Coffee beers are one of the largest growing beer styles in the nation—but they’re also difficult to make. Here’s how to harness creativity and collaboration to make truly special beers.

Top Chef is a show that brings professional chefs to compete against one another for the titular title. During Season 17, which took place in Portland, Ore., the chefs were asked to prepare a dish using either beer or coffee, acknowledging a similar shared trait between the two beverages: they both tend to be bitter.

It might seem silly to pair two bitter items together, but coffee beers are incredibly popular. From Guinness’ newest release, the Nitro Cold Brew Coffee beer, to smaller craft breweries experimenting with different styles and combinations, coffee beers have carved out a distinct position within the beer industry.

Because of its bitterness, coffee usually gets paired with styles like Stouts and Porters, where the sweetness from the malts can complement the flavor from the coffee. However, putting coffee and beer together is not so simple. Coffee is a powerful ingredient, and it’s easy for it to be used incorrectly, overpower the beer, or just simply taste bad.

People have very specific tastes and reference points when it comes to both coffee and beer—you don’t want someone to taste a carefully crafted brew and wish they were just drinking coffee or beer alone. Here are strategies you can implement when choosing and making a coffee beer that’s outstanding and morphs into more than the sum of its individual parts.

Coffee and beer share a lot of similarities beyond being bitter: they’re both complex, both have recognized stewards of their industries (brewers and roasters, bartenders and baristas), and both have varieties and styles that can be easily reduced and simplified if you’re not paying attention.

One of the ways a coffee beer can miss the mark is to forget that there are a variety of coffees, like there are a variety of beers. Much like how different styles of beer taste different, coffees from different countries don’t taste the same, so treating coffee as a powerful ingredient is key to pairing it with beer.

“We construct these beers with the idea of having coffee prominently featured in them,” says Justin Holmes, New Projects Manager for Modern Times Beer in San Diego. Modern Times is unique in that it houses both a craft brewery and a specialty roaster under the same name, which means they’re able to give exceptional care—and helpful insights—into how they craft their coffee beers.

Holmes says that every coffee beer starts with a consultation with their coffee department. “We will approach our coffee department and let them know we are working on a beer concept. Some of these will be dessert-inspired, or inspired by coffee drinks,” he says. “Sometimes, coffee will be the only ingredient. Either way, we give them a concept along with a basic idea of the end profile of the beer.”

Obviously, having a coffee department a stone’s throw away is helpful, but there are a number of breweries who work closely with roasters to choose the perfect coffee for their beer. Notable examples include Rogue’s Cold Brew IPA, which is made with beans from Stumptown Coffee (which were the two coffee and beer brands the contestants worked with on Top Chef), Goose Island’s Bourbon County Coffee Stout, made with Intelligentsia Coffee’s Black Cat Espresso blend, and Wolf’s Ridge Brewing’s Daybreak, a Cream Ale made with One Line Coffee and gold medal winner of the “Coffee Beer” category at the 2020 Great American Beer Festival.

By partnering with local coffee companies (all the collaborations listed are between businesses in close proximity to one another—in the case of Goose Island and Intelligentsia, their headquarters are across the street from one another), brewers can harness the know-how of roasters and push the limits of creativity and flavor. Notably, all but one of the beers listed above is a Stout or Porter, which shows that partnering with a coffee roastery that understands their product and the flavor profile of their beans can unlock potential and help brewers carefully design a beer that highlights the flavors of all ingredients.

Back at Modern Times, that means carving out space for his coffee colleagues to be creative and present ideas. “We told [the coffee department] we wanted to make a Rye Whiskey Barrel-Aged Stout with cocoa, coffee, and vanilla. The end goal was chocolate, lots of vanilla, and a smooth mocha-latte type experience,” he says. “They responded by suggesting a direct trade coffee that they thought would shine in that profile: a washed Colombian coffee, dark roasted. It's a very collaborative environment, and we feel it makes our coffee beers feel cohesive.”

Coffee is a familiar flavor for most beer drinkers, and it’s easy to see why it’d be appealing for a brewer to make a coffee beer. “I actually tend to think of coffee as an almost universally loved ingredient, especially compared to some of the more outlandish ingredients you can find these days,” says Holmes. He also notes that coffee can help consumers who are hesitant to try dark beer styles. “We've found that in a dark beer such as a Porter or a Stout, people tend to almost always love coffee, vanilla, and coconut. Coffee especially can really help some of these beers.”

Because of coffee’s nuance and range, Holmes says, it can really do a lot of good in a beer. “If a beer is too sweet, the inherent bitterness of a coffee might tone it down and balance it. If a beer is lacking in complexity, a unique and interesting coffee might save it from being dumped.” But it’s easy to use coffee incorrectly or assume that simply adding coffee—any coffee—will give you a desirable drink.

“I think brewers can sometimes see coffee as a mystery, or not be as well educated on the subject as something more common to beer, like malt or hops,” Holmes says “A frequent off flavor in some lesser quality coffee beers is the dreaded ‘green pepper’ note, which can come from steeping a beer in coffee too long, using old coffee, or improperly roasted or off-gassed beans. We avoid this by doing a short steep with coffee (max of 24 hours), using only whole beans (never ground), and only using fresh batches of coffee that have been allowed to off-gas for the right amount of time.”

With coffee beers, it comes down to care. Brewers don’t need to be experts on coffee—for the handful of breweries in each city or region, there’s likely a roastery to partner with and consult on choosing the right bean for your beer. Brewers obviously care deeply about their beers, and by applying that same logic to coffee, you can produce a truly excellent coffee beer. “Essentially, if you care about the coffee used in beer,” Holmes says, “you should be sourcing it from a reputable, good roaster and treating it with the same care and respect that should be used with all ingredients.” With a great coffee at your side, brewers can make coffee beers that push beyond preconceived notions of what a coffee beer can be and create a totally unique drinking experience.