Brewing with Coffee: Tips from the Pros

Brewer:  Amahl Turczyn
Brewery:  Wolf Tongue Brewery
Years of experience:  Pro two years, homebrewer 10 years
Brewer:  Gordon Knight
Brewery:  Wolf Tongue Brewery
Years of experience:  Pro six years, homebrewer 10 years
House Beers: Coffee Porter, Mountain Berry, Mr. Hoppy (pale ale), Ned Red

In most cases brewers use coffee because they want to make a beer that tastes like coffee. Copper Tank Brewing Co. of Dallas, for example, took home the Great American Beer Festival gold in the Herb/Spice category for Mocha Maddness, an eye-opening beer with a heavy coffee aroma and flavor and a sharp hop finish.

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, Colo., also brews a coffee beer with a distinct coffee flavor.

At Wolf Tongue Brewery in Nederland, Colo., the philosophy is a little different. Brewers Gordon Knight and Amahl Turczyn prefer flavorings to be more subtle.

“I want you to taste the beer first,” says Knight, Wolf Tongue’s head brewer. He is speaking specifically of the brewery’s Mountain Berry, an outstanding raspberry beer, but he is also referring to his overall strategy in making flavored beers. He believes in balance. While the nose is sweet and the raspberry adds tartness, this is clearly a beer.

The same applies to the brewery’s Coffee Porter. Knight decided to brew a beer with coffee after tasting Java Porter at Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery. The result, based on a brown porter, was a considerably different beer.

“You just get a hint of coffee,” says Wolf Tongue Manager Jim Parker, an experienced brewer himself. “You kinda go, ‘huh, what is that?’

“I love the Mountain Sun Java, but it has a lot more coffee character,” Parker says. “That’s the beauty of it; even in something as esoteric as a coffee beer you can have a range of choices. That’s what makes brewing great.”

The flavor of coffee porter is achieved by steeping ground coffee  then adding the coffee to the conditioning tank, says Turczyn, Wolf Tongue’s assistant brewer. The result gives the beer a roasty character but without harsh bitterness. Steeping also takes away some of the oil, which can change the mouthfeel. Using beans instead of ground coffee will add bitterness and oiliness.

Wolf Tongue uses three pounds of coffee steeped in one gallon of water for a five-hectoliter batch. The water is boiled and then chilled before the ground coffee
is added. Turczyn recommends adding the grounds to 45° F water and allowing that to reach room temperature while steeping for 24 hours.

“I know some homebrewers will use a coffee maker,” says Turczyn, an avid homebrewer. “You can do that, but you get a little smoother, mellower flavor from the coffee if (the steeping) is done at a cold temperature.”

After the mix steeps, Turczyn strains it through a cheesecloth (although he and Parker have also discussed using nylon netting) before adding it to the conditioning tank. The brewery doesn’t filter beer, but whatever grounds are left settle to the bottom.

A lot of homebrewers are tempted to add the coffee during the boil for sanitation reasons, Turczyn says, “but if you practice good sanitation it is better to add it at the end. This is true for all spices,” he says.

A comparable amount of coffee for a five-gallon batch is about
five-eighths of a cup. Parker suggests starting on the light side and experimenting from there. “Knight has cut down on the amount he uses and still gets the same flavor,” Parker says.

Wolf Tongue uses 100 percent Colombian coffee. “I wouldn’t recommend using flavored coffees, because of some of the things they put in for flavor, including sugar,” Parker says. “Think of using your coffee beans like another grain.

“The Colombian provides a rounded flavor, like another chocolate grain. Espresso would be more like roasted barley, which isn’t appropriate in a brown porter,”
he says. Some breweries use espresso to make stout, for which
a roasty nature and the additional bitterness the coffee adds may be appropriate.

As long as you get good quality coffee, says Turczyn, you will get a nice flavor. He even suggests experimenting with different gourmet coffees for fun. There are certain darker varieties, especially, that impart good flavor.

For those concerned about caffeine, Turczyn has two words of advice: Don’t be. Wolf Tongue uses fully leaded coffee, and he suggests homebrewers do the same. The coffee is so diluted that unless you’re really sensitive to caffeine, it shouldn’t be a problem. To be affected, he notes, “you would have to drink a lot of porter.”

Coffee and porter seem a natural pairing, but Turczyn suggests trying other dark beers. He knows a brewer who has had great success adding coffee to an imperial stout. He cautions against adding coffee to a brown or IPA, for example. “A brown might be too delicate to add coffee to. But the coffee will definitely complement anything with a large amount of roast malt or black malt,” he says.

Turczyn suggests using coffee as you would spices. “If you’re going to put spice in a beer, you don’t want to overwhelm the hops,” he says. That doesn’t mean adding more hops but making sure the coffee is subtle and the flavors balance. If the taste isn’t strong enough, you can always add more, he says.

The five-hectoliter (about four-barrel, or 124-gallon) system on which Turczyn and Knight brew is the one Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan used when they started New Belgium Brewing Co. in their Fort Collins, Colo., basement in 1991. Since Knight bought that system in 1993 it has traveled with him through three different breweries: High Country, Estes Park, and Wolf Tongue.

It is also on this system that he has produced several different gold medal beers. Wolf Tongue captured gold in the GABF’s Brown Porter category for Coffee Porter in 1998 and High Country grabbed gold for Renegade Red, an India pale ale, in 1993.

Wolf Tongue keeps five beers on tap year-round, including the berry and porter. Miner’s Gold is a light pale ale made with Hugh Baird malt and Saaz hops. Its color leads you to believe that Miner’s Gold will be a lightweight beer, but it’s quite malty and hoppy throughout. On Thursdays the pub sets up a beer engine and serves Miner’s Gold on cask.

Ned Red is a malty, dark amber ale brewed with Cascade hops. “It’s well balanced and very drinkable,” Parker says. Ned Red is a big seller for the brewpub, which will go through eight kegs in seven to nine days.

The American pale ale, Mr. Hoppy, is brewed with Great Western and Hugh Baird malts and “a ton of Chinook,” says Parker. While hops predominate in the aroma and flavor, the beer is considerably malty. “It’s not hop water,” Parker says.

All the beers are fermented with Wyeast 1056 American ale yeast. Wolf Tongue, which opened in 1997, is just the place for people who are looking for a brewpub that’s more pub than restaurant.

The pub was once an assay office, then a veterans’ Bud bar. It’s still very much a “local,” selling 17 cases of Budweiser a week and providing a comfortable place to hang out, play darts, shoot pool, play foosball and video games, or grab a controller for NTN (the interactive television service that features trivia and sports games).

It’s rustic, with a pot-bellied stove, a fine moosehead, lots of wood, and furniture that looks like it’s made out of logs. The menu features pizza, calzones, and sandwiches.

Since joining the brewpub in April, Parker, former beer writer, brewer, and director of the Ameri­can Homebrewers Association, has repainted the place to look more like a pub. He has also changed the logo and put more of a focus on beer. Draft sales have rocketed. In fact the brewhouse was straining to keep up before the GABF medal boosted business. Unless room is made for more conditioning tanks, Knight and Turczyn will continue to be able to brew just twice a week.

Issue: January 1999