Sometimes an idea sounds so good that you just have to look past its gratuitous extravagance, technical obstacles, logistical complexities, and uncertain outcomes and just fucking do it.

So it went when I started talking to Jay Cunningham at Intelligentsia. Jay is a fifteen-year coffee pro who loves beer but thinks putting the two together has not generally been a very inspired process and that the results are not generally all that good. The tilt of coffee beer is unfortunately towards that generic burnt-caramel roast character that flows by the thousands of gallons from donut shop Bunns every morning, everywhere. It smells like what people think of as coffee, but to someone like Jay who’s been around the world buying beans and selling the end product, that’s what stale coffee smells like.
jay and jb - Kiser image coffee cherriesWe found common ground in our shared yawn at coffee beer in general, and in our shared hope for the idea that coffee beer can be great when it’s surprising and different, like when the coffee adds something of the delicate floral, fruity, nutty medley that is locked up in different character and degree in every variety. We learned this about each other when we teamed up for Good Beer Hunting’s Uppers & Downers event in Los Angeles last October, and we’re excited to bring you some new beers as a result of that initial encounter.

Jay’s hope-giving coffee beer was Hell’s Black Intelligencer, the oatmeal coffee stout he created with Three Floyds. Jay told me that the coffee character was so strong that it almost didn’t take like beer–it was like something else entirely. It marked the first time Jay ever thought “Did we add too much coffee?” and that, for him, was a sign that it was challenging his expectations and worth the nonstop three days of brewing he had done.

For me, it happened twice. First, it was To Øl Sleep Over Coffee IIPA, a really bizarre and intense beer that I was lucky to have really fresh and in great condition (thanks Bangers & Lace, you guys always fucking rock). It was eye-opening and had less roast character than fruitiness and acidity. I know brewers try all they can to keep coffee acidity and bitterness out of their beer, but I can’t really get on board with that. The second beer was a Bavarian-style wheat beer with Brazilian coffee by Urban Chestnut. Earthy, bready, slightly chocolatey, and as banana-laden and straw-colored as your favorite German standard. It was a really round, pleasant beer that tasted like nothing else I had ever tried–except our own Khlörost, which was something like the Belgian cousin of Urban Chestnut’s beer.

We aspired to select some really interesting coffee and bring some of those flavors together with the nuances of hops and fermentation in ways that go beyond “roast-plus-stout-equals-roastier-stout!!!” and ended up with two beers that we hope will bring your tastebuds into terra incognita. It’s kind of an awkward time to mention this, but, um, one of them happens to be a stout. Stick with me; you’ll see why.

Muerte Inmaculada

camilolaurina Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetDeath By Viking, our imperial IPA, meets Laurina, an extremely rare coffee from the cutting-edge Café Inmaculada project in Colombia, where it is grown at 1780 meters alongside other experimental cultivars that were obtained from a research center in the country. Laurina was brought to the United States and expertly roasted by Intelligentsia Coffee for their Café Inmaculada collection, which sold out before its release. Laurina, also known as Bourbon Pointu, originally comes from Réunion Island off the coast of Madagascar and is considered the original Bourbon. It is responsible for seeding most of Latin America, though it was forgotten for almost the entire last century because of its low caffeine content and yield–that is, until Camilo Marizalde and his team decided to revive it alongside pilot plots of other ancient and special coffee with the most advanced technology available today.

Irresponsible to put such a rare and distinguished coffee in a beer? Maybe. Surprising, delicious, and one-of-a-kind? Absodamnlutely. Jay cold-brewed one gallon of coffee concentrate and together we blended it carefully with fourteen gallons of finished beer so that both hop, fermentation, coffee character share your palate peacefully, in the kind of harmony and complexity you would expect to feel at two kilometers above sea level overlooking the coffee fields stretching across Colombia’s mountainous tropics. Allow it to warm and try it alongside Death to really smell and taste the coffee’s contribution. Very, very limited quantities. In the taproom until it’s gone, then maybe one more time for a special something or other, like when Uppers & Downers comes to Chicago. 90ish IBUs, 9.3% ABV.

Most Important Beverage of the Day

image (1)1394567998.467271.IMG_3268I know I said that adding coffee to already roasty beer isn’t usually all that interesting. Sure, there are lots of great examples, but they tend to emphasize the same character in coffee when there’s so much more to work with. That doesn’t mean there’s no point making a good one, or no hope of doing something different. We opted for the latter. The vision was for a breakfast stout of sorts, one that combined the creaminess of milk, cocoa fluffiness of chocolate milk, tangy acidity of coffee, and bright fruitiness of orange juice. We built the base beer as an eight-percent-ABV, extra-full-bodied milk stout with all British malt, including two varieties of chocolate malt and a hearty helping of roasted barley. We hopped with Centennial for its orange-citrus character and added sweet orange peel to the whirlpool. After the beer was finished fermenting, we blended a sample from the fermenter with several different coffees and arrived at Ljulu Lipati from Zambia as the right match. It had the brightness of grapefruit zest and tart cherry and enough acidity to cut through an already full-flavored beer.

This time, though, we had about twenty-five barrels (fifty kegs) of beer to work with after we filled two Heaven Hill bourbon barrels (watch for Beverage of Champions later this year or next), not half a barrel like we did with Muerte. Our blending session showed us that we needed about sixty-five gallons of coffee concentrate to hit the right concentration, requiring eighty-five pounds of coffee and eighty-five gallons of water to start with. That’s a lot of coffee, and there’s really no perfect method for brewing and adding such a huge amount to beer. Jay can make five gallons at a time at Intelligentsia, at twelve hours per brew. No good. We decided instead to brew it all at once in a seven-barrel brite tank we keep around the brewery for crazy projects like this. The tank doesn’t have its own method of straining grounds from brewed coffee, so we had to bag all of the grounds in mesh bags and tie them up off the bottom of the vessel to avoid blocking the port we would later use to transfer, but low enough that they would be saturated with the tank less than half-full. We weren’t sure we would get the right amount of saturation and extraction, so we roiled the tank repeatedly with carbon dioxide to move the bags around, which also served to deaerate the coffee and protect the finished beer from staling. We also thought the orange character was a bit weak, so made a strong tea of sweet orange peel and pushed it into the tank along with the coffee. The result? I really, really like it, but you’ll have to try it for yourself. Available now in the taproom for at least few weeks and out in the Chicagoland area on draft as early as next week. 35 IBUs, 7.2% ABV after blending.

Photo credit to Michael Kiser, on the header and photo of John Barley and Jay Cunningham. Intelligentsia on the shots of Colombian coffee cherries, Camilo showing off the goods, and the Laurina drying bed. Jay and Paul on the rest.

SOBs tend to keep to themselves, until we don’t. Sometimes the need to connect with others and share in the work of making beer calls for collaboration with other artisans who share our dedication to experimentation and quality, but whose expertise in a given field far surpasses anything we could learn on The Google. These are those stories.