Every February for the last three years, Chicago has played host to the beer world’s most niche festival. A partnership between World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey and beer industry impresario Michael Kiser, Uppers & Downers, as it’s cheekily called, is an all coffee beer festival. This year, paying guests can attend one of two Saturday afternoon sessions where they will have unlimited access to single-origin coffees, cold brew, coffee cocktails and, most importantly, 20 experimental coffee beers made specifically for the event.
There have always been beers that tasted like coffee, but for most of brewing history, that was because these beers—usually stouts and porters—were made with roasted malts. As anyone who’s ever drank a Guinness knows, dark roasts often express themselves with espresso-like notes. But adding actual coffee to beer is something else entirely.
Coffee-infused beer has been discussed in homebrewing circles as early as 1991, when a coffee beer recipe appeared in Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing (he recommended adding freshly ground beans in the final five minutes of the brewing process). But the first commercial appearance of coffee beer is generally attributed to New Glarus’s Coffee Stout. Launched in 1994, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle with the ATF, who claimed it was illegal to add caffeine to packaged alcohol.
Fast-forward a decade and geeks were lining up to nab the then-No. 1 beer in the world, 3 Floyds Dark Lord, which featured Mexican vanilla, Indian sugar and Intelligentsia Coffee’s Black Cat espresso. Pretty soon nearly every brewery would have a big, bold imperial stout packed with a local roaster’s coffee on offer. Brewers have now moved beyond the coffee stout.
“Coffee beers have undergone a bit of a renaissance,” wrote Michael Kiser, introducing the first Uppers & Downers event in 2013. “While the porters and stouts that define this style have been tweaked, refined and nearly perfected, others have branched out into new styles, techniques and coffees to try and find new territory in the brew.”
Today, nearly every style has been paired with coffee. No longer is it just dark roasts with dark beer; these days, you’re just as likely to see fruity, citrusy, lightly roasted beans matched to lighter beers. In fact, many modern coffee beers are less about smacking you over the head with dark-roasted coffee than trying to seamlessly integrate it into the brew, using the coffee variety’s unique aromas and flavors for added complexity. But, as we found out, it’s a tricky balancing act.
For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Associate Editor, Lizzie Munro; and Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette. We tasted 25 beers—coffee blonde ales, saisons, IPAs, brown ales, a sour and, of course, plenty of stouts and porters, many of which were additionally barrel-aged. Below are our top picks in the category.
Five Coffee Beers to Try
Alaskan Brewing Co. Heritage Coffee Brown Ale
Smartly opting for more a pliable brown ale over a potent stout, Alaskan’s Heritage Coffee Brown uses malts roasted with Brazilian coffee beans from Juneau-based Heritage Coffee Roasting Company. The result is a cold brew-like offering that bypasses the acridity that sometimes plagues beers that rely on poorly extracted coffee. And while neither cream nor sugar are present in the beer, it shows notes of both—giving it a rounded, approachable profile.
- ABV: 7 percent
Funky Buddha Wide Awake It’s Morning
This Ft. Lauderdale-area brewery has a trio of coffee beers that approach whale status, each of them in our tasting. None performed better than this imperialized version of their iconic Maple Bacon Porter, which features maple syrup, bacon and, of course, fresh-roasted coffee. The nose is quite savory, with notes of soy sauce and smoked meats, backed up by a generous dose of bittersweet dark chocolate on the palate.
- ABV: 10 percent
Founders KBS (Kentucky Bourbon Stout)
An icon in the coffee beer game, Founders’ Kentucky Breakfast Stout has been highly sought after by beer geeks since the early-aughts. The limited, once-yearly release is cave-aged in bourbon barrels packed with chocolate and coffee. After a year of aging, the coffee expresses itself with a green peppery bite that some consider off-putting, but we found quite pleasant.
- ABV: 12.4 percent
Prairie Artisan Ales BOMB!
More famous as a farmhouse ale producer, Tulsa’s Prairie Artisan Ales found unexpected success with this kitchen sink of an imperial stout. Prairie BOMB! is bourbon barrel-aged with cacao nibs, vanilla beans, ancho chili peppers and coffee from Tulsa-based roaster Nordaggios. Decadent and dessert-like (showing both fruity and savory notes), it was one of the most unique beers in our tasting.
- ABV: 13 percent
The Bruery Derde Golf
As the only sour beer in our tasting, Derde Golf would have stood out no matter what. But its delicate hand in integrating the flavor of a lighter roast with fruit is what made it one of our favorites in the tasting. It’s a blend of both an oak-aged Belgian quad with blackberries and a bourbon barrel-aged old ale infused with specially-selected coffee from Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa. It drinks like a classic Flemish red ale like Rodenbach—the coffee lending a subtle bitter complexity to the beer’s tart and vinegary notes.
- ABV: 12.3 percent