Thank goodness for the coffee stout. (Or coffee porter, if you prefer.) Before laying the groundwork for more outside the box ingredients such as maple syrup, ghost chilies, and raspberries, fusing the absurdly complementary aromas and flavors of coffee to those found in beers created from more roasted malts made a ton of sense, and it still does today. The very malts used in beers such as stouts and porters can often mimic the roasted aromas and flavors in coffee, so adding a little joe to the mix to create beers such as Founders Breakfast Stout, Bell’s Java Stout, and Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea have long meant that some of the best of these beers have made for some of the slickest, velvety, most aromatic, more complex beers that one can easily attain. But with such success, coffee beers have long become a crowded field, and each winter brings new chance to revisit old favorites and try new releases in this “category”.
With so many options available, the coffee stout/porter also lends itself to plenty of easy going debate over personal favorites. Now, we’re not talking about IPAs here. When it comes to giving your opinion of one heavy hitting IPA over another, escalation seems to sometimes occur quickly, and all of a sudden you can find yourself at the ‘them’s fightin’ words’ level before you know it. Nevertheless, one night over a couple of beers (of course), and a light discussion over coffee beer favorites, my wife – the house’s resident stout fanatic, by the way – and I decided lining up a few coffee beers for a blind tasting sounded like a darn good idea, albeit one that might keep us awake all night.
A few disclaimers: In deciding what beers would be included in the blind tasting, we both realized that while there are many, highly sought after ‘Imperial’ level coffee stouts (Perennial’s Sump, Bourbon County’s Coffee BCBS come to mind), that it would be far easier (and perhaps more interesting overall) to line up several more easier to find, more ‘household’ coffee stouts/porters. Let’s face it, beers such as Sump and Bourbon County Coffee are all world class beers, and although such a tasting would be a world of fun, it would also be pretty difficult to put together to say the least, and in addition, a possible waste of those beers once the palate began to suffer. To this end, we attempted to keep the relative abv% and limiting it to (mostly) lower alcohol level, non “Imperial” selections. I readily admit, as you’ll see, that we failed to do this on a couple beers, to which we both told ourselves “oh well”, and didn’t give it another thought. This whole tasting was put together with a sense of fun in mind. And of course, given the number of coffee stouts and porters out there, we could’ve just kept selecting beers until the end of time. So we also decided to cap the beers at ten selections.
We also realized that such a tasting is a snapshot in time, and of course, based on our own opinions. One year’s release of a particular coffee beer can be different from the next, but then again, that can be true for most any craft beer. It’s also interesting to take a moment and consider the number of additional variables coffee beers can bring to the table, most of them being fairly obvious, such as, when exactly was the coffee added during the brewing process, or what type of coffee was added, or what form of coffee was used – whole bean, brewed coffee, or something in between? The combinations seem endless, so it was decided early on that this would be a wholly informal, somewhat un-scientific tasting.
Each beer was given an overall score based upon aroma, mouthfeel, and of course flavor. The results, as they can be with blind tastings, were a bit surprising. Below, the beers are listed in ranking from our lowest rated (#10) to highest (#1), with a little bit of information about each one and comments that we wrote down during the tasting if applicable.
So away we went, sleep be darned.
#10: Troeg’s JavaHead Stout, 7.5% abv. No joke, one of the comments written was “…where’s the coffee?”. While I’m sure that tasting this beer alone would reveal plenty of coffee notes in the aroma and taste, amidst its brethren, it produced other comments such as “low coffee” and “not much coffee in the aroma”. There was one quick “roasty” written down. On Troeg’s webpage for the beer, there is reference to a fair amount of hop influence, perhaps mirrored in one comment “..grassy, way more hop forward”. The beer is apparently run through a hop back loaded with both coffee and hops (Cluster, Chinook, Cascade), so if you are looking for something more leveled out with hop character, this could be your coffee beer.
#9: Flying Dog’s Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout, 8.9%. I’ve had this before and it’s been to my liking, so this was a bit of a surprise. We both noted that we liked the beer though not as a “true coffee stout”, whatever that meant at the time. This beer was clearly an abv% fail, easily touching at least the bottom end of the big boy spectrum, and that might have had something to do with us both noting some faint dark fruit flavors. Among other notes was a semi present dark caramel sweetness. Other comments were “earthy roast”, “light coffee aroma”. Made with a secret blend coffee from Black Dog Coffee in West Virginia.
#8: Wolaver’s Alta Gracia Coffee Porter, 5.0%. This one made it into the mix by being perhaps one of the first coffee beers we ever tasted, some years ago. We both however dinged it a bit on what seemed to be an over active amount of carbonation and a light to light medium-ish body that detracted from any character the coffee gave to the beer, which I did note as being “earthy”.
#7: Starr Hill’s Red RooStarr Coffee Cream Stout, 5.8%. From here on for the next few beers, the ratings pulled a good bit closer together, kicked off by the first of two cream stouts in the mix. Not surprisingly, we wrote down notes regarding a little bit of sweetness in the aroma and flavor. We also wrote down straight ahead comments such as “tons of coffee”, and “rich coffee aroma”. We’ve of course both had this before, and it definitely tries to achieve a balance between its sweetness and a bold coffee aroma and flavor. We both wished the body had been a touch heavier though, which was a bit surprising for the style. An overall good beer. Brewed with a special blend of coffee from Red Rooster Coffee Roasters in Floyd, Va.
