Posted by Chris O’Brien
(This first appeared in the Oct-Nov 2007 issue of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.)
For millions of people, a glass good beer brings the day to a close and a mug of good coffee gets it going again the next morning. Beer is America’s alcoholic beverage of choice, outselling both wine and spirits. Coffee is our most popular non-alcoholic elixir, although cola is giving it a run for its money.
Beer and coffee have a lot in common. Grain is fermented to make beer and many coffees (though not all) include a fermentation stage that removes the slippery “mucilage” from around the bean before it is dried. Both beer and coffee played pivotal roles in massive social transformations – beer was closely linked with the development of settled agriculture and the ancient urban centers that emerged from it. Likewise, researchers such as Stewart Lee Allen, author of The Devil’s Cup, attribute the revolutionary creativity of the Renaissance era to the caffeine-inspired minds of its great “renaissance men” like Voltaire and Newton who drank coffee as it spread across Europe for the first time.
The two drinks have alternately been exalted and rebuked. Beer has been celebrated since ancient times for its tonic and healthful effects. Civilizations from Sumer to Peru praised special goddesses and gods of beer and fermentation. Coffee has also had its worshippers, such as the Arab Sufi monks who drank it to stay awake for late-night prayers. But both eventually had their detractors as well.
According to Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, The Womens Petition Against Coffee complained in 1674 that: “We find of late a very sensible Decay of that Old English Vigor . . . Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever.” All this was due to “the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee, which . . . has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind gallants . . . They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their ears.”
And one must look no further than the national Prohibition against alcohol that was enforced in this land from 1920-1933 to find the most extreme example of anti-beer sentiments. In a different twist, there were also those who disparaged coffee in favor of beer, as Frederick the Great did in 1777 when he declared: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer.”
A Different Kind of Microbrew
Up until around the turn of the 19th century, beer was brewed by thousands of small breweries and coffee was roasted by small roaster-retailers across the country. But after Prohibition, beer went through a “dark ages” of roughly fifty years as the large brewers consolidated into ever larger companies, destroying “beerodiversity” along the way. By the late 1970s, a handful of breweries controlled the market and produced a single mono-crop of beer called “industrial light lager.” Coffee experienced a similarly profound industrial period when Americans were convinced to swallow instant coffee crystals pushed on them by mega-corporations that had devised it as a cheap transportable version of coffee for the soldiers away at the war in Europe.
In both cases, it took about fifty years to recover from this industrial onslaught. But today, full-flavored beer and gourmet coffee are enjoying unprecedented revivals – craft and artisanal production have returned. In a mere 25 years, America has embraced a new generation of well over one thousand small, town breweries – so many that the majority of us now live within ten miles of one. Microroasters, i.e. producers of “specialty” coffee, are that industry’s equivalent of microbrewers. The Specialty Coffee Association reports that in 2006, there were nearly two thousand specialty roasters retailing their coffee in the U.S., and that 75% of that coffee is “home-brewed.”
Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together
With all this in common, it is no surprise that people are experimentally combining beer and coffee to create some truly unusual brews. Starbucks and Redhook teamed up a while back to produce Double Black Stout, a beer containing 30 milligrams of caffeine per 22 ounce bottle – that’s a little less than the average shot of espresso. The Nestle Corporation patented something they called “coffee beer,” a beverage fermented from coffee beans that foams like beer and tastes like coffee, but has no alcohol. Thumbing through an old beer magazine, I even discovered instructions for how to brew beer using a coffee pot!
A couple years ago, Anheuser-Busch introduced “B to the E,” their attempt at a caffeine-infused beer which also contained ginseng and Brazilian guarana berries. They later renamed it Bud Extra and though it sounded like an interesting idea to some, most of the reviews have been less than complimentary.
Getting closer to what most people would recognize as beer, a great number of brewers have experimented with “coffee stout” – which is exactly what it sounds like: a stout brewed with real coffee added either during the boil or the fermentation. Some brewers use roasted, ground beans while others use brewed coffee like Capital City Brewing does in their Fuel Stout (late-breaking news: Higher Grounds Trading has teamed up with Shorts Brewing to make a new beer with their fair trade coffee – more on this soon). London-based Meantime Brewing uses Fair Trade certified Araba Bourbon coffee beans from Rwanda in their Coffee Porter – I’d tell you about their Chocolate beer too, but that will have to wait to go in a “beer and chocolate” article.
So, what to do when you long for a rich, roasty coffee-stout combo and there is none to be found at your local brewpub, bottle-shop or good beer bar? The answer is quite easy. In fact, it’s something I’ve been doing for years. Simply pour your favorite stout into a large glass and then pour in some cooled coffee. Experiment until you discover a proportion that suits your taste. I like a ratio of about one to one.
Actually, I like the combination of beer and coffee so much that I just signed a contract to follow up my first book, Fermenting Revolution (which was about beer), with a second one about the coffee roasting revolution. And now its time for me to start the research! To read more about coffee and beer, visit my beer blog: www.beeractivist.com; and the new blog I just launched with my pals at Higher Grounds Trading for our upcoming co-authored book at: https://beanactivist.wordpress.com. For home-coffee roasting supplies, check out Seven Bridges at www.breworganic.com or the new roastery/cafe/shop Higher Grounds is opening in Traverse City, MI.