San Diego's Modern Times Brewery has brewed up a coffee beer that's unlike anything else you've tasted, and the secret is all in the beans.
Finding new ways to imbue craft beers with coffee flavors is a popular area of innovation within the craft brewing community. Brewers have experimented with nearly every style of beer from pale ales, to Belgian amber ales to the typical porters and stouts, using all manner of different coffee preparations — from light-roast beans to spiced Armenian-style coffee. Even the rare kopi luwak coffee (where coffee beans are recovered from the droppings of Indonesian civets) has been featured in a craft brew.
AleSmith brewing in San Diego offers its superlative Speedway coffee stout aged in bourbon barrels, and this bold, inky brew demonstrates that coffee, stout and spirits are three great tastes that taste great together.
But Modern Times has a different take on the bourbon plus coffee in your beer formula: Instead of letting a beer infused with coffee age in a used bourbon barrel, they're barrel-aging the coffee beans before adding them to the beer.
Coffee beans aged in used spirits barrels started making news on coffee blogs and among roasters just in the past couple of years. The process is based on the fact that green (unroasted) coffee beans are notoriously prone to picking up aromas from anything nearby. This makes the beans tough to handle, as they are easily tainted by off-flavors, but roasters are turning this permeability into an advantage by conditioning unroasted beans inside used spirits barrels.
It sounds preposterous, but a skilled roaster can actually take beans that have soaked up the character of bourbon, rum or whatever spirit the barrel previously held, and coax out typical coffee bean flavors during the roasting without destroying the desired barrel-borne flavors. The resulting cups of coffee are positively brimming with a boozy and oaky character; the brews really do showcase the — ahem — spirit of the barrels.
Just a handful of third-wave coffee roasters are experimenting with the technique, and one is also an acclaimed craft brewery. Modern Times founder Jacob McKean says he loves coffee beers and always planned to make them a large part of his brewery. Though he didn't expect to get into the roasting business, after experimenting with home-roasting as a way to combat the stress of starting a brewery, he was hooked and soon purchased a commercial coffee roaster for the brewery.
The beans for the brewery's core beer Black House coffee stout have been roasted in the brewery since Day 1, and bags of Modern Times coffee beans are a popular item at the brewery's online store and in the tasting rooms.
Modern Times has brewed a handful of different coffee beers, and the brewery also houses a substantial collection of used barrels for aging their brews. McKean says that Modern Times is the first production brewery to create a beer featuring barrel-aged coffee beans, and City of the Dead is an export-style stout "brewed to be a blank canvas" to show off the complexity of the beans.
Bottles of the beer were just released, and we got a taste at a recent Modern Times event that packed Hollywood's Blue Palms Brewhouse with fans of the San Diego brewery.
City of the Dead displays a surprising amount of bourbon and barrel-character, but the flavors are different from a typical barrel-aged beer. The distinction is subtle but noticeable: It tastes boozy without the typical alcohol heat of a barrel-aged beer, and there's the expected astringency associated with oak barrels but less oak flavor. The concoction is astonishing in its novelty.
"There's a thin line between gimmick and innovation," says McKean.