With a name harkening back to the days of a “cuppa,” Cup of Joe, the beloved stalwart of the Short’s lineup, has a traditional bent for a coffee beer that’s a boon for modern craft drinkers looking for big flavors. And that’s apparent from the get-go: the bottle’s label greets you with a coffee bean homunculus by frequent Short’s visual collaborator Fritz Horstman, and a tag line calling its contents the “perfect morning night capper”. It’s a juxtaposition that perfectly sets up this roasty-but-smooth, bold-but-approachable milk stout.
Based on experiments with home brew recipes in 2000 and professional brewing work in 2001—from before owner Joe Short had a trademark attached to his surname—this was one of the earliest production beers brewed by Short’s. In fact, it was the first stout to be brewed by the fledgling company a few years later in their Bellaire, Michigan brewery. The result is a production milk stout brewed today with 80 pounds of ground coffee and 200 pounds of milk sugars (which comes out to about 1.5oz of coffee and 3.2oz milk sugars per gallon).
Short’s official description of the beer claims they use coffee in “every facet of the brewing process.” Every facet? Every facet. Tony Hansen, head brewer at Short’s tells us, “We use what we call the shotgun approach when adding coffee to this beer. We scatter the coffee additions throughout the brewing process in order to capture as many extraction opportunities as possible.” Where most coffee beers usually see the coffee enter at one point in the brewing process—like hot extraction in the boil or cold extraction in the fermenter—Short’s is going all in and adding coffee at multiple points, resulting in a meta-blend of extraction methods.
And the results are certainly intense. Cracking one immediately results in abundant roasty coffee aromatics off the bottle. As it opens up with the pour, the coffee aroma is joined by a healthy amount of cocoa and a hint of black licorice. As a lighter, easy-drinking stout, it puts the focus on the flavor when it hits your lips. The roastiness continues onto the palate where it’s joined by lots of chocolate, both milk and dark. The soft roundness of the lactose sugars smooth out the sharp edge of the roast from the coffee and malts, resulting in a subtle, pleasant nuttiness. The overall result of balance in flavors is wonderful. At 35 IBUs, this is definitely not a bitter beer, but all that roast results in an overclocking that makes this seem at once aggressive and gentle. The chocolate takes over as the beer warms, with a finish not unlike Yoo-hoo.
Short’s works a great deal with Higher Grounds Trading, a local roasting outpost in Traverse City, Michigan which supplies the blend used for Cup A Joe. Short’s intentionally teamed up with a socially conscious, fair-trade supplier, especially since they’re using a lot of coffee–not only in Cup A Joe (which itself utilizes a high volume of beans) but in other coffee beers like Diane, a coffee porter only locally available at Short’s brew pub. Often they’ll work with Higher Grounds to identify appropriate coffees for a specific recipe, but sometimes a coffee will inspire a beer around it, like the Ethiopia Sidama and Yirgacheffe beans which inspired their Snake Juice coffee IPA.
Despite having been around since the mid-aughts (with the same recipe!), customer demand has not abated. This last batch from 2016 inspired Short’s and Higher Grounds team members to record a video for the beer under the guise of a 90s boy band called the Frosty Tips. Asked about the apparent growth of coffee beer among the craft scene, Hansen tells us, “We have been making coffee beer for 14+ years now, so it has always been a mainstay in our portfolio. But I do agree that there are more coffee beers available now more than ever. I think every brewery considers coffee beer a pretty mainstream style that is part of any solid portfolio of offerings.”