In its third iteration as a festival (evolved from its more salon-like origins), this year's edition of the Uppers and Downers coffee beer festival—from co-producers Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting and Stephen Morrissey of SCA—proved itself a juggernaut and staked a claim as one of the very best coffee beer festivals in the world right now. From the GBH agency's design aesthetic, to the caliber of the roasters and brewers on offer, to the event's handsome, historical venue, it's a festival with something for everyone—provided you like coffee, beer, and the nexus between them.
Over two sessions spanning a caffeine and alcohol addled day, some 28 breweries poured more than 50 unique beers and ciders. Ales of all stripes were poured: wild, sour, stout, pale, brown, blonde, German, and Belgian (just to borrow a few descriptors). Some were big, boozy imperials, other were day-drinking-friendly low-alcohol-by-volume sour and session ales. There were opaque, coal-black stouts and transparent, golden ales. There really was something for everyone (unless you only drink pilsners, in which case hopefully being in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago would suffice).
One of the highlights for coffee lovers was definitely the gauntlet of La Marzocco GS3s and Linea Minis provided by sponsor La Marzocco Home and helmed by reps from some of the best and most well-known roasters in the country. None of the shots we tried disappointed—which presented a bit of a problem in terms of over-caffeination, but such is life. The Uppers on offer at this fest were truly a national affair, from Stumptown Coffee Roasters (based in Portland, coming soon to Chicago) through midwest stalwarts like PT’s Coffee Roasting Company, Intelligentsia Coffee, and Madcap Coffee Company, to bi-coastal Counter Culture Coffee, roasters large and small manned the event's espresso row.
In addition to pulling espresso shots, sponsor Stumptown sent a crew to helm a cold brew bar where they showed off their new Sparkling Cold Brew cans alongside their more traditional chilled offerings. They were also pouring coffee and beer blends on site, including a spin on a traditional black and tan; where normally a nitro stout floats on a pour of a traditionally CO2-carbonated pale ale, Stumptown’s take saw them adding their nitro cold brew to a 3 Floyds Brewing Company Yum Yum session ale for a truly handsome drink.
Alongside smaller, local breweries with limited distribution were recognizable names like Firestone Walker Brewing Company (who brought a coffee variant version of their killer Parabola imperial stout) and Perennial Artisan Ales (who showed up pouring their recently-released 2017 Sump imperial stout, with Scott Carey of Sump Coffee also on hand with espresso). Those alone will get beer fans to take notice, but the biggest single beer nerd lure may be Goose Island’s storied Bourbon County Stout; the sponsoring brewery brought four years of coffee variants, three of which were offered in a special “vertical” tasting (same beer, three separate years): 2012, 2013, and 2014 poured next to each other for a comparison sherpa’d by Goose Island brewers. Judging by the line that snaked around the room for this, few attendees could pass up the chance to taste these beers that only serious collectors (yes, collectors) can get their hands on these days.
Beyond just tasting with some occasional interaction, Uppers & Downers goes deeper with “Case Studies” of beer and coffee pairs. On hand were brewers and roasters to talk about the details of their pairings. In the first session, local neighbors Whiner Beer Company and Four Letter Word Coffee presented a tasting with two beers and two coffees; four total coffee beers allowing participants to sample the variations in combination. The beers were Soupe du Jour (a red wine barrel-aged kettle sour saison) and Fur Coat (a Belgian dark ale); the coffees were a natural process Ethiopia Geisha Village/Geisha 1931 and a lactic-fermented Colombia La Palma y El Tucan SL-28 (Four Letter Word was also pulling shots of the latter in the first session).
In the second session, frequent pairing partners Solemn Oath Brewery and Intelligentsia brought six different beers of various styles utilizing various Intelli-roasted beans. The hosts even suggested an off-menu treat: pairing of a fresh, cooled shot of their Peru Rayos del Sol added to a pour of the Wee-Bey del Sol (a bourbon barrel-aged scotch ale brewed with the same coffee) provided an additional means of exploring the interplay of coffee and beer flavors.
But since variety is the spice of life, there was also the chance to taste a delicious Wake & Bake julep (made with Stumptown cold brew) courtesy of Dusek's Chicago, winner of the Uppers & Downers prelude cocktail competition. A rye and Fernet-based cocktail, it managed to be refreshing and herbal without tasting medicinal (and look handsome with its cardamom-roasted macadamia nuts and mint garnish). Also on hand were some tasty roast pork bites courtesy of Chicago butcher Rob Levitt (of Butcher & Larder and baked treats from Bang Bang Pie.
And if all that weren’t enough, for the second year running, Sprudge and Good Beer Hunting partnered on an after-party of sorts—the next-day Hangover Party at the Good Beer Hunting studios in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. Scratch biscuits and pecan pie from Bang Bang Pies, some bottled coffee beers to share, and of course aspirin, were on hand for the die-hards and true aficionados who wanted a peek into the GBH office while Michael Kiser and Stephen Morrissey recorded a podcast episode with guests from the prior day’s event (including Sprudge’s own Jordan Michelman).
Having anchored Uppers & Downers as a festival of all things coffee/beer/coffee beer in the Midwest, be on the lookout for this event’s growth and expansion. Especially Sprudge readers in London—you have something special coming your way soon.