With the beginning of spring, your palates are probably looking forward to the shandies and goses of summer. But the dog days are still months away, so let’s take a moment to reminisce on some of the richer, fuller coffee beers from this past fall and winter that piqued our interest (and in some cases, may come back around down the road, so keep an eye out).
If you're more than a casual beer drinker, this won't come as a surprise, but one of the nice things about the sub-genre of coffee beer is the breadth of its scope. Some announce themselves and demand attention—others are subtle with blended, nuanced flavors. Sometimes the coffee is an afterthought—sometimes it's a vital component of the flavor profile a beer might lose without.
The craft beer resurgence has been a boon to any beer-enjoyer with an itch for variety and exploration. There's good reason to push the envelope—to stand out in a competitive field that's getting more crowded every day. The Brewers Association put the brewery count at 5,300 in 2016—up from 4,500 the year before—and that number is still growing.
But let's get real for a moment. Like anything that grabs a significant portion of the cultural zeitgeist, not all beer is sunshine and flowers—or, rather, tastes like sunshine and flowers. Just because a beer is “craft” doesn't mean it's “good.” Craft is more a reflection of a brewery's volume and independent ownership than anything—it's not like “specialty” in that the word connotes quality that differentiates it from a commodity product.
It follows that there is such a thing as high-quality coffee beer, and low-quality—below are just some of the examples of beers that belong in the former category.
Most are from mid-Atlantic breweries—distribution laws (and the expense of shipping) make it such that beer is still relatively place-based, and your author is based in New York City. So if your favorite coffee beer isn’t mentioned, this may be why (and all the more reason to recommend your choice coffee beers cuts to @drw on Twitter or Untappd).
Beers here are listed in order of increasing alcohol content, naturally.
The second Mystic-George Howell collaboration after the Reko, La Soledad is a bière de garde-style ale (think farmhouse or saison with richer malt) brewed with Howell’s eponymous Guatemalan La Soledad. This beautiful, golden-brown number is reminiscent of saison ales, but exists in a less spiced, more balanced space. It’s gentle, living, and nuanced—drinking the coffee alongside the beer shines a light on the tree fruit in both. Like the Reko before it, this coffee beer belies almost no roast—just fruit and malt blended in a very inviting, lighter coffee ale.
This western Queens brewery brings a dynamic stout that’s basically a trip to your favorite diner in a can, so it’s a bit fitting that it’s chock-full of contradictions. The beer would be dry if not for a gentle sweetness that, maybe due to its being brewed with donuts (that’s right), comes off like the residual sugar left behind by a dunked pastry in a mug of black, roasty java. It’s rich in the pour, but drinks like a lighter-bodied beer thanks to its relative dryness and mid-range ABV.
Collaborations on collaborations! A joint venture that goes beyond brewers and roasters to include an actual punk rock band, this beer was brewed by Mikkeller for the release of the Descendents’ latest album—the featured coffee from Dark Matter is named for the album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate. Big names aside, this coffee IPA is a bitter, peppery fruit melange. A little roastiness peeks through a generally earthy-but-tropical West Coast style IPA. Like many coffee IPAs, there’s a peppery undercurrent providing a vegetal element to this otherwise fruity and bitter IPA base.
Short, Dark, & Wired (7.4 Percent ABV)
Other Half Brewing
Adjuncts abound in this version of Other Half’s “Short, Dark, & Handsome” stout that culminate in a taste approaching melted root beer float. Vanilla and cocoa do a lot of the driving over a dry, roasty backbone in this dessert-y stout. It’s big, bold, and rich, though not quite at the level of an imperial stout. The coffee elements—in this case, grounds steeped in the whirlpool boil—serve to tame sweetness from other additions.
Sand City, known for hitting all the right notes for big, bold IPAs that are on everyone’s lips, went down a darker path with this stout. Here, “breakfast” is less lumberjack-y than, say, modern and grab-and-go and bready. In this case, the caffeine is provided by Huntington’s Southdown Coffee. The beer itself is a dry, roasty, tobacco-y stout with a rich, thick body. It starts with a significant earthy, vegetal quality that mellows into more familiar coconut and vanilla notes that mirror those in a cup of good coffee as it cools.
This very approachable beer is an inter-borough collaboration by beloved NYC breweries. The gentle nose of this milk stout hides the roastiness delivered on the palate among a generally very smooth drink. While it’s appropriately creamy, it’s not too heavy—generally a good weight for a milk stout. A slightly vegetal quality gives this solid stout some dynamism.
This imperial version of the standard “Beanhead” coffee porter (also brewed using coffee roasted by Java Love) is sweet with lots of candied dark fruit notes that play over a chocolate/carob base—not unlike a liquid version of a grape tootsie pop. As a porter, the body in this Beanhead is a little lighter than other imperial dark beers, but it’s still plenty rich. And at almost 10% ABV (little of which you’ll taste on the palate) it packs a little more punch than your standard sweet porter.
Cracking a crowler of this novel breakfast stout smells like a Dunkin' Donuts in the best possible way—the room fills with maple, and then it’s waffles and coffee all the way down. Surprisingly bright and crisp, this beer has a lighter body than you might expect for an imperial with intense aromatics—it’s almost like an imperial porter than stout. The coffee in this beer really takes a back seat but it completes the breakfasty profile. It's necessary—the maple pancake/waffle aspect would probably be too aggressive without it. But a note of caution: this drinks way below 10 percent.
In Absentia Luci—hazelnut and coffee variant (11 Percent ABV)
Other Half Brewing
As in “The absence of light,” this motor-oil thick imperial stout is incredibly smooth and balanced. Cold brew added post-fermentation provides a nice dessert-y note with the complement of hazelnuts on this nimble but solid imperial base stout. This is a good example of coffee playing a role along with other adjuncts to support a variation on a solid base beer.
Immediately, this beer is a churro celebration. From the nose, through the first sip, all the way to the last drop: sugar and cinnamon all day. There’s a little coffee roast, but it’s definitely a cup that’s been dosed with plenty of cream and sugar (“light and sweet” in New Jersey parlance)—as intended by Carton Brewing in the base beer of “Regular Coffee.” Frankly, this beer is dangerous at 12 percent. Thankfully, this is one of the few modern mid-Atlantic craft beers portioned out in 12 ounce cans.