This is a follow-up article in a series I’m writing about coffee beer. Check out the first part in the series here.
I believe that understanding and appreciating the origin of any beer enhances the brewer’s and drinker’s experience. When I began researching coffee beer I sought out the birthplace of this style so that I could further my understanding for this quaffable brew. What I didn’t expect to find was a trail of dead ends and a mystery-novel like story.
Coffee Beer /kaw-fee beer/ – beers brewed with the addition of coffee or any coffee related product, resulting in a distinct flavor profile similar to those which may be found in coffee; a variety of products and methods may be used to evoke the coffee profile which is desired by the brewer. The most common base recipes for this resemble stouts and porters, which naturally lend themselves to roast flavor profiles commonly associated with coffee. 
Once upon a time, homebrewers mimicked the practices of commercial brewers on a much smaller scale. As it stands today, some of the most interesting beer styles in commercial production have origins in homebrewing. Coffee beer may be the poster child for this very phenomenon. Long before commercial brewers were producing coffee beer it appears homebrewers were mastering this unique art form.
Evidence of the Beginning
Charlie Papzian’s The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing provides a method and suggestion for brewing beer with coffee.
“…only fresh ground beans and steep (never boil them) during the final 5 minutes before straining and sparging. Another option would be to add freshly ground coffee to the secondary and “cold extract” the coffee essence. How much to use? Give it a shot with half a pound for your first 5 gallons and progress from there.” 
This book was published in 1991. The general context of this piece provides some evidence that homebrewers were using a variety of methods to extract coffee into beer during this period of time. I found no other written record of coffee beer prior to Papazian’s account.
Coffee Beer Takes Center Stage
A quick Google search for the “origin of coffee beer” turns up a smattering of results, few of which are insightful. I did find one website that sent me in a particular direction. Heavy table wrote a great article which pointed to New Glarus as being one of the early commercial producers for this style. Determined to get to the bottom of this, I contacted New Glarus Brewing Co. for some insight. I spoke with one half of the married duo which makes up the New Glarus team, Deborah Carey. She informed me that their brewery was amongst the first brewing a coffee beer. Online research and general industry consensus confirms this fact. The idea formulation at New Glarus went something like this: certain beers (porters and stouts) lend themselves to natural roast or coffee flavors; why not extend this and brew a coffee stout? The beer duo did just that and the style gained its commercial birth in 1994 with their famed Coffee Stout. In 1996, New Glarus won an award for their beloved coffee beer and other brewers took notice.
Threatening Letters From Three-letter Agencies
Other brewers weren’t the only ones taking notice, however. Shortly after New Glarus won an award for their coffee beer they received a nasty letter from the ATF. The general gist of the letter stated: because coffee has caffeine it cannot be combined with any packaged alcohol product i.e. a bottle of beer. Much to the dissatisfaction of their loyal followers, New Glarus had to temporarily forgo brewing any more of their award-winning coffee stout.
Here Comes The Rabbit Hole
While New Glarus and a few others halted production of their coffee beer, somebody decided to wage a legal battle for the existence of coffee beer. I contacted a few west coast brewers regarding this very phenomenon. I ended up bumping into several dead ends. It seems that somebody fought hard to make sure coffee beer could live on in a quasi-legal format. There are no records (that I found) indicating which brewery championed this very fact. Every single lead I followed dried out and left me with more questions and less answers. There is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the legality of coffee beer today.
What’s Next Joe
Since this beer style has its origins in homebrewing, I’ve turned to a local homebrew authority for the best brewing methods. His name is Michael Tonsmeire, and he has done some very interesting research as a homebrewer. My next article will detail some of his thoughts regarding coffee beer and the various methods in which coffee beer may be brewed. Stay tuned for some awesome coffee beer brewing insight, if I haven’t been silenced by then.