Better Together: Crafting Coffee-Based Beer and Alcohol Beverages

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When beer- and spirits-makers partner with coffee roasters, good things start brewing.

Coffee and spirits are an age-old combination (hello, espresso martinis). The pairing is taking hold among mainstream brands, and around the world, craft producers have been experimenting with and elevating the artisan beverage experience.

“There is a coffee renaissance happening…and we wanted to take it into the bar,” says Tom Baker, co-founder of Mr Black, Australia-based makers of cold brew coffee liqueur. “As coffee has exploded, so has its role in mixology…now, most bars see the importance of a modern coffee cocktail on their menu.”

Buzz Time

Instead of drinking coffee until 3 p.m., Baker believes that hard coffee appeals to those who want to drink their favorite beverage from 3 p.m. until 3 a.m. He calls it the “night shift” of coffee culture. 

At Either/Or in Portland, Oregon, customers can order a cold brew from the barista or ask the bartender to add bourbon, coffee liqueur, and a dash of chocolate and whipped cream to the cold brew to make the Uptown Funk cocktail, created by bartender Erica Ramirez. 

Photo by Jordan Hughes

Ro Tam, the owner of the hybrid café/bar, believes that coffee brewed from fresh-roasted beans should not be limited to morning lattes and flat whites; the brews can also add bold flavor to craft cocktails, spirits, and beers.

“Coffee is so versatile,” says Tam. “Play around with it as an ingredient and see how it complements other flavors.”

Partnerships Promote Success

In the market saturated with cold brew, craft beer, and artisan spirits, makers are looking for options to bring new products to market: partnerships between roasters, distillers, and brewers create opportunities for new products and cross-marketing.

“The story of Hard Cold Brew Coffee is really the story of a friendship,” says Todd Carmichael, CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, in a press release. “When two makers and innovators come together something really special can come out of it.”

Karl Strauss Brewing Company partnered with San Diego-based Bird Rock Coffee Roasters to select the beans for Wreck Alley Russian Imperial Stout, a dark beer made with cocoa nibs and Colombian coffee beans. It became an instant favorite when it was released in 2012.

“We work primarily with local roasters [and] the bean selection process is always a collaborative effort with the roaster [because] they are the experts in their world,” explains communications manager Brian Skarin. “Our brewers can provide them with tasting notes that can then be used to come up with the ideal varietal or blend to pair with it.”

At Elevation Beer Company in Colorado Springs, Christian Koch, co-founder and director of operations, has partnered with Buena Vista Roastery to choose beans and roast profiles for their special release coffee-based craft beers, including Elevation Coffee Stout and Oil Man Coffee, a limited-edition release of its popular bourbon barrel-aged stout brewed with coffee.

“We wanted a big, bold flavor, so we’ve gone with darker roasts…instead of the fruitier, more nuanced flavors in a lighter roast, which might get lost in a big, dark beer,” says Koch. “The different roasted malts can have coffee flavors in the background, and the darker roasts can improve on that and bring it to the forefront.”

When Mr Black started brewing its coffee liqueur, Sydney’s Campos Coffee roasted all of the beans that went into the artisan spirit. But as production grew, Baker and business partner/distiller Philip Moore established an in-house roasting operation. The coffee used in the liqueur is ground, cold brewed, added to the alcohol, and left to distill so the flavors of the coffee can shine through—but that doesn’t mean the distiller has stopped depending on partnerships.

When they released their 2019 single-origin coffee liqueur, Mr Black sourced beans from a Colombian coffee farmer. The limited release is made with honey-processed coffee that is lighter and fruitier in flavor compared to its other coffee liqueurs, which have more robust caramel and chocolate notes.

Finding the Right Balance

Choosing the right coffee beans and roast profiles is just the first step; the brewers at Elevation Brewing also spent countless hours experimenting with different processes to add coffee to the beer. Unlike brewers that add cold brew to their beers—which Koch tried—the beers at Elevation Brewing are made by steeping bags of freshly roasted beans in the batch of beer. 

“We can taste [the beer] every day to make sure that we’re not extracting too much coffee flavor, and, as soon as we think it’s just right, we can pull these beans out of the liquid,” he says. “It gives us more control over the flavor.”

Tam considers the flavor notes of various coffee beans when developing recipes for coffee cocktails. She capitalizes on the floral and fruit notes in Ethiopian coffee to blend with bourbon and rum-based beverages and embraces the light tomato undertones in Kenyan coffee for a signature Bloody Mary—but she believes the process is more important than the beans.

“Cold brew is consistent, and that makes it easier to work with, and, in cocktails, it has a strong punch that shines through the liquor,” she says. “I never use espresso [in cocktails] because the extraction process makes it harder to get a consistent flavor.”
For hard coffee to be successful, Tam believes it has to be palate-driven. The standards for craft beverages are high, and customers expect their hard coffees to be made with artisan spirits, craft beers, and fresh-roasted beans.

“People are looking for a more elevated experience with these collaborations,” says Koch. “By having partnerships [with a roaster] where we know the origins of the coffee, we get a better product, and it helps tell a better story about the beer.”

Even for those new to coffee or coffee-based craft beverages, Skarin believes the collaborations could be a big draw.

“There are the beer lovers who already know they want big, bold beers and love it when you throw something interesting at them, [and] there are coffee lovers who may not be huge beer drinkers, but are converted through that familiar [roasted] flavor,” he says. “The consumer’s level of education around coffee has grown significantly over the last ten years, which helps build excitement around new releases.”

Cover photo by Jordan Hughes.

This story was originally published on February 12, 2020 and has been updated to reflect Fresh Cup’s current editorial standards.

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Jodi Helmer

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