After a lesson on blending philosophy with notes on the coffees and beers, participants were let loose to create their own concoctions.
Good Beer Hunting, the website that co-sponsored Friday night’s “Uppers and Downers” tasting for Madison Craft Beer Week, described the event as a “hands-on tutorial,” but I wasn’t prepared for exactly how much it would feel like a night class when I walked into Johnson Public House. A night class, or maybe a coffeehouse study session, but with beer.
The Uppers and Downers series has been running for just shy of two years now, beginning as a multi-brewer panel event in Los Angeles in October 2013. As part of that original event and since, Good Beer Hunting has fostered collaborations between Intelligentsia Coffee and brewers across the country — brewers like Goose Island, 3 Floyds, Firestone Walker, and now Solemn Oath and Like Minds.
Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting greeted at the door, and kicked off the evening with brief introductions of the event and his fellow organizers: Jay Cunningham, Collin Moody and Stan Slater from Intelligentsia; Paul Schneider, brewer at Solemn Oath and dead ringer for Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman (owner John Barley was there, too, mostly as a silent observer); and Like Minds co-founder John Lavelle. Nobody sent a flunky; these were people who knew the businesses they were representing, and the mood of the event was appropriately knowledgeable and passionate.
“Coffee isn’t a flavor, it’s an ingredient,” said Kiser, summarizing the analytical philosophy behind the coffee/beer blending that would be discussed and practiced that night. Our tables were filled with plastic cups for sampling, graduated cylinders and beakers for exact measurement, stir sticks, Post-It notes, and a variety of coffees for blending. Over the course of the introduction, we’d be given background on blending philosophy, tasting notes on the coffees and beers, and then let loose to create our own concoctions.
Cunningham polled the audience to find out how we self-identified — coffee or beer people — and the majority responded as beer people, appropriate for a Craft Beer Week event. “There’s this magic and alchemy to both products,” he said, which makes a blending seminar such a natural direction. Compared to brewing with beer, the process of blending coffee and beer is relatively “easy and lower risk,” allowing both for straightforward math and also a level of fungibility. Need to tweak the flavor? Add a few more mils of the Black Cat.
At our blending disposal were two beers from Solemn Oath — the aggressively hopped Psychogaze American Porter and a lush, low-malt billed double IPA called Wreckage Master — and four different coffee preparations from Intelligentsia. Black Cat is their well-known espresso roast. Bolivian bean Finca Takesi Typica hails from the “highest altitude farm for coffee in the world,” according to Moody. The Colombian Tres Santos was an oddball, highly acidic and a challenge to blend.
We had been told to seat ourselves in blending teams, and maybe it was unfair that one of my teammates was professional beer blender Levi Funk of Funk Factory Geuzeria, but I like to think that our table was beer-smart enough to put together some more-than-passable blends. (We had a chemist, too.) And indeed, as each team set to tinkering with the ingredients at hand, it was clear the spirit of the event was going to keep anyone from just dumping a bunch of stuff into the glass haphazardly. The crowd was cheerful, but there was a seriousness of purpose.
My team ended up submitting a blend based on the Psychogaze porter, 230 milliliters of beer to 15 of the tart and nutty cold-process Finca and five of the Black Cat — as a bass note to bring out the chocolate, roasty elements of the otherwise very orangey porter. I was immediately reminded of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, the name of which initially escaped me in favor of a less eloquent description: “you know, the whack-an-orange candy thing.”
Thus was the highly artisanal and exclusive coffee/beer blend named Whackn’Orange born, and in one try, we nailed it. I assure you that I didn’t introduce myself as covering the event for Isthmus until after the tasting was over, but yeah, we won. Not to brag, but I feel like the name was particularly helpful in evoking the flavor profile we were shooting for.
I found myself surprised at how accurate the “Uppers and Downers” name really was. Most prominently felt was the electrical buzz of all that caffeine, even over the warm blanket effect of the alcohol. (“It’s not FourLoko or anything, but it’s in that direction,” we were warned at the start.) Throughout the night, we sipped on Like Minds’ oatmeal stout, Nighthawks, and a surprise pour of Solemn Oath’s bourbon barrel-aged version of its Most Important Beverage of the Day coffee milk stout, called (modestly) Beverage of Champions.
At the risk of making this academic evening of drinking sound too much like an after-school special, after two and a half hours of sipping coffees, toasting beers and blending the two, I think we all felt like champions — even the teams that didn’t win. Ahem.