Coffee. Beer. Coffee + beer. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least in Pilsen.
And so it was that on a weekend in February, in the Year of Our Lord 2016, I did travel to Chicago, Illinois to attend, document, and participate in the Uppers & Downers Festival of Coffee Beers. I consider this to be the world’s finest coffee beer festival, home to a wide-ranging series of unique collaborations between forward-thinking breweries and progressive new wave coffee companies. The event, now an annual affair in its second year, happens at Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, and is produced by Good Beer Hunting, creator of popular beer web content and designer of thoughtful beer brands.
Beer, glorious beer, oh good Lord, so much beer. The choices at Uppers & Downers ranged from deep, dark, smooth and high ABV% stouts to clean, light, easy drinking, light on the liver Weisses and farmhouse ales, and everything in-between. There was also a killer espresso bar throughout the day, featuring La Marzocco Home Linea Mini espresso machines and some of the best coffee roasters in the country, including Intelligentsia Coffee, Madcap Coffee, Goshen Coffee, Sump Coffee, Blueprint Coffee, Ipsento, Counter Culture Coffee, Ruby Coffee Roasters, Gaslight Coffee Roasters, Kickapoo Coffee, and Metropolis Coffee.
Want some Green Chartreuse Pacamara infused into yer Blonde Ale? They had it. Down to try some Gesha IPA? You came to the right fest, bro. Over two sessions and across one beer-packed day, I personally tried 30+ different beers—which for beer nerds isn’t even that much!—plus a dozen or so espressos, some Irish Coffee, assorted snacks, and a whole lot of water at regular intervals.
With chalice in hand and smile on face, I took (progressively more ridiculous) notes throughout that beer-soaked day in Chicago, and today I’ll share 10 of the most delicious things I tried at Uppers & Downers 2016. Last year’s write-up was a bit more slice of life; this year I want to focus on the products that inspired me, tasted great, and stood out from the pack. Be forewarned: I’m a beer n0ob, so take these notes with an outsider grain of salt and direct any and all complaints about the content that follows to event co-founder Stephen Morrissey (@flyingthud on Twitter).
Goose Island Beer Company Kaffee-Weisse w/ Intelligentsia
Definitely one of my favorite beers at the event, this Berliner Weisse-style ale was brewed with Lactobacillus, a controlled bacteria used in many kinds of foods, from sourdough bread to yogurt, cheese, kimchi, and beer. Think huge acidity, matched with coffee aromatics and a natural yeasty funk—I want to drink this with pickles and meat.
Off Color Brewing “Hyper Predator” w/ Metric Coffee
Run by a bunch of Siebel Institute grads, Off Color Brewing is a Chicago-based brand with cool design and a strong local following. Their “Hyper Predator” is a fusion of the brewery’s popular Apex Predator farmhouse ale with some tasty Ethiopian coffee from Metric, also a popular local Chicago brand. This was another example of the zingy, slightly tart, and wholly drinkable style of coffee beers on offer at Uppers & Downers, and very much the kind of beer I enjoy drinking.
I’d be remiss not to mention that Off Color also offered pours of their “Coffee Dinos’mores”, an Imperial stout brewed with graham flour, marshmallow, and cocoa nibs. People freak out for this beer on its own, and its coffee twist was delightful, although at 10.5% ABV a little dab’ll do ya.
Brewery Vivant “Melo Angst” w/ Madcap Coffee
Here’s a beer I heard a lot of buzz around on the event floor, a Belgian-style strong ale blended with one of Madcap’s delicious Colombian coffees, from producer Lucas Melo. If “coffee stouts” are the baseline for coffee beers, and this festival highlighted some pretty far out and funky Berliner Weisse / Kombucha / high acid takes on the trope, than Vivant’s beer kind of splits the difference. Complex, with notable coffee flavors, but quite unlike the typical coffee beer. A lot of Untappd users are earning their “Top of the Mornin'” badge on this one, which I assume refers to drinking beer at an hour not typically deemed appropriate.
Intelligenstia “Finca Takesi” Espresso
Takesi—the highest coffee farm in the world—served up as espresso at a coffee beer festival. If there’s a coffee nutshell version Uppers & Downers, it’s probably this gem tucked away in Session Two. We’ve written about this coffee previously on Sprudge, but it’s still a resoundingly rare treat to get to try Takesi as espresso, from Intelli baristas, all dialed in and delicious. Big time blackberry notes and lots of florals, with a light red wine-like mouthfeel in the neighborhood of Trousseau or Gamay. Can I talk about wine at the beer fest? I better not.
Forbidden Root “Green Eyes (Nitro)” w/ Dark Matter Coffee
Easily the weirdest and most memorable beer I tried at this event, which is not to say that it was my favorite or that I could drink more than a little bit of it. Chartreuse, friends, is one of “those liquors” for me—a spirit that I sadly overdid once in my younger days, and so now when I taste it, even in a coffee beer context, it kinda turns my stomach sour.
