Good Beer Hunting

Uppers and Downers

Uppers & Downers — "Brew" with Paul Schneider of Solemn Oath Brewery

Uppers & Downers is imminent (see event details) — and to give you an idea of just how far we’re taking the coffee beer category, we wanted to look back on our last two Uppers & Downers events from this summer, where one of our creative partners Solemn oath, and some radical homebrewers, helped us take it to the next level. 

Following our Roast event, where brewers and drinkers got a first-hand look at the coffee roasting process, and Origin, where we dove into the genetic profiles, elevations, and farming techniques of various coffee growing regions, it was time to get serious about making coffee beer. Paul Schneider has been working with Intelligentsia to produce some of the most ambitious experiments in coffee beers for over a year now — it all started when they made a coffee black saison for last year’s Uppers & Downers party in Pasadena, CA. That’s where this whole thing started. So for brew, we wanted to feature Paul’s approach across a wide variety of styles and methods, bringing the best results to the public. 

We started by developing a matrix of coffees, extraction and blending methods, and beer styles. At Intelligentsia’s roasting works in Chicago, Paul, myself, and Jay Cunningham mapped out dozens of possibilities and worked our way through aromas, flavors, and textures to arrive at a small set that seemed worthy of trial. Back at Solemn Oath, Paul spent the better part of a month developing his favorite recipes to share. At the Brew event, he and Collin Moody, manager of the Wicker Park location, walked us through each experiment in great detail. 

Eigengrau with ice-brewed Kenya
A black Kolsch, with a light roasted malt character, floral hop balance, delicate fruitiness, light body and crisp finish, blended with Intelligentsia’s Kunga Maitu, full of pineapple, pink grapefruit, buttered rum, and hibiscus notes. 

Tortuga Fuego (Pyrros dry-hopped with Tortuga Honduras)
Solemn Oath’s collaboration with Stone has a nutty, caramel and dark fruit flavor balanced by a light, floral hop character and crushed rosehips giving it an earthy, fruity quality from yeast esters with a mildly sweet finish. Dry-hopped with Intelligentsia’s Tortuga from Honduras, it adds a tart, tamarind, orange sherbert, and wild honey quality, creating an overall jammy and nutty balance in the resulting beer. 

Tortuga Helada (Tortuga Fuego with ice-brewed Kenya)
Building on the dry-hopped coffee qualities Fuego, this beer also blends in ice-brewed Kunga Maitu. The mouthfeel is much different, lightening the beer on the palate while creating a much more prevalent series of coffee flavors both citrusy and sweet. 

Paul’s experiment have resulted in a tremendous amount of new knowledge in the coffee beer brewing and blending process. Paul and Solemn Oath are diving into the brewing process again for the January 25th Uppers & Downers festival of coffee beers where we plan to give them a stage to share their latest experiments. As he continues to work alongside Intelli’s Jay Cunningham, he’s developed a few ways of approaching the challenge. Here’s a few of his thoughts:

1. Blending coffee and beer is both additive and subtractive.
You add characteristics of the coffee, but proportionally dilute qualities of the beer such as bitterness, yeast character, alcohol content, body and mouthfeel, etc. This is why we use cold-brew so often in beer: it's twice as concentrated as other methods, so it adds what we're looking for while better maintaining the desired character of the beer. It's helpful to think back to your high school physics class and the basic properties of waves when thinking about how this works. Light and sound, for example, can either be amplified or canceled out when reflection or multiple sources are involved. 

Sometimes, characteristics of the beer and coffee cancel each other out, like the destructive interference you experience in the dead spot of a poorly designed concert venue. Other times, they can amplify each other, like turning on your bright headlights or jumping on a trampoline at just the right time to send someone else flying. It's really hard to predict how these dynamics play out without actually going through the blending and testing. A lot of times, we have a pretty good hunch that a certain beer calls for a certain kind of coffee because we expect their shared characteristics to harmonize, but they end up canceling each other out. For example, we thought Eigengrau would be killer with Intelli’s Los Delirios and its delicate chocolate milk/peanut butter notes. Nope! The bottom totally fell out of the blend and tasted watery and bland. Just as often, we find that a coffee that's so far off from the beer profile is the perfect complement because it adds an entirely new dimension, like the bright acidity of Tortuga coffee in Pyrros, a malty, herbal beer. 

2. It's not all about flavor and aroma.
"Smells like coffee" and "Tastes like coffee" are just about the most uninspired and blunt descriptions possible for coffee beer, yet I hear them all the time. What does that mean? What does coffee smell like? What does it taste like? It's not monolithic. Likewise, brewing coffee beer is not about getting "coffee character" cleanly into the beer because that frankly doesn't have any analytical meaning. Find more nuance, be more specific, and widen your understanding of what coffee or beer — or any beverage, for that matter — is and how it is experienced and perceived. 

Body and mouthfeel, for example, are huge, and often overlooked. The tangy acidity of coffee is often a sensation as strong as its flavor or aroma — sometimes near-electric. A nice, big, full-bodied coffee is a good candidate for blending in normal amounts with a beer of moderate-strong intensity; smaller quantities in a beer with less impact, larger in one with more. The ice-brewed Kenya works so well with Eigengrau because it's a beer that still tastes really good at a lower ABV with lighter body and slightly diminished fermentation and roast character. The light body of the beer and coffee harmonize here and the diluted beer characteristics make way for the delicate floral, fruity, bready undertones and fluffy, slightly grainy texture from the coffee. This really didn't work with bigger-bodied, more intense beers. Instead, we found with Tortuga Fuego that the complex malty, estery, herbal beer worked really well with deep, complex layers of coffee character from two different coffees and methods. It's the alchemy of tasting a heck of a lot, without being able to put your finger on any predominant flavor or aroma. 

3. Blending is always pseudo-science 
For cold-brew concentrate, we usually start with a 12:1 ratio of beer and coffee, and taste either side of the range, 10:1 and 14:1 or so, and move farther in either direction if needed. Depending on the relative intensity of particular characteristics of the beer and coffee, you're almost certain to find that there's no free lunch here — going stronger on the coffee will give you more of what you're looking for from it, but also diminish what you'd like to come through from the beer, and vice versa. For ice-brew, the coffee strength is much lower, so start at a 6:1 ratio and work from there. For dry-hopping, there's no good way to test by trial, so based on experience we typically use one ounce (by weight) of coarse ground coffee per gallon of beer (one pound per 1/2 BBL keg). That's about a medium contribution, and you could go higher or lower, similar to above. 

We have no idea where Paul’s coffee beers are heading next, but if you want to find out with the rest of us. Get tickets to Uppers & Downers at Thalia Hall on January 25th. It’s going to be the best time. 

Words + photos by Michael Kiser