One of the hallmark traits of the beer/wine/coffee/food snob is being difficult to please. I like to think of myself as pretty easy to please; I’ll go for an everyday beer just as often as a big ol’ whale, if not more. But I like my coffee beers like I like my coffee: tasting like coffee. The coffee wasn’t prominent enough, he sighs. Where’s the coffee in this, he asks impudently. Coffee? Dismissive shrug, he shrugs dismissively.
Coffee beers are one of my go-to orders when I see one on the tap list or the store shelf. Furthermore Oscura, a California common/Mexican lager beer with coffee from Just Coffee here in Madison, was one of the two signature beers my wife and I served at our wedding reception. Coffee is a natural adjunct pairing for big stouts, too — complementing their darkly roasted grains and cutting their smooth, often oily mouthfeel.
But just because it’s a natural fit doesn’t mean it’s going to work automatically. The dreaded green pepper flavor (easily the most common off-flavor when tasting coffee beers) can wander in and straight up ruin your day. Almost as bad, to me, is when the brewer doesn’t go far enough and the coffee presence is nominal at best.
Sometimes barrel aging or other adjuncts intrude on your special moment with coffee; think of the barrel astringency of Founders KBS or the variant adjuncts in New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk series. In New Holland’s Coffee and Chocolate version, it was much more of the former than the latter.
Other times the coffee is strong-ish, but an extra boost would knock the beer out of the park. Take the recent release of Lagunitas High-Westified Imperial Coffee Stout. I loved it. Great body, and the barrel time was masterfully managed. But the coffee was more a gentle comment than even a stern word, to say nothing of a shout. I wanted the shout, considering how fresh it was.
If you want fresh, though, look no further than Three Floyds’ Crack the Skye, a 22-ounce bottle release that just landed in relatively small quantities in Madison. My bottle was filled on Dec. 9, and I drank it on Jan. 5. It’s rich, with a slightly prickly level of carbonation that results in a tight, crema-like head. And oh boy, the coffee. It’s from Chicago’s Dark Matter Coffee, the roaster that served up life-giving cups of black warmth at the miserably chilly 2015 Dark Lord Day I attended.
Interestingly, Three Floyds has only done one coffee version of Dark Lord. Goose Island, on the other hand, includes a coffee variant with each Bourbon County Stout release, switching coffee varietals every year. It’s a certified craft beer meme that certain vintages of Coffee BCS magically resist the fading of intensity that every coffee beer undergoes over time.
That is, of course, total bunk. I’m a huge fan of Perennial’s Sump imperial coffee stout, but the coffee in even such a beast as that fades after well under a year. The flavor starts to turn from black coffee to Coffee Nips, those weird hard candies that taste a little like coffee but more like “coffee.”
I’m looking forward to trying Omnipollo’s Selassie; the Swedish brewer has a deft hand with flavor-forward adjuncts, and Selassie is made with Ethiopian (get it) coffee and vanilla beans. Double Barrel Big Bad Baptist from Epic Brewing upped the ante by barrel-aging its coffee beans before adding them to the barrel-aged stout, and Madison ended up with a good bit more of this limited release than early signs indicated.
The glimmering freshness of Crack the Skye is what got me to crack that one open first, though, and I’m so glad I did. Crack the Skye is the coffee beer I want when I want a coffee beer. Sure, it’s a one-off collaboration, and yeah, it was produced in a woefully small quantity, and crap, I’m a coffee beer snob.