All that to say, I toughed it out, and this beer was actually super good! The nitro process really smooths everything out, and I think that in terms of rare taste experiences this had to be one of the highlights from Session Two. Yes, you can definitely pick up distinct “green” notes from the Chartreuse, but it’s not overpowering and the coffee + blonde ale combo is inspired. Dark Matter Coffee out of Chicago have helped pioneer the art of barrel aging and coffee-infusing, and their Chartreuse-infused Pacamara in this beer is so singular and distinct. Meanwhile Forbidden Root are way out there on the cutting edge of craft beer, championing “botanic beers” with ingredients like Magnolia flower, ginger, and Marigold. Flavor seekers, go try these beers!
Firestone Walker Brewing Company “Parabajava” w/ Intelligentsia Coffee “El Diablo” Espresso
My favorite moment of Uppers & Downers 2016 happened around this beer. As Session Two kicked off in the afternoon, I noticed a curious line forming—basically the first 100 people through the door all bee-lined to to the Firestone Walker booth. I had never seen this before at an U&D event, and so I walked through the line inquiring. My questions were basic—”So uh, sup with the line?“—and met with some derision—”Do you even beer, bro?“—but eventually I learned that Firestone Walker’s Barrel-Aged Imperial stout, “Parabola”, is a really big deal for beer lovers, and their special collaboration beer with Intelligentsia is highly prized and almost impossible to find.
I dutifully lined up to take a taste, and well…it was really something. Like eating a dark chocolate velvet coffee donut, but at 12.5% ABV. That’s enough kickback to notice after one sample splash. Was it my favorite beer at the fest? Definitely not. Is the culture of cultish reverence and door-busting around special beers like this fascinating? Absolutely. Most of you are reading this saying “Parabahuh?”—which is what I said too—but for those in the know the thought process is probably something more like “Dammit, we should have gone to the afternoon session…”
5 Rabbit Cervecería “Vaya con Dios” w/ Gaslight Coffee Cascara
This was my favorite beer at the 2015 edition of Uppers & Downers, and it’s definitely worth shouting out again this year. Here’s another Berliner Weisse beer, brewed up with cascara provided by Gaslight Coffee. Just a little funky and sour, but not, you know, a “Sour” beer, which is like its whole own thing. I could just drink this stuff all day long outside at like a nice Chicago beer patio, in the summertime, maybe with some baseball on the bar TV…
Goose Island Beer Company “Coffee Kombucha” w/ Intelligentsia Coffee
Whoa, some ‘booch at the beer fest! Goose Island’s take on a coffee kombucha was probably the most divisive thing served at Uppers & Downers. Some people, like Good Beer Hunting’s Michael Kiser, did not care for this booch at all. Other people, like me, thought it was delightful, appreciating it for its restrained fermenty funk, delightful coffee mid-tones, and liver-friendly .075% ABV. Typically you’ll taste coffee as the acidic note in a collaboration beer, but for this kombucha, where acidity is kind of the name of the game, coffee can act as a kind of mellowing agent, a “flavor floor” that the rest of the drink can dance on top of.
Goose Island folks who are potentially reading this article, please note: you could bottle this kombucha drink, distribute it throughout the American Pacific Northwest’s network of co-ops and fancy grocery stores, and do quite well for yourself.
Counter Culture Coffee Rwanda Mpemba Espresso
This was I think my favorite espresso I tasted at the event—not necessarily the most scarce or super rare, but the most enjoyable for me personally. I love Rwandan coffee, a propensity that is 100% influence by the fact I’ve traveled there, which means I have all kinds of visual and sensory memories intertwined with how these coffees taste to me. This one tasted like big, round stone fruits, all red plums and sweet cherries, but with a clean and refreshing second moment on the palate. Delicious.
Special big ups to…
Well there were a lot of delicious things being served at Uppers & Downers, and I wanted to spotlight a couple of them before closing the book on this coverage. To the beer-brined ham by Local Foods with red eye gravy on a Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits—you provided the much-needed sustenance I needed to maintain a modicum of composure through both event sessions. To the Irish Coffee service happening downstairs, helmed by acclaimed bartender Roger Landes of MFK—you were a lot of fun, but also probably overkill. To the Intelligentsia Coffee Ljulu Lipati Zambia tasting that happened upstairs, hosted by Jay Cunningham—thanks for teaching these beer folks about another kind of brewing. To the espressos I tried from folks like Madcap, Sump, Kickapoo, Ruby, and Ipsento—beautiful coffees from beautiful people.
To the good people at Good Beer Hunting and especially the event organizers, Michael Kiser and Stephen Morrissey, congrats on a successful, inspiring, liver-quivering and delicious event. To coffee and beer! May they be best friends forever, or at least until the sun goes down.
Photos by Eva Deitch for Good Beer Hunting.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.