Ingredients in the Mix: Coffee, Please

Coffee cup

Here in Seattle coffee is gloriously inescapable. Whatever kind of java experience you want, we’ll supply. Prefer your coffee in plastic cup loaded with caramel and whipped cream? Starbucks has you covered, at any of the 104 (yes, 104!) stores within its home turf city limits. Hoping for coffee served in a wine glass on a tasting board? Slate Coffee Roasters will be happy to provide. You might even be able to watch (and deeply inhale) an artisan roasting operation happening just beyond the espresso machine at places like tiny Hart Coffee Company in the sleepy Bryant neighborhood. Many coffee shops here also now serve (mostly local) beer and wine, presenting a fantastic variety of consumable options for whatever social or study needs you might have. 

While we’re at it, how about coffee in your beer? Turns out Seattle also has that more than covered. A number of local breweries make a seasonal coffee or espresso beerothers include a special coffee beer series or have a focus on developing signature styles of coffee beer. Obviously there’s interest, intrigue, and a solid demand for showcasing an ingredient of Seattle’s cultural identity and pride within the thriving craft beer market. So let’s talk about coffee as an element in beer, and why brewers and consumers are excited about it.

Coffee roasting techniques share some qualities with the process of malting and kilning barley for beer. Both coffee beans and barley are carefully roasted to specific temperatures to bring out particular flavors. You’ve probably read the same descriptive words on a bag of coffee as for a pint of beer at a pub, in fact: adjectives like cocoa, nutty, toasted, caramel easily apply to both beverages. 

Choc. Malt

Simpsons Chocolate Malt

You may be familiar with the use of coffee in chocolate desserts, where the coffee helps bring out a deep, rich, roasty quality to the finished product. It works much the same way in beer. Certain darker-roasted specialty malts such as the aptly named chocolate malt can work alongside coffee to heighten and enrich flavor. And while you may well be on Team Black Coffee and prefer your morning cup unadulterated and strong as midnight, coffee does play well with a bit of sweetness, whether from milk in a latte or with the addition of sugar in a Turkish coffee. Happily, beer’s sweet and malty flavors can often fulfill that sweet component and smooth mouthfeel. Not a mocha alternative, but rich and full. 

Combining the brewed coffee and the brewed beer is a delicate balance. Overpowering the sweetness and flavor of the malt flavors is undesirable, but allowing too much subtlety is also usually not the goal. There are, of course, a multitude of ways to include coffee products in beer depending on what flavors are wanted. Just think of all the different ways to brew coffeedrip, french press, pourover, Aeropress, stovetop, Turkish-style, espresso (ristretto), espresso (lungo), Chemex, cold-brew, and more. Each method changes one or more variables of grind size, water temperature, time of contact with the coffee, or other things such as pressure or compaction level. The end-goal is again to bring out different qualities and flavorssome of which work well with beer and the beer brewing process, and some of which have drawbacks. Brewers can use whole coffee beans in the beer mash and rely on a steeping or infusion method, or they can add freshly brewed espresso to the beer somewhere in the process before packaging. But probably the most preferred option is to use cold-brewed coffee, which allows for a significantly lower acid beverage–67% lower, according to Toddy Cafe, original patent-holders for the Toddy equipment and method.  Cold-brewing coffee results in a strong, concentrated flavor that remains more stable over time. Conversely, a freshly brewed shot of espresso has only a short window of timeseconds to minutesbefore its flavors oxidise. Happily, a concentrated cold-brew can stay stable for days to weeks, which could save time and effort in a brewery. 

Coffee flowers

Coffee blossoms

While the majority of coffee beers are dark in color with roasty flavors (porters, stouts, brown ales, etc.) a few breweries have ventured into more outside-the-box concepts like coffee pale ales. Rooftop Brew Co. in the North Queen Anne neighborhood released a coffee-infused pale in collaboration with local Caffe Ladro Roasting. The Ethiopian Hama coffee of choice, Rooftop says “…infuses the flavor of this beer with with the wonderful sweet tastes of honey and nougat and pleasant lemon zest acidity.” Rooftop brews with coffee frequently, recently creating an experimental cask beer infused with coffee blossoms. The flowers, unsurprisingly, add a tropical floral or melon-like taste, both flavors present in certain hops on trend like Mosaic™ and Equinox™.

Interest and potential for new coffee beers is expanding and developing with the industry. In a beer-obsessed, coffee-loving city, it seems we will literally drink it all in enthusiastically. CheersI might be up for a while.