If you didn’t peer into their mugs, it might be hard to distinguish between a group of coffee gurus and beer aficionados slurping their beverages with furrowed brows as they waxed on about notes of citrus and smokiness. But over the last several years, these rival cults have turned their obsessive concern for fine beverages into an unlikely brew: coffee beer.
Yes, it’s hard to tell if that’s an upper or a downer. But devotees of both are warming — or, in other cases, cooling — to each other. Some of the hottest names among connoisseurs of both products are joining forces. Among beer and coffee snobs, it’s as if the Red Sox and the Patriots fielded a team together.
It’s just one indication of the evolution of foodie culture in America, where everybody seems to be meeting in a farmers’ market — whether beer, coffee, or local vegetables and specialty pig parts — and finding common ground. Now, relationships are forming among subgroups and specialty products are finding a way to cross market with each other.
“The culture of craft coffee and craft beer is very similar — the attitude, the tattoos, the experimentation,” said Brett Smith, cofounder of Durham, N.C.-based Counter Culture Coffee, which recently collaborated with Sierra Nevada on a coffee IPA. “The cultures are one of experimentation with the product, trying to push the limits with the products, and look for nuances.”
“I think there is an opportunity for this,” added Smith, who now has a coffee education and training center in Somerville, “to become more than just a novelty.”
The coffee and beer collaborations are resulting in some odd and unique flavors, not to mention the potentially jarring combination of a stimulant and depressant all in one glass (something that’s drawn attention from the Food and Drug Administration).
The phenomenon is mostly about making beer taste like coffee, but it’s catching on to such a degree that now Starbucks is doing a limited rollout of non-alcoholic, beer-flavored latte.
The “Dark Barrel Latte,” which Starbucks says was inspired by the rise in craft beers, uses a blend of espresso, dark caramel, and chocolaty stout-flavored sauce. It is currently being tested in Florida and Ohio. (It’s also available as a Frappuccino.)
The coffee and beer combination has a bit of a history. Some pubs around the world serve a drink called a Dufrain or a Muddy Dublin that is a combination of Guinness with shots of espresso.
Since at least the 1990s, breweries have been mixing in coffee with their beer. In 2004, the World Beer Cup — the Olympics of beer competitions — added a coffee category. There were nine entries that year, and it has grown every year since — to 109 at this year’s competition.
Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based coffee roaster, has started hosting events called “Uppers and Downers” that feature coffee beer collaborations. The roaster has developed beers with Goose Island Beer Company and Three Floyds.
Stumptown, a prominent Portland, Ore.-based coffee roaster, has partnered with Six Point Brewery in Brooklyn, as well as Sierra Nevada and Captain Lawrence brewing companies.
“I’m equal parts beer and equal parts coffee,” said Matt Lounsbury, head of operations at Stumptown. “We’ve done more beer collaborations lately than I can shake a stick at.”
In St. Louis, Schlafly Beer teamed with prominent roaster Kaldi’s Coffee for a brew that is available seasonally. Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, last year started brewing a coffee beer called James Bean with a local roaster. Narragansett Beer in Providence, last year released a coffee milk stout made with Autocrat Coffee, and it sold out in a week. This year, they’ve released it again in much larger quantities.
Locally, Barrington Coffee Roasters has been developing small batches with Harpoon, which has been on tap at its brewery. A new brew has been developed with Trillium Brewing, which serves the drink at Row 34. The drinks have become so successful that Trillium is planning to create two more drinks next year, one called Night and Day (a Russian Imperial Stout with dark coffee) and another called Day and Night (American blond barley with light roast coffee).
“It’s becoming less of a novelty and something a little bit more deliberate and focused,” said Jean-Claude Tetreault, at Trillium. “Craft beer fans and coffee fans like to try something a little different, a variance. They want to try what the new thing is.”
George Howell Coffee, the Acton-based coffee roaster, is currently working with Mystic Brewery to develop a lighter beer that could highlight their single-origin beans.
“My vision is a light beer, probably an amber ale, nothing too crazy hoppy so you can taste the coffee,” said Sal Persico, a barista and trainer at George Howell Coffee who is heading up the company’s exploration into beer. “I’d like to use an Ethiopian washed coffee so you can taste the lemon, the fruity taste being strong enough so you can taste it. If we can pull it off.”
The process for making coffee beer can vary. But typically the coffee is added after the beer has finished fomentation, and is no longer blowing off levels of carbon dioxide that would dilute the coffee flavor.
Traditionally, coffee beers have been dark stouts and porters, using bold coffee, but that’s starting to change, with more breweries looking to make IPAs that can bring about a different taste profile with the coffee.
And at times the collaborations on coffee beers have stretched the limits. The Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park, Fla., does a “maple bacon coffee porter” that it touts as “evoking a complete diner-style breakfast in a glass.”
Regardless, breweries and coffee roasters say, there’s not too much caffeine in the final product. Trillium, for example, uses 30 ounces of coffee for 10.8 gallons of beer.
“It’s a really small amount of coffee. It’s probably a trivial amount of caffeine,” Tetreault said. “It’s far less than even a cup of drip coffee, I’m sure.”
That may help coffee beers comply with FDA regulations, which cracked down in 2010 on alcoholic energy drinks and told seven manufacturers that their drinks were a “public health concern” and had to be removed from the shelves.
So far, the coffee beers have not attracted the same scrutiny.
“The sky is the limit as far as what you can do with coffee and beer together,” said Bill Manley, a beer developer at Sierra Nevada. “As people are exploring different expressions of coffee — where your beans come from, how it’s roasted, how it’s prepared — there are so many ways you can tweak the body and the flavors and the notes you can get out of the beers. The more people experiment, the more combinations you come up with. That’s the coolest thing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Schlafly Beer.