The Making of Coffee Ale

December 21, 2012

By Elizabeth Belden, Boulevard Quality Assurance Team

One of the most common questions I am asked (besides “How can I join the taste panel?”) is “How do you come up with new beers?” In the case of our collaboration with the Roasterie, it began with a meeting – which, like all productive meetings, began with a beer.

Brewers and members of the Quality Assurance team brainstormed with Roasterie Bean Hunter, Paul Massard. There was a lot to consider, from both tasting and technical perspectives: What kind of base beer should we use? What coffee variety? How are we actually going to incorporate coffee into the beer? Should we make a batch of toddy and blend it with beer? How would we do that on a large scale? Should we use whole beans? Ground beans? What are examples of good coffee beers out there? What should we avoid?

After deciding on a direction, we set up a series of bench tests. Paul recommended six coffee varieties from all over the world that might blend well with beer. Three existing Boulevard beers were used as bases to give us an idea of how our beer works with coffee. Each coffee variety was dosed into each beer at three different concentrations. There was a lot of measuring, dispensing, and hand-crowning in the lab that day. Nathan Perry, the brewery’s microbiologist, and I agreed that the coffee aroma was too tempting to ignore, so we whipped up a couple of iced toddies to drink while we worked. I learned that a large quantity of afternoon caffeine really allows beer people to get things done quickly… and that the Roasterie folks must be operating on a whole other level than the rest of us.

Another thing I discovered is that coffee is tricky to work with, as its contact time with liquid must be carefully monitored. Paul taught us that roast can become bitter and astringent if it extracts at the wrong time or temperature. Because of this, Nathan and I had to set up our tests on a specific schedule.

Most combinations we created were eliminated immediately for one reason or another. We learned with every attempt. A coffee concentration was too faint, a variety didn’t work well with a beer, or a base beer didn’t work well with anything.

The first round of tests set the stage for a second round… and then a third round. By the end, we had narrowed our options. A unanimous vote elected Ethiopian Sidamo as the varietal. The brewers discussed a new recipe for the base – something with a smooth mouthfeel, maybe a touch of malt spice to complement the roast, reddish-amber color. In considering which coffee concentrations everyone preferred, we agreed on an important aspect of what this collaboration would become: a beer that utilized coffee as a main ingredient, but not in an overpowering way. We also didn’t want other ingredients to dominate the coffee. This is the main reason we chose a lighter beer for the base rather than a stout or porter. Highly-roasted malts tend to exhibit their own chocolate- and coffee-like qualities, as well as burnt/roasted characteristics that we felt would detract from the nuances of the Ethiopian roast everyone enjoyed so much.

The test brew is bottled and now have we wait for it to finish conditioning. We’ll then taste it and determine what tweaks need to be made before producing it on a larger scale. Right now we anticipate having Coffee Ale for a March 1st release. Stay tuned!

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