Could coffee be the next big trend in craft beer?

By James Beeson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Trend: brewers are developing new and exciting styles of coffee beers (Photo: Matthew Curtis/Good Beer Hunting)
Trend: brewers are developing new and exciting styles of coffee beers (Photo: Matthew Curtis/Good Beer Hunting)
The image usually associated with coffee beer is that of a heavy, dark-coloured stout, with strong roasted malt aromas and harsh, bitter flavours. A niche product, enjoyable for those who want it, but not a mainstream drinks trend of any significance.

However, with the explosion of craft beer, a number of pioneering brewers are innovating with the bean and developing new and exciting styles of coffee beers such as sours, IPA’s and saisons.

At the first UK Uppers & Downers festival​ on Wednesday (13 September), eight craft breweries paired up with coffee roasters from the UK and Ireland to showcase a broad range of coffee-infused beers at Brew By Numbers Brewery in London.

The question is: what inspired this unusual collaboration and how can the two growing industries learn from one another?

One of the major similarities between coffee and beer lovers is their passion and enthusiasm for flavour, according to Matthew Curtis, UK editor of Good Beer Hunting​ (the organisation behind Uppers & Downers).

We are all working with the same set of principles and beliefs, so I think there is a really strong relationship between the coffee and beer crowds

– Paul Jones, Cloudwater Brew Co

“I think the main similarity between the two is geeking out on flavour and quality,” says Curtis. “In terms of coffee farming it probably has more in common with wine, but third wave (artisan) coffee has that same snap and enthusiasm that craft beer does.

“They are two worlds that exist very separately from each other and the whole point of Uppers & Downers is to merge those two together.”

Paul Jones, managing director of Cloudwater Brew Co – one of the eight breweries involved in the festival – agrees with this sentiment.  “If you chase around the coffee scene you will find a lot of similar conversations to the ones you will find in beer,” he says.

“People are focused on how to bring people in and give them great experiences. We are all working with the same set of principles and beliefs, so I think there is a really strong relationship between the coffee and beer crowds.”

Learning through collaboration

The process of making the two products, however, are vastly different, and brewing a beer with coffee is far more complicated than just bunging some beans into a dark beer, according to Workshop Coffee head of quality James Bailey.

“I know what the coffees we buy in are like and how to use them with water to brew a coffee, but using coffee in beer is something I am completely new to,” he says. “When we worked with Brew By Numbers it was a case of trialling different quantities, different grind sets, different types of coffee with different malt mixes or hops.

“A lot of trial and error has been involved, but the main thing we have learnt from it is how differently beer takes out the flavour from coffee as compared with water.

“The roasting we have done in our coffee beer is totally different to how we would use the coffee in an espresso, and that is a lot to do with the fact beer extracts things at different rates and in different amounts from the beans.”

It's not just a gimmick, it's not just a new colour on a palette, but a different palette entirely

– Chris Hall, Brew By Numbers

“We're only a few collaborations deep and It's just about trying different things out until we have something that is delicious and balanced and has that clarity of flavour.”

It’s not just the roasters learning from recent collaborations between coffee and beer makers. Brew By Numbers Brewery media and sales co-ordinator Chris Hall adds that understanding how coffee interacts with beer gives brewers a whole new perspective on flavour.

“It's not just a gimmick, it's not just a new colour on a palette, but a different palette entirely,” he says.

“It's like finding a new material to carve something from. You can use it (the process of working with roasters) not just to learn about flavour of coffee but how to integrate it with all of your other ingredients.”

“It's really cool not just to showcase coffee beers but to do a whole festival with coffee people because our interactions with each other influence and change our ways of thinking.”

Beyond stouts and porters

Moving beyond the stereotype of dark, roasted coffee beers has been an essential part of what Uppers & Downers has sought to achieve since its inception in the US back in 2013. In this regard, the rise of craft beer has been essential; bringing new beer styles into the mainstream that coffee can be added to and blended with.

“Traditional coffee with dark Italian roasts has got a lot in common with the flavours of a stout; dark, roasted and bitter,” admits Good Beer Hunting​'s Curtis. “But modern third-wave coffee often has a lot more in common with IPA; its bright and juicy and tastes of tropical fruits.

“There are all these different flavour profiles that have a lot more in common with some of the styles we are making in craft beer.

“The idea behind Uppers & Downers is all about opening people’s eyes to the fact that craft beer isn't just IPA and not all coffee is supposed to taste of dark Italian roasts. The world of coffee is as vibrant and expansive as beer.”

Of course, coffee, much like many beer styles themselves, can be a matter of personal taste.

Explaining the decision to brew a coffee infused kettle sour, Cloudwater’s Jones says: “I don't really like the typical and prolific Italian dark, roasted coffee. I'm much more a kind of lighter roast guy, and I love interesting acidity profiles in my coffee. Preserving those flavour experiences when mixing it with beer is really important.

“There are some absolutely delicious beers in here that feature coffee in a more roasted flavour, but that is just a little snapshot of the breadth of development that is coming through in the UK brewing scene.

I don't think it will be a big trend; nothing will replace IPA within the next five years

– Matt Curtis, Good Beer Hunting

“People are looking far and wide in terms of how they really showcase ingredients rather than just use them in the traditional or expected way.”

Despite this enthusiasm and growth within the coffee beer sector, there are doubts about whether it will ever be able to break the stranglehold of IPA and lager on the UK brewing scene in the long run. “I don't think it will be a big trend; nothing will replace IPA within the next five years,” Curtis admits.

“But what I think we will see is better coffee beers.  A great example is Magic Rock's Common Grounds. That's a core beer for them, they produce it on cask, in keg and in can.

“I'd love to see a coffee lager or sour go mainstream, but at the moment I think it is more a case of about seeing it as another addition that is a little bit different to water, malt, hops and yeast. It's a way of expanding horizons for brewers and consumers.”

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