We live in a multiverse of overlapping perspectives. Each thread of human existence is so tailored to itself that we’re forced to assume experiences of others are likened to our own so that we can discuss them and presume understanding. Where this overlap occurs between myself and Jeff Zimpel, an artist in Cedarburg, is in my microcosm of craft beer and his of artisanal coffees.
So why get all philosophical and scientifical about a facet of the human experience that’s so obvious it’s arguably not worth talking about? When two mediums combine to create something distinct, the level of sensitivity to what is transpiring is directly proportional to the appreciation of the aftermath. While some of the most successful coffee beers of the past found a home in Stouts, my intrigue has piqued within the last five years to those using coffee in less-expected styles. And, thanks to Jeff sharing the world of coffee with me, I have a newfound respect for what goes into making a damn good cup of joe.
But we’ll try to stick more with the beer side of things.
As I was saying, the term “coffee beer” was once synonymous with dark, often earthy beer. Skyler Kottwitz, head brewer of Full Mile Beer Company & Kitchen, says, “Most dark coffee beers are good in their own right, but sometimes drinkability gets lost as more layers are added.” Drinkability is the idea that you might have two or three instead of one and done. “They’re good, but I’d rather have something a little bit lighter.” Which is why Skyler chose their Cromulent! Cream Ale as a base for Rusty Dog Coffee’s Kenya Lenana beans, creating Lazy Bones, Full Mile’s Coffee Cream Ale.
It’s beers like Lazy Bones that leave me wanting more, in a good way, with experimentation in the marriage between coffee and beer. I’m such a sucker for Belgian yeast strains, and if someone were to make a killer Coffee Wit or Java Tripel, I don’t see how life could get much better. Skyler had thoughts on this as well. “If you did, you’d want to use an earthy coffee. An earthy medium-to-dark roast in a Belgian Tripel, where you have the spicy phenols to play off the earthy coffee, more or less, like the Tripel Karmeliet, probably one of my favorite Tripels, very spicy and phenolic. You’d have the peppery citrusy note from the beer along with an earthy roasted note in the background…” The rest is left to the imagination, but even just writing it gives me goosebumps.
In fact, C.J. Hall, co-owner of Full Mile Beer Company & Kitchen with Nathan Kinderman, got in my head when he said, “We also talked about switching it up, putting a different kind of coffee in the base beer to see how those coffees affect the flavor.” He then told me that mixing different cold brews with a base beer would get you close to the end result of using those beans while brewing that beer. So I took a trip to my local coffeehouse and brought home a tall cup of Beans n Cream cold brew. Instead of trying a beer and seeing what coffee fit, I tried a coffee to see what beer fit.
Disclaimer: I don’t know much more than jack about joe. That said, the cold brew coffee I had was a medium roast with a robust earthiness, rich but not gritty, harboring a light acidity.
The first beer I added the coffee to was the infamous, oddly excited about being triple hopped, shall-not-be-named Light Lager, stored exclusively in my fridge for grandma when she visits her grandchildren. With just a dash of coffee, what I would consider an uninteresting beer suddenly came to life. Though the coffee aroma was slightly overwhelming, the carbonation of the beer gave a little jive to what was otherwise a smooth brew. In fact, the light acidity made a pleasant touch of yeast stand out in the beer. The result was very coffee forward. Upon adding more cold brew, the coffee’s robust character overtook that hint of yeast noted earlier.
Next up, an IPA touted as being Midwest. There’s a degree of balance with the hops kept in check through a faint malt background. The aroma comes across as citrusy balanced with a sprig of floral. After adding coffee, the competing layers of aroma and body and flavor essentially destroyed each other, leaving behind an experience I have no desire to repeat. Where the hops stick around in the aroma, the coffee dominates the maltiness of the beer. Perhaps if this were a lighter roast with higher acidity, I’d see some pleasant cohesion in qualities, but as is…not so much. In the name of science and some less-gruesome form of self-flagellation, I added more coffee. Goodbye hoppy aroma, hello Lysol. Giving the coffee too much presence created what felt like oily separation on the palate.
Last up, not too long ago I purchased a Dark Chocolate Ale. It has some of that syrupy quality common in malt beverages, but overall is very much dark chocolate. I assume I’m getting some cacao nibs, and the beer says it’s made of three blended chocolate extracts. Maybe it’s my naivete coming through, but to drown out the expected sweet flavor from such extracts, I detect maybe a hint of smoke. Not enough to show up in any meaningful way, just enough to mute sugars. After a dash of cold brew, what was once syrupy became coffee, and those dessert elements of the beer grew into something more refined and a little dry, as are some of my favorite Stouts. Staying true to this beersperiment, I added more coffee and ruined everything.
All said and done, the road is very much paved for more inspired coffee beers. We live in the world of brewers without borders when it comes to ingenuity. Some like to be punched in the mouth with flavor, others prefer discovery in “the romance of nuance,” as Skyler puts it, when drinking a more subtle beer. Either way, if this is what it’s like when worlds collide, I’m ready to go.
To chronological time—where every step backward is an alternate step forward, and every step forward is begotten by the steps we’ve taken.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Check out Full Mile Beer Company’s Lazy Bones as well as these other coffee beers from breweries in the Midwest.
3 Sheeps – Hello, My Name Is Joe
Third Space – Java Blanca
Sonder Brewing – Kato
Surly – Coffee Bender