Greg Nagel's picture

The Rise of Coffee Beers

I’ll never forget the 2012 Great American Beer Festival. That was the year I went on a four­ session coffee beer bender in search of the country’s best. Up since 5 A.M., fueled by greasy airport food and adrenaline, I nervously gripped my plastic tasting cup and followed the freshly-practiced bagpipers into the vast, nearly ­empty festival floor – a good 15 minutes before 12,000 thirsty beer drinkers entered the festival to sample, trample and fart.

Needing a jolt, I stopped at a familiar face, Jon Porter of Smog City Brewing, who at the time was brewing out of Orange County’s Tustin Brewing Company. “Got any coffee beer?” I asked with a junkie’s smile. He nodded, nabbed my virgin cup and filled it full of foam. “Let it settle,” he said knowingly. The beer was Groundwork Coffee Porter, a near­-black beer that settled quickly into a crema­like espresso head. One whiff and the words “coffee aromatherapy” are what got jotted down on the first page of my crisp, new GABF media notebook.

Entries into the Coffee Beer category at the Great American Beer Fest have tripled over the past five years.

“This beer has gold written all over it,” I said to Jon, licking my lips of every last drop. “Good luck,” I yelled, skipping away revived.

Coffee beer at the Great American Beer Festival isn’t something one usually thinks of as a popular style, however entries into that category have nearly tripled over the past five years – from 52 in 2010 to 149 last year. Clearly, I’m not the only one with a coffee beer addiction.

The style was the sixth most-entered category in 2015. Regular old American Stout? Shockingly, that style only featured 39 entries. Perhaps the most telling fact about the numbers is that the top six categories (by number of entries) are all highly aromatic beers, and with that in mind, perhaps it’s no shock that coffee beer is on the rise.

I can almost smell the six most-entered style categories at GABF 2015:

American IPA – 336
Imperial IPA – 208
Wood and Barrel Aged Beer – 179
Session IPA – 161
American Pale Ale – 160
Coffee Beer – 149

What’s the aroma allure?

Science has proven that scent memory is the strongest, most evocative sense that humans have. The smell of freshly cut grass, a stack of new dollar bills, or even sizzling bacon can conjure deep memories of life experiences. To a beer geek, an overripe IPA, a boozy, barrel-aged stout or wet hops at a brewery can trigger daydreams of leisure or thoughts of friends; each sip is a conscious connection to the past.

The aroma of coffee can be even more than that. For many, the smell of coffee can represent numerous things: a ray of sunshine the morning after a rough night, a delightful daytime delicacy, or even something that keeps the midnight oil burning. The aromatic process of making coffee can feel cathartic and ceremonial, and in many cultures such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, it is. 


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