The two of us — Gary, a craft beer expert who writes the 99 Bottles column, and Matt, a self-proclaimed coffee snob who recently started Double Shot — set out to explore the world of coffee beers. The hope was that our differing perspectives would help us as we taste tested an array of coffee brews.
After all, why would someone who likes coffee want it in their beer? And if someone is after a nice refreshing brewski, why on earth would they take it with a taste of coffee?
We sought to find as many coffee beers as possible that overlap in our respective cities (Gary in Boston, Matt in Washington, D.C.). That task was surprisingly difficult — there is a smaller number of coffee beers that have gone national — but we ended up with eight.
And somehow, independently, we came to the same conclusion.
For me, coffee is a daily routine, and an essential ingredient of my life. But, I confess, I’m a beer novice.
Almost all coffee beers are stouts and porters — dark beers that use dark roasted coffees. Often, I found, that means the beer is overshadowing the coffee flavors. It made me crave an IPA — something lighter that could bring out more coffee flavors — that has yet to make a national splash.
With several of the coffee beers we sampled, I struggled to find the coffee in them. The Kentucky Bourbon Stout and Left Hand Milk Stout left little impression. Troegs Java Head didn’t live up to the java in its name.
Two of them — the Stone Coffee Milk Stout and the Hitachino Nest Espresso — had an espresso taste at the front-end, before being quickly overshadowed by the beer. The Narragansett Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout had coffee present, but it was a bit like Folgers coffee. Sure, there was coffee there, but it wasn’t great.
Two of the beers stood out far above the rest.
The Atwater Vanilla Java had a strong vanilla taste, as if you had ordered a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with a pump of french vanilla. But in a beer.
Perhaps the best of the bunch was the Founders Breakfast Stout. This was where coffee was the most present. It was like dark roast, done by French press. Finally, the coffee seemed like a core ingredient — not just an afterthought.
I’m a coffee guy, too, not in the way that I know anything about it, but in the way that I drink my cold brew black and bitter. So it’s no surprise that Matt and I each came to the conclusion that the Founders Breakfast Stout — with the portly kid eating cereal staring up at you from the label — was the best.
One thing to keep in mind about the Founders is that it’s incredibly hoppy for a stout. It’s bitter, like coffee is supposed to be. A lot of the beers we tasted attempt to replicate sweetened coffee drinks. The two coffee milk stouts, from Stone and Left Hand, have a nice Hershey bar taste, but they become cloying pretty quickly. It’s personal preference, but if there were a Dunkin’ Donuts Iced Coffee beer, I’d throw it out the window. The Founders is chalky and slightly acerbic, like an espresso.
Can you drink a coffee stout in the morning? I opened the Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout while doing some work at 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday. I sipped slowly — the beer is 7.5 percent alcohol by volume — and was immediately impressed by the brew’s complexity. The aroma was nutty and spicy, like sticking your nose inside a bag full of fresh-ground beans. Tons of espresso character here, along with dark fruits and a little sweetness. I felt more productive, even if I probably wasn’t.
One place Matt and I disagreed was the Atwater Vanilla Java. This is a porter, not a stout, so it’s expectedly a little wispier than the others. But the thinner mouthfeel, combined with tinny vanilla notes, didn’t work for me.
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