Not Your Granddaddy's Coffee Beer

While the majority of Oregon's bottled and canned coffee beers are standard stouts and porters, here are three that sit slightly off the beaten path.

By Nathan Tucker February 14, 2014

Fort George Brewery's Java the Hop.

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Northwest Coffee Beer Invitational, an event which sounds like it could have been a drinking competition for people who like to mix uppers with downers, but was actually an intimate beer festival in Goose Hollow celebrating—wait for it—the glorious marriage of beer and coffee.

Why am I bothering to mention this weeks later, you might ask? It’s because many of the beers that afternoon were something of a revelation to me, I have to confess, as I assume they might be for many craft beer fans who don’t populate the frontier of brewing hipness.

These brews showcased the wonderful things coffee can do to beers all over the entire spectrum of brew varieties (not just stouts and porters). There were delicious blends of coffee and hop flavors (in particular, Coalition Brewing’s Night Cap IPA, which is officially launching during Zwickelmania). There was a brown ale from Breakside Brewing brewed with coffee and sesame, inspired by a desert from NE Alberta's Aviary. There was a beer based off a Kahlua Sour (complete with a maraschino cherry).

All this java-enthused creativity had me wondering about the commercially available coffee beer options from Oregon. Can we expect similar creativity from the bottled and canned coffee brews on the shelves in grocery stores and bottle shops?

The short answer is, predictably, no.

No brewery trying to make a profit would bottle and widely distribute a beer version of a cocktail your great aunt would order with dessert on a cruise ship. Most of the Oregon coffee beer available in stores is of the usual stout or porter variety, brewed with or fermented on whole coffee beans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course: if you haven’t tried Oakshire’s Overcast Espresso Stout yet, for example, you should absolutely pick up a bottle. But in the spirit of thinking outside the box, here are three coffee beers that are worth your consideration for being slightly (or in some cases, very) different from their peers.

For people who take their coffee with plenty of cream:

Elysian Brewing Company, Split Shot Espresso Milk Stout, 5.6% ABV
Given how well dairy and coffee work together, perhaps it was inevitable that someone would have the idea to add coffee to a milk stout, but in Elysian’s hands, it’s more than a gimmick. The pronounced body and sweetness of milk stouts comes from added lactose, a sugar that is unfermentable by beer yeast and makes for a heavy beer that, frankly, can be pretty much. But the addition of Stumptown coffee balances this richness with a welcome bitterness. The beer neither smells nor tastes particularly of coffee, but it starts pleasantly sweet without being overwhelming, and finishes bitter and dry (some might say a little astringent, but I don’t mind). This is a great beer for people who find milk stouts too sweet or people who find coffee stouts too bitter.

For the hop-heads:

Fort George Brewery, Java the Hop Coffee IPA, 6.5% ABV (pictured above)
This unfiltered beer, brewed with single-origin Ethiopian beans roasted by Coava Coffee, pours a hazy orange with an ever-so-slightly cream-colored head, and smells strongly of bitter coffee and citrus. The coffee hits your tongue first, but gradually recedes as the amarillo hops dominate the finish. The more you drink, the more the flavors in this wonderful beer delicately meld. Good coffee and good hops both deftly balance fruity and bitter notes, and this beer works by bringing out the best of those qualities in both ingredients.

For the high-rollers and sommeliers:

Upright Brewing, Coffee Stout, 7% ABV
Most coffee beers are either brewed with coffee beans or undergo some amount of fermentation on whole beans. Not this stout from Upright, which was blended with cold-pressed coffee—after being aged in former wine casks for the better part of a year. The result is something unlike any beer I can recall. It pours jet black with a thick, light brown head, and smells intoxicating, almost as if someone poured coffee over a rum-soaked fruit cake. It tastes first of chocolate and coffee, but the wine is unmistakable in the dry, tart finish. If you were to compare it to those dark chocolate covered acai berries from Costco, I wouldn’t argue, but this beer is more complex than that. Sitting pretty at $15 bucks a pop at my local bottle shop, it’s a deep dig into the wallet, but if this sounds like something you’d like, I say go for it. Right now, there’s a fair amount of novelty contributing to the beer’s perceived value; stick it in the cellar for a year, and I’d wager it’ll smooth out into something truly spectacular.

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