The Alchemy of Coffee Beer
Story and photos by Matt Kelly
When the gods drink, they fill their cups with either coffee or beer. But on days when they’re feeling particularly almighty, the gods consume a most awe-inspiring beverage: coffee beer.
It’s a beverage that many mortals have sought to create but an alchemy that few have mastered.
“I can’t tell you the number of coffee beers I’ve tried and been left thinking, ‘What a wonderful beer to have ruined by throwing terrible, bad, diner coffee in it.’” says James Lake, the man in charge of beer and wine at Joe Bean Coffee Roasters in Rochester.
The trick to creating a successful combination of these two beverages is to understand the brewing realities of each on its own.
The ideal temperature for extracting great flavor from coffee is between 195° and 204° F. The ideal brew time is between 3 to 5 minutes; a shot of espresso only takes 28 seconds. The fruity and sweet flavors of coffee come out early in the brewing process. “If you get above 205° or let the grounds steep for a long time, the flavors become burnt and bitter,” James explains.
Beer, on the other hand, is made at a rolling boil–212° or hotter–and can be left boiling for an hour or more. You see the potential for culinary conflict here.
“I would say 90 percent of the people making coffee beer right now are adding beans straight into the boil,” James says. This is why it’s way too common for coffee beer to taste like it’s been sitting on a hotplate all day. “So we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to brew coffee and to brew beer–make two wonderful beverages separately–and then combine them.”
Enter the ‘Spro Bomb. A square shot of espresso dropped Car Bomb style into a half pint of beer. A Joe Bean creation.
“As far as I know it’s our creation. I’ve never seen it anywhere else,” James says. “Two of our guys got really bored on a really slow shift and they suddenly realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got beer and we’ve got coffee. We should combine them.’”
And this first attempt resulted in an absolutely terrible beverage: the flavors in the coffee and the beer completely fought with each other. But in their failure, the Joe Bean team saw potential.
“There’s got to be a way to make this good.”
It was very similar to a challenge the team faced when working with a local brewer to create a really drinkable coffee beer on tap. “We’d get to the brewery and line up little 4-ounce cups of a particular beer,” James says. “Then we’d squirt in different amounts of coffee with an eyedropper to see what percentage worked best. I think one combination was only 3 percent coffee to beer, others were much higher than that.”
The guys at Joe Bean always brewed several coffees that they thought would be an ideal match for the beer in question. Always with extremely high hopes. “And then, inevitably, the coffee that worked best was the one that nobody thought would be any good but we brought with anyhow.”
Successful alchemy can be a bit of a surprise, defying what seems logical. Kind of like the ‘Spro Bomb, itself.
“The ‘Spro Bomb is a little irreverent,” says James, dropping his espresso shot of Burundi into a pint of Fade to Black by Left Hand Brewing.
On the science side of coffee, you want to be really attentive to temperature because changing it too dramatically and too quickly can result in some really bad flavors. But with the ‘Spro Bomb you slam hot coffee into cold beer. And it actually works.
“That’s why I like to chug it. The shot doesn’t have time to cool off all the way. And you get this alternation of hot and cold, coffee and beer. You’re left thinking, ‘Oh my god, what is this magical thing? I want more.’”
A truly almighty beverage, people.
For those interested in learning more about the alchemy of coffee beer, Joe Bean will be hosting a hands-on class Monday, June 15, as part of Real Beer Week in Rochester. Each participant will get two different beers and two different coffees to learn from and experiment with. For more information and to sign up, click here
Matt Kelly is a writer living in the Finger Lakes, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He works with Fruition Seeds in Naples, Small World Food in Rochester, and Lakestone Family Farm in Farmington. Matt writes regularly at BoonieAdjacent.com.