risk of overkill. Coconut is a strong flavor, and if used improperly, can bring on images and aromas of well, sunscreen. And believe me, even if you have the best connotations with the beach, nobody wants to drink their sun protection. A more common method is to use dried coconut flakes, which can be added to beer in a couple different timings. One option would be during fermentation, and the other (more preferable) would be to add coconut flakes post initial fermentation, in secondary or Brite tank, or perhaps as an infusion in a keg or barrel for longer-term aging. Brewers can choose to toast the coconut for extra nuttiness or leave it untoasted for a lighter flavor, though I’d assume most choose to toast. Working with flaked coconut takes extra time, an understanding of equipment and will usually mean a higher loss of pre-packaged beer (because dried coconut soaks up liquid). This makes these beers fairly labor-intensive to create and produce, so again, you’ll often see coconut used in higher-priced seasonals or special-releases.
So what’s next for coconut and beer? While I’m not convinced there’s going to be a crazy rush to produce the newest Hazy Coconut Juicy IPA (or will there…?), coconut’s made an impression, especially in barrel-aged and/or imperial beers with lots of roast and body. Now’s a good time to find coconut beer a little easier, as those big seasonal beers are typically released in the cooler months and holiday season. Let me know your favorites!