And so it was that on January 25th, 2015 I flew from Portland, Oregon (a coffee and beer mecca) to Chicago, Illinois (also a coffee and beer mecca) for the first-ever Uppers & Downers Festival of Coffee Beers. It was cold outside, but inside the warmth of Thalia Hall some 500+ beer enthusiasts gathered for a truly unique collection of progressive coffee beers, forged through the partnering of top North American breweries and roasters. The scene was, well, it was a scene, but armed with a black notebook and tasting chalice, I set forth to document the event to the best of my beer-fueled abilities.
Uppers & Downers was a collaboration between Good Beer Hunting, the popular beer culture blog and brand consultancy from founder Michael Kiser, and Intelligentsia Coffee, represented by 2008 World Barista Champion and Intelli’s Director of Communications, Stephen Morrissey. The collaborative care taken at the event was evident, from the dazzling array of breweries on offer (likely Kiser’s doing), to the meticulous attention to detail, staffing, and guest experience we’ve enjoyed at previous Intelligentsia events. Good parties are always someone’s baby, and at Uppers & Downers, Mssrs. Kiser and Morrissey were clearly the proud papas.
The event’s attendees were largely played to type, with a Chicago midwest urban slumberjack fuck you vibe for most, and something approaching a practical snowy Sunday’s best for the rest. I would hazard a guess that 25% of the event’s attendees were female-identified, a ratio that, had I been offered to wager upon it prior to attending, I most assuredly would have taken the under. The room itself progressed from cheery to beery, then on to buzzy, and finally approaching slurry by the end of the afternoon, although I noticed it was something of a faux pas to discuss one’s own or the room’s general drunkenness at the event. This must be like how coffee people fucking hate it when they get asked, “so how do you fall asleep at night?” with the caffeine wink-wink. What is it about consumables communities that forces us to play pretend with acknowledging the real effects of consumption? There’s an Alex Bernson article in there somewhere.
Beer, beer, everywhere beer, and every last drop of it imbued with some sort of coffee modifier. I saw post-fermentation infusions; I tried cold brew concentrate ratio mixes; I even met the Randall, an obscure beer nerd “organoleptic hop transducer module” that allows for finished beer to be run through a chamber of spices, herbs, hops, or whatever. In this case it was coffee, as the R&D team from Goose Island made great show of Randalling the bejesus out of some barleywine and Intelligentsia coffee from Zambia, as well as an IPA paired with Intelligentsia’s seasonal Honey Badger espresso. Cursory research is unclear as to whether or not the Randall was named for, or invented by, someone named Randall, but if you know more please write to me at email@example.com with your Randall takes.
On the coffee side of things, six roasters were represented at the event, outfitted in their own bustling little corner warren, each assigned a La Marzocco GS3 espresso machine. In attendance were the event’s hosts, Intelligentsia, alongside Sump Coffee of St. Louis, Gaslight Coffee of Chicago, Dark Matter Coffee of Chicago, MadCap Coffee of Grand Rapids and Washington DC, and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, North Carolina, whose Lake St. training center serves the Chicago area.
Coffee was not an afterthought, nor was it relegated to its own fussy busware; thanks to a removed drip tray on the GS3s, shots at the espresso stations were able to be pulled directly into ones’ Uppers & Downers emblazoned custom glass chalice, the same vessel in which one enjoyed the many fine coffee ales. This enjambment—serving espresso and beer from the same glass—was no happy accident, but rather an intentional bit of anchoring from the event’s planners. Let’s drink all the good stuff from the same cup while we’re boozing and schmoozing.
A controlled environment, an appreciative audience, and a set of service limitations (only one espresso per roaster) conspired together to produce an ideal coffee service festival atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the owner presence at several of the espresso stands, including Scott Carey of Sump Coffee in St. Louis, who traveled some 300 miles to the event to serve up shots of Sump’s Colombia Totoro, and Zak Rye of Gaslight Coffee in Logan Square, one of my favorite Chicago cafes. This speaks to a wider kind of intimacy of service available at Uppers & Downers, where save for the occasional pretzel passer or coat checker, all the beers and coffees were served by those responsible for crafting them.
And how about those beers? I tried nearly every one on offer at the event (as evidenced by the increasingly slurred writing in my little black notepad), although some kegs were tapped before I could dip my beak in. Three of the beers that I tried were particularly stand out, and though I am not a beer writer, I will attempt to tell you about these beers now in a way that does not alienate or make me the subject of derision from the beer nerds, for whom this may be the first (and last) Sprudge article they ever read.
Jordan’s three favorite beers:
Goose Island Brewing Company “Pale Goose”: A dry hop method coffee beer, with whole beans of Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso added to the beer for a full three days of soaking after the fermentation process is complete. Goose Island’s cult following is legendary, and many a beer lover at the event beelined for Goose’s Bourbon County series, but wow, this pale ale was just hanging out there, keeping a low profile, waiting for someone to make a big deal about how good it was. Allow me to be that person.
I like beer that feels refreshing and hydrating, drinkable, and clean, and if you can manage complexity while all that’s happening, then bully. At just 5% ABV, the Pale Goose is readily sessionable and easy to drink. “It doesn’t beat you over the head,” I’m told by Mike Siegel, the Innovation Manager at Goose Island. “It’s very unusual for us to bring a trial run like this out to the public,” Siegel says, while I take highly literary and reporterly notes like “whoa this does not suck.” Show this coffee beer to people who have only had deep, dark espresso porters or French roast stouts, and change their minds.
