From bean to beer: Austin brewers find jittery joy with coffee beers

The yin and yang of coffee and beer — one to push us through the day, the other to relax us at night — mean they’re often found together at our favorite places to drink: coffee shops with beer taps (like the Wright Bros. Brew & Brew) and breweries with coffee programs (like Red Horn Coffee House & Brewing Co.).

These complementary beverages also are combined in beers that give us a jolt and a buzz at the same time. Over the past year, coffee beers have risen extraordinarily in popularity and made up one of the top most-entered categories at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in October, not too far behind the behemoth American-style IPA. Breweries continue to introduce new examples of the caffeinated brew, primarily dark and roasted ones.

“The coffee beer trend started with coffee porters and stouts for a reason (because) the overlap between roasted coffee and roasted barley is undeniably obvious and delicious,” Grady Wright, of the Brew & Brew, says. “Coffee stouts heap nutty, roasty, chocolatey goodness from both coffee and malt on top of one another, to great success in most cases. It’s a combination as classic as biscuits and gravy.”

He would know: Austin seems to be especially fond of the jittery beer. Two local breweries — Zilker Brewing and Last Stand Brewing — have even made coffee beers staples of their mainstay lineups. No matter the time of year, the brewers say, they’ve got regulars visiting their taprooms who want the Zilker Coffee Milk Stout and the Last Stand Coffee Porter.

“Coffee is just one of those ingredients, like hops, that go so well with beer,” Zilker Brewing co-founder Marco Rodriguez says, noting that beers with a strong malt backbone do best to balance coffee’s strong flavors.

In addition to the Coffee Milk Stout, which comes in cans and is regularly one of the most requested draft beers at Zilker’s East Sixth Street space, Rodriguez has dabbled with making other coffee beers, such as the Elfie Sunshine currently available at the taproom.

An imperial version of the coffee milk stout, the sweet and creamy Elfie Sunshine — which has nearly 20 pounds of cocoa nibs and 12 pounds of Costa Rican beans from Wild Gift Coffee in Round Rock — is a prime example of why coffee and darker beers, like stouts, are a magical combination.

So is the Last Stand Coffee Porter, which saw its best month of sales yet, according to the brewery’s operations manager, Jim Sampson.

“We sold the most amount of Coffee Porter in the history of Last Stand in January,” Sampson says. “We were surprised by that, knowing this time of year Real Ale has barrel-aged stuff out, Shiner has the Chameleon cold-brew collaboration and everyone is doing coffee stuff, so we were wondering if all that was going to affect us. But we had the best month ever. It’s selling like crazy.”

Breweries like Last Stand, near Dripping Springs, like to make coffee beers not only because they taste delicious. The beers also provide the chance to collaborate with local coffee roasters like Wild Gift or, in the case of the Coffee Porter, with Summer Moon Coffee, which makes wood-fired, fair-trade coffee. The beans are added through a cold-brew process that Sampson says is affirmation that “we’re getting real coffee flavor, extracting everything we can” from the beans.

“Odd couple, to say the least”

Porters and stouts aren’t the only kinds of beer getting the coffee treatment. Less common are coffee beers whose base styles call for a milder, more lightly roasted malt bill, like blonde ales, golden ales and IPAs. Among the most known of these are Stone Brewing’s Mocha IPA, a “meld of imperial IPA and mocha indulgence,” according to the brewery, and Sixpoint’s C.R.E.A.M Coffee Cream Ale.

For these beers, brewers are probably going to want to use coffee beans with lighter roasts to match the lighter-roasted malts, WhichCraft Tap Room & Bottle Shop general manager Matt Payne says. He splits his time between this second location of the local bottle shop brand WhichCraft and the Austin Roasting Co., a roasting facility on U.S. 183, and he knows a lot about both beverages.

“The vast majority of people love dark roast coffee because of the caramel, dark chocolate, tobacco, leather, et cetera, that you can pull from it. Throw cream and sugar in it, and it’s delicious,” he says. “That’s what people are used to drinking. But light roast has a wide spectrum of flavor also: citrus, floral, orange blossom. Silkier body, snappy in acidity. You pick up flavors you might not notice if you roast it heavily.”

The tri-state Oskar Blues — which opened a production brewery in North Austin last summer — has already been producing a coffee porter using beans from the brewery’s Hotbox Roasters, located in Oskar Blues’ home state of Colorado. But on Feb. 24, all locations, including the one here, will be introducing the Hotbox Coffee IPA.

Rather than the chocolate and caramel that Payne says is common in dark roast coffee, the beer will herald the fruit notes of Hotbox beans from an Ethiopian coffee farm, according to Dan Wiersema, Oskar Blues’ Texas marketing manager.

“Making a fruit-forward IPA with coffee seemed unnatural but also totally natural,” he says. “With the Hotbox Coffee IPA, you get these bright cherry, blueberry, citrus notes coming from the coffee itself and then pine, citrus and mango from the Simcoe hops in the beer. Those blended together to create this new coffee IPA that doesn’t really taste like coffee but doesn’t taste like a bitter IPA either. Odd couple, to say the least.”

Each location of Oskar Blues will be making the beer for draft consumption, although only the Colorado facility will be producing cans.

In East Austin, just down the street from Zilker Brewing, the newly opened Lazarus Brewing has put on tap the Jolted Phoenix Coffee-Infused Golden Ale, from which “you can actually pick up the regional character of the beans: a chocolate, nutty earthiness,” according to Lazarus.

But for a regular demonstration of how wide-ranging coffee can taste, pick up a six-pack every so often of Zilker’s Coffee Milk Stout. Rodriguez rotates the local roasters he sources for beans, such as Flat Track Coffee, Cuvee Coffee and Casa Brasil, and has had a customer or two come in just to try and pick up the slight differences in flavor from the various batches. To be sure, they’ll be slight: “We like rich, traditional flavors for the beer,” he says.

One of his favorite parts of making the beer is consulting with new coffee roasters to select the beans. They’re rather like beer brewers, with the same sort of passion for the craft, he says.

“Roasters send us samples because they want to be part of our beer,” he says. “They could go on for days about grinding, roasting, natural versus washed, the terroir of where the coffee comes from. They’ve got a similar vocabulary but different beverages.”

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