Trouble Brewing – A Brief History Of Coffee Beer

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. [1]

     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.” [2]


     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.



[1] Robison, B. (2012). Coffee Beer. In Northern Virginia Magazine (Be a Beer Geek) www.northernvirginiamag.com/beer-buzzwords/
[2] Papazian, C. (1991). Coffee Beer. In The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing


8 Responses to “Trouble Brewing – A Brief History Of Coffee Beer”

  1. Devon

    Have you considered that the lobbying efforts may have come from producers of beverages that combined alcohol and caffeine in a form other than coffee and beer?

    Canned Jack and Coke, 4Loco, and the array of other similar options probably outsell coffee flavored beer overall so the companies producing them may have been behind the regulatory changes.

    Reply
    • Brett A. Robison

      This is a great question. I had never considered the fact that these companies would be more likely candidates to fight for the legality of caffeine in alcohol. They have since lost this battle (from outward appearances). My search for the truth will continue, in a new direction.

  2. Joel Krogman

    I have been searching origins myself. Our comapny has been brewing coffee stout since 1999. We were not aware of any other offerings at that time so I always wondered if we may have been first. A little dissapointed to discover otherwise but none the less fascinated.
    It was just a niche beer for us until the past few years where it has taken off to become by far our number one selling product. An intersting development in itself. We have had ATF approval since 2000 but it took tweeking of our verbage in our recipie and label. It may still be a gray area which concerns us greatly as it has become our major brand. We’ll keep up the good fight!
    Thanks for your insights.

    Joel Krogman- President
    Bent River Brewing Co.
    Moline, IL.

    Reply
    • Brett A. Robison

      Hey Joel, I checked out the website and read some more info about your company. Uncommon Stout does pretty well for itself on BeerAdvocate, if I’m ever in Illinois I’ll have to come by and drink some. Do you remember what tweaking you had to perform for ATF? I’d love to know what they didn’t approve of. I have a secret project under way and the last thing I want is to get strung up on red tape. Cheers.

  3. Gary Gillman

    Dear Brett:

    Excellent article and research. I’d like to point out that in an interview with Paris Review, a famed literary journal which specializes in interviews of noted writers, Kurt Vonnegut stated that his (German-American) ancestors brewing in his how town in the 1800′s (this is from memory, it was either Cincinnati or St. Louis), used a secret ingredient in their beer which he identified as coffee. One can imagine that probably they were brewing a dunkel-style lager and the coffee helped to get the colour they wanted, but it would have affected the taste too. I have read as well that some English brewers in the period used coffee, I cited one such source in a comment to a post on Ron Pattinson’s beer historical blog http://www.barclayperkins.blogspot.com, you could search the site using the term coffee to find these references. Of course, these usages were erratic and didn’t result in an established style until the American micro brewing era. I must say I have never really liked the combination of porter or stout and coffee, the coffee seems out of place, but maybe I haven’t had the right ones.

    Best wishes.

    Gary

    Reply
    • Brett A. Robison

      Gary,

      This is great. I love the insight, the truth is we all evolve together. I dare not publish any misinformation without some level of concreteness, but I believe the early versions of schwarzbiers may in fact have used coffee as coloring agent. Coffee, in the modern era, has materialized as a flavoring agent. It is not confirmed but still very possible that coffee lives at the source of divergence between Munich dunkel and schwarzbier; you know what I mean. If I have something more concrete to go forward in the future, I would love to publish early recipes for schwarzbiers ;)

      Cheers,
      Brett A. Robison

  4. Gary Gillman

    Apologies, “how town” is a typo, I meant “home town”. Thanks again.

    Gary

    Reply
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