The hiss and gurgle of a milk steamer blends with the rattle of keyboards and the soft hum of quiet conversation. Aromas of nuts, toast, vanilla and smoke hang thick in the air. The soothing sensations of a coffee shop are well known to every java lover.
Drinkers of the other brewed beverage — beer — experience similar joy upon entering a brewery or taproom. Their mouths start to water at the grainy-sweet smell of wort, the tang of hops and the sight of a suds-topped glass.
I find that there is some crossover between the groups. Those who love good coffee often also favor high-quality beer. For those who savor both, coffee beers offer a heavenly match.
There is a natural affinity between black beers and coffee. The grains from which they derive their color are roasted in giant drums that are nearly identical to those used for roasting coffee beans. Besides the inky tint, roasted grains give beer chocolate and coffee-like flavors that create a perfect bridge to actual coffee.
Those chocolate and coffee tones are on full display in Cold Press Black from Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Cold-press Crazy Juice coffee from Duluth Coffee Co. gives this beer the essence of a quality cup of Joe without a hint of coffee bitterness. A touch of sweetness, some caramel and cocoa notes and a hint of earthy hops remind you that it is actually beer in your glass and not just nitrogen-dispensed coffee.
Sixpoint Brewery’s Five Beans is one of many high-alcohol coffee beers currently available in the area. It’s light-bodied for a beer of its size — 10 percent alcohol — making it dangerously quaffable. A five-bean coffee blend lends it an edgy, dark-roast coffee character. A subtle touch of cardamom brings a sense of exotic spice without calling itself out. It suggests capsaicin, but there is no heat. Cocoa and vanilla add an impression of sweetness to an otherwise bone-dry beer.
One of the more interesting and my favorite of the high-test coffee stouts is Bomb from Prairie Artisan Ales — a 13-percent-alcohol imperial stout aged on cocoa beans, vanilla and ancho chile peppers. This one is like an Aztec mocha coffee drink from your favorite java bar. It is all coffee on the nose and all cocoa on the tongue. Vanilla is prominent, but not overwhelming — adding fullness as well as sweetness. Don’t let the ancho chile scare you off. A pleasant tingle on the way out is the extent of the heat, but raisiny undertones from the chilies should make that mild burn worth it, even to a sensitive Minnesota palate.
Tweak from Avery Brewing takes the concept of coffee beers to the extreme. There is a lot going on in this 16-percent-alcohol, bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout — almost too much. There is bourbon, to be sure. Coffee and roasted grains are there, but are not the main event. Rum-soaked raisins make an appearance along with copious amounts of vanilla and caramel. The alcohol is quite intense. Think of Tweak like sherry with a touch of coffee flavor. Like sherry, a couple of ounces in a snifter are all you need. This beer screams out for a big hunk of Stilton cheese to balance it out.
Not all coffee beers are black. First Call from Modist Brewing Co. in Minneapolis is a coffee-packed pale lager that confounds expectations from appearance to taste. Brewer Keigan Knee adds custom beans from local specialty roaster Wesley Andrews to his fermenter, allowing the beer’s alcohol to extract flavor and aroma without color. The result is a crisp, light-golden-colored brew with the nutty smell and taste of fresh cold press. The beer takes a back seat in this one. Nary hop nor grain make their way through the intense, yet smooth and delicious coffee.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.