Solemn Oath Muerte Inmaculada Geisha Variant: This is a Geisha IPA, part of a series that combines coffee from Intelligentsia’s Finca Inmaculada project with Solemn Oath’s Death by Viking, an Imperial IPA for fans of beers that sock you in the mouth with sweet maltiness, pine, grapefruit, and resin. Solemn Oath are well-respected as chance takers and innovators in the US beer scene, and for Uppers & Downers that meant brewing up Death by Viking with cold brew concentrates of Laurina, Sudan Rume, and Geisha coffee varieties. The very concept is a headfuck, because Sudan Rume and Laurina are incredibly rare in the first place, almost entirely found in experimental variety gardens in producing countries and not in commercial applications, MUCH LESS supercharged into cold brew and mixed with a bunch of strong beer.
But that’s what happened here. My favorite was the Geisha IPA variant; the florality and complexity coffee nerds love in Geisha was there, and got along nicely with that mouth-watering, gut-growing, decision-impairing malty sweetness from the 10% ABV IPA. Yum.
5 Rabbits Cervecaria Cascara Berlin Weisse: For sure in my top three of stuff tried, this beer is another one you want to grab by the lapels and jump up-and-down and scream “this is what coffee beer can be!” Andres Araya of 5 Rabbits adds cascara (dried coffee cherries) to the last 10 minutes of his Berliner Weisse boil, then steeps the finished product after fermentation in cascara and ginger root. The result is wonderfully crisp and tannic, fragrant almost like a brewed ginger beer, but unmistakably run through with the dry, sweet taste of cascara. These flavors paired perfectly with the cloudy, sour German ale, which was historically blended with fruit syrups to help cut down the pucker.
If you’re unfamiliar with 5 Rabbit Cerveceria, their whole concept is delightful, fusing the intentionality and attention to detail of craft beer with the rich brewing traditions in Latin and South America to produce delicious and beguiling beers. It was a pleasure to meet 5 Rabbit owner Andres Araya, and to have the owner personally pour me a beer. These are the kinds of experiences that come rarely, and make the stress and urgency around planning an event like this feel worth it.
Goose Island Beer Company with Intelligentsia Coffee
2014 Coffee Bourbon County Stout
2013 Coffee Bourbon County Stout
Innovation Coffee Pale Ale
Coffee-infused Bourbon County Barleywine
Solemn Oath Brewery with Intelligentsia Coffee
Coffee Pain Cave
Muerte Inmaculada 1 / 2 / 3
Beverage of Champions
4 Hands Brewing Company with Goshen Coffee
“Bona Fide” — Imperial Stout brewed with Colombian cold brew
French Press — French Saison washed in a red wine barrel, with peaberry cold brew.
5 Rabbit Cerveceria with Gaslight Coffee Roasters
Yodo con Leche — Imperial Porter with Dulce de Leche and Costa Rica El Cafetal Estate
Cascara Berliner — Berliner Weisse with Costa Rican cascara and ginger
Firestone Walker Brewing Company with Intelligentsia Coffee
Velvet Mocha Merlin — Velvet Merlin oatmeal stout aged with cocoa nibs & Black Cat espresso beans
Forbidden Root Brewing Company with Dark Matter Coffee
Green-eyed Geisha — 90% blonde ale, 10% barrel-aged Geisha coffee
Half- Acre Beer Company with Dark Matter Coffee
Big Hugs —10% Imperial Stout, 25% pour over, 75% ‘homebrew’
Local Option Bierworks with Dark Matter Coffee
Mourning Wood — Oak-aged coffee amber ale with El Salvador San Jose pulp natural
Metropolitan Brewing with Metropolis Coffee Company
Metropolitan — Coffee bock with Guatemalan blend, brewed in a Kyoto dripper, combined post-fermentation.
Off Color Brewing with Quasar Coffee Roasters
Coffee Dinosmores — Imperial stout with marshmallow fluff, vanilla beans, molasses, graham flour, cocoa nibs, and Dark Star
Flower Pouncer — Apex Predeator blended with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Penrose Brewing Company with Intelligentsia Coffee Company
Coffee Navette — Belgian-inspired black ale blended with cold brew Zambia Ljulu Lipati
Coffee Desirous — Belgian-inspired White IPA with cracked Ljulu Lipati peaberry and Buddha’s Hand
Perennial Artisan Ales with Sump Coffee
Sump Coffee Stout — Imperial stout brewed with Colombian beans from La Dorada, Colombia
Old Fashioned — English-style barley wine blended with Kenya AB Gatuyaini
Spiteful Brewing with Gaslight Coffee Roasters
G.F.Y Coffee Stout — 170 gallons of conditioning stout blended with 14 gallons of cold brew Mexico Comon Yaj Noptic
Virtue Cider with Madcap Coffee
Cascara Cider — Wild fermented, blended cider steeped with cascara.
Jordan Michelman is the co-founder and senior editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
Photos by Eva Deitch, courtesy of Good Beer Hunting.