#6: Williamsburg AleWerks Coffeehouse Stout, 5.4%. Ok, so this was a touch of a surprise as well. Don’t get us wrong, we both love this beer, but we expected it to be a little higher in our blind tasting. My wife guessed the style correctly by noting “more like a milk stout…”, also writing “..taste mild coffee, creamy, solid mouthfeel”. Among my own notes were “healthy coffee aroma and taste, but not overly so, like coffee with the right amount of cream added to it”, and “sweet-ish finish”. Brewed with Guatemala Antigua style coffee.
#5: Bell’s Java Stout, 7.5%. My own personal favorite landed squarely in the middle, and we both noted it for something that I have always loved about this beer, the body, which one of the notes mentioned was “heavier than the others”. I remember later immediately writing down my note of “…coffee pot full of rich…espresso like rich coffee…pours heavy…” and then wrote “like the taste of coffee grounds with the slightest bit of water mixed in”. The denser nature of the beer along with the full on, deep roasted but not bitter coffee taste continues to make this a favorite of mine. Made with a blend of coffee from Water Street Coffee Joint, a coffee roaster local to Bells.
#4: Founders Breakfast Stout, 6.5%. I remember when finding FBS on draft or in bottles was a huge event. Nowadays, expansion and success has made it relatively easy to find in many places, and competition from other coffee stouts has perhaps taken a little of the uniqueness of this beer away. We wondered where this legend would fall in our tasting, it still wasn’t far from the top. Aided by the addition of bitter chocolates, our notes mentioned such things as “heavy…slick mouthfeel…low carbonation..dark chocolate…super coffee heavy notes…”, “wonderful, dense coffee aroma”, “dry, almost tannic like finish” were among the notes…”Editor’s” note: after I posted this, my wife reminded me that this was one of two beers she guessed perfectly, (in addition to Red Roostarr) a fact that I assure you that I did not leave out on purpose. That’s what I get for not asking her to help proofread.
#3: Pisgah Brewing Valdez Coffee Stout, 6.2%. The surprise of the evening was Pisgah’s Valdez, with my notes remarking “straight up cup o’coffee, no cream…kick in your pants cup of joe” and my wife’s comments of double underlined “bitter coffee”. It barely edged out FBS at the last spot, and although we both thought the body could’ve been a little better, the intense, straight ahead dark coffee flavor and aroma was a winner for us. Made with coffee from Dynamite Roasting Co., in Pisgah’s own town of Black Mountain, NC.
#2: Schlafly Coffee Stout, 5.7%. The second surprise of the tasting came from a beer neither one of us had too much experience with at all, but our notes put it well above the rest. With “the best so far” underlined in one set of notes, with “[caramel like] sweet but coffee forward” and “perfect mouthfeel”, Schlafly’s coffee stout was, in essence, the best of the entire bunch had a dead ringer not been included (see no.1, below). The description on the brewery’s website mentions a story in which a local coffee roaster and the brewery worked together to find a solid combination between the brewery’s popular oatmeal stout and the roaster’s own espresso. The match is a delicious mix of the two, with the strength and bitterness of the coffee balanced well against the sweetness and body of the stout.
And the winner… #1: Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea, 10%. Better suited for an Imperial Coffee beer tasting, its inclusion came about from the wider availability the beer seems to be enjoying this year. A heavy hitter that can take on much bigger game, this beer got notes from us like “most complex so far”, and “most coffee forward yet”, “fresh brewed coffee aroma”, “not heavy but great, milky body”, and “light sweetness”. The inclusion of vanilla beans also gives the beer an advantage, along with its rich but not over the top, completely dialed in coffee flavor and aroma. Brewed with coffee beans from San Diego’s Caffe Calabria.
Among the takeaways from the tasting was the fact that two beers we didn’t expect at all to be near the top of the list were: Schlafly’s and Pisgah’s, and the fact that nowadays, FBS still competes, at least for us, among some good competition. One fun fact was that during the tasting, if we felt we strongly knew exactly what beer we were tasting, we’d write it down. I somehow managed to nail down my favorite Java Stout from Bells, while we both wrote down Williamsburg AleWerks’ Coffeehouse Stout while tasting a beer we felt was one of the best of the whole lot. The catch was that while we whole heartedly agree Coffeehouse Stout is certainly a fine beer, the beer we thought it was turned out not to be Coffeehouse at all – a swing and a miss on our part. But this is the sort of thing that comes up in blind tastings and tends to get you thinking. We were sure the best of the bunch, according to this particular tasting, was our personal favorite, but were solidly proven wrong. So I began wondering about how an affinity for certain beers affect our view of that beer unfairly, giving it too high of a mark, perhaps to the point of not remaining open to trying similar beers (Schlaflys, for example), or at least giving others their fair due. Contrarily, I wondered how having a disdain for a certain beer might keep one from trying it again down the road, or worse, how that negative opinion might spread to other beers from the same brewery. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think most of us can admit to basing such an opinion of a particular brewery after relying on too small a sample size, only to find out later on they make some darn good beers after all.
In the end, our only downfall was including a couple of heavyweights such as Victory at Sea in our lesser alcohol content tasting, but then again, it was all for fun – something blind tastings always are. In addition, the matter of brewery perception based on singular beers was brought into full light, a lesson we can probably all remind ourselves of from time to time.