Brewed Awakenings: The Fusion of Coffee and Beer
When you think of the words “Maine,” “coffee,” and “alcohol,” your mind probably goes to Allen’s Coffee Brandy. The ubiquitous brown liquor is practically synonymous with Maine, where it’s been the best-selling spirit in the state for over twenty years. In recent years, Allen’s annually sells over a million bottles – nearly one for every resident of the state.
However, Mainers would be wise to marry coffee and alcohol with another libation – craft beer. Brewers in Maine, like those all over the country, have been incorporating coffee into their brews to delicious effect. And if you’re not a beer drinker, coffee beers can be a great introduction.
In the world of commercially-brewed beer, fusion of coffee and ale is a relatively new development. As recently as the mid-90s, the first coffee beers were met with resistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who cited coffee as not being an approved additive for beer. Thankfully, the humble coffee bean survived this threat, and now features prominently beers that vary wildly in style and flavor.
Hops’ and grains’ characteristics in beer vary wildly based on where they’re from and how they’re roasted. In the same way, coffee beans can create a rainbow of different flavors and aromas in beer. A coffee bean can add notes that range from floral and fruity, to smokey, to brown sugar sweet. A favorite early-morning activity of mine is stopping into Speckled Ax in Portland and looking over the flavor descriptions for their different coffees. Coffee has a bounty of descriptors, and the list could put sommeliers to shame.
Coffee is added to beer in a variety of different ways. Sometimes, grounds are steeped in water used to brew a batch of beer for a couple days, then blended into the beer during primary fermentation. Other beers call for adding similarly steeped water directly into the brite tank, where the beer is conditioned after primary fermentation. Still others add brewed coffee just before the beer is bottled and sent off to market. Each method imparts coffee characteristics in different ways, in the same way different methods of brewing coffee result in a different cup of joe. And that can all take a backseat to how much coffee is used, which can mean the difference between subtle coffee notes and a beer that tastes like a latte.
The majority of coffee beers on Maine brewers’ taps are stouts and porters, which makes sense. Those are styles that already have the bitter, roast flavors that many people associate with coffee. The addition of coffee simply accentuates and amplifies them.
The coffee-beer connection is also a chance for brewers to collaborate with local coffee roasters, craftsmen and women who work in an environment not dissimilar from a craft brewery. Even when they aren’t working together directly, the use of locally-roasted coffee drives business through the doors of these Maine producers. The superhero team-up has led to great beers like Waypoint (from Rising Tide and Tandem Coffee), Joe Stout (Bag and Kettle and Carrabassett Coffee), Jolly Woodsman (Banded Horn and Speckled Ax), Happy Dog (Marshall Wharf and Green Tree Coffee), and Mr. Grumpy Pants (Norway Brewing and Coffee By Design).
In addition to offerings that are brewed first and foremost as coffee beers, a number of Maine brewers have won over drinkers with coffee-infused versions of their regular lineups. Foundation’s Burnside, already a sweet and nutty brown ale, takes on a deep coffee complexity when infused with coffee. Loads of other local brews – like Barreled Souls Quaker State, Austin Street Six Grain, Oxbow Townline Porter, and Saco River Old Course, to name just a few – tinker with their darker beers by adding brewed coffee or roasted coffee beans before pouring.
While the marriage of coffee and dark beers feels natural, brewers have discovered that java can be added to other styles with surprising – and impressive – results. Peak Organic’s Espresso Amber, which debuted in 2008, combines organic, fair-trade espresso with the toasty malt and slightly fruity flavors of an amber ale. Rather than overpower the beer, the coffee adds rich, roasty notes and a whiff of coffee in the nose.
Limerick’s Gneiss Brewing occasionally adds cold brew concentrate to Delta, a Dunkelweizen (a dark wheat, German-style beer). The result brings rich, roast coffee flavor to the bread and banana notes of a dunkel, creating a complex and unique beer. Strong Brewing also brews a dunkel with coffee, their 44 Kaffee Weisse. The legendary brewers at Allagash created James Bean by infusing a bourbon barrel aged, Belgian-style strong ale with cold press coffee from Speckled Ax. It all comes together in a beer bursting with caramel, coffee, bourbon, and berry flavors.
Maine’s brewing scene even has a limited edition brew that pays tribute to the infamous Allen’s Coffee Brandy. Since 2013, Ellen’s Coffee Stout has been brewed by Bar Harbor’s Atlantic Brewing Company. Coffee from Crooked Porch Coffee, milk sugar, and Madagascar vanilla make for a sweet and creamy stout that recalls the milk-and-brandy cocktail favored by Allen’s biggest fans.
Text: Josh Christie