No Cream or Sugar: Rating the Best Coffee Beers

Categories: Beer, Taste Test

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Brian Yaeger
The global lineup: Eight beers, eight different approaches to brewing with coffee.
​The pairing of roasted barley with roasted coffee is so natural, it's almost surprising these stouts and porters didn't catch on sooner. But coffee beers didn't really start to percolate until the mid-90s, and even now they are far from a staple even among craft breweries. Having said that, we wish Speakeasy would put their Ritual-infused Payback Porter into heavy rotation.

Besides yours truly, panelists for SFoodie's November blind tasting included Pi Bar owners and this month's hosts Jen Garris and Rich Rosen, Whole Foods' beer buyer for the Potrero Hill store Wes Anderson, Dogfish Head's regional sales manager Bryant Goulding, 21st Amendment co-owner Shaun O'Sullivan, and an expert from the coffee world, Jenais Zarlin, director of business development at Thanksgiving Coffee.

The list that follows comprises beers from around the world, eight different approaches to brewing with coffee. You can find them all locally if you're up for a little hunting. We scored them on a scale of 1 to 10 based purely hedonistically, with 70 being the highest possible score. They appear here in descending order of overall preference. (Note: "ABV" indicates alcohol by volume; prices are approximate)

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Brian Yaeger
The panel, assembled at Pi Bar. Behind the bar, Garris and Rosen. Seated, from right to left, O'Sullivan, Anderson, Goulding, and a just-visible Zarlin.
1. Dieu Du Ciel Péché Mortel (Montreal): 54 points. This entry from our friends in the Great White North was deemed the unanimous winner. It rocked such coffee intensity ― with panelists picking up notes of chocolate, molasses, and cream ― that it's either the ultimate breakfast beer infused with fair-trade coffee or it's a nightcap, thanks to its added booze and general oomph. (9.5 percent ABV, $9/11.5 oz.)

2. Mikkeller Beer Geek (Copenhagen): 44 points. This Danish "gypsy brewer," who actually brewed this in Sweden, adds coffee to many of its beers including "Beer Geek Weasel," but that didn't make the lineup (how many people are really going to spend $17 on a bottle of beer made with civet-shit kopi luwak coffee?). Besides, this bottle boasts great dry, roasty flavor with a detectable hop kiss for added bitterness. (7.5 percent ABV, $10/500 ml.)

3. Black Phoenix (Fullerton, Calif.): 44 points. Goulding enjoyed the spice, guessing ancho chile, while O'Sullivan commented on the "smoky aroma with leather overtones and peppery aftertaste." That's because this new brewery from Orange County adds not only coffee but chipotle peppers for an exotic coffee stout reminiscent of Mexican chocolate. (6.7 percent ABV, $5/22 oz.)

4. Rogue Mocha Porter (Newport, Ore.): 37 points.
Zarlin, the panel's coffee expert with an affinity for beer, scored this and the Péché Mortel as tied for her favorites in the lineup, noting "nice hints of coffee, subtle but not overly sweet." On second thought, it'll probably appeal to fans of coffee ice cream. (5.2 percent ABV, $2.50/12 oz.)

5. Nils Oscar Coffee Stout (Nyköping, Sweden.): 36 points. This probably lost marks for its long journey from the Arctic Circle and, conceivably, a prolonged wait on the shelf here. Panelists dinged it for a lack of freshness resulting in butterscotch and paper flavors from oxidation. Still, a velvety chocolatiness shone through, If you're ever in Nyköping, give it a fair shake. (6 percent ABV, $9/330 ml.)

6. AleSmith Speedway Stout (San Diego): 33 points. While AleSmith does make a barrel-aged version of this beer (as well as an even rarer one brewed with kopi luwak), this wasn't it. Still, the panel detected sourness as if it had been aged in oak, and anecdotal reports have suggested some batches were infected. Sadly, this was one of them, resulting in what Anderson called "raspberry" and Zarlin dubbed "Manischewitz." (12% ABV, $10/750 ml.)

7. Kona Pipeline Porter (Honolulu): 30 points. Despite being brewed with one of the world's most revered coffees, sourced locally in Kona, the bean didn't quite come through for the panelists. Rosen got "cola," Sullivan got "light malt, absent coffee flavor," and Goulding picked up "scorched burnt popcorn." (5.4 percent ABV, $1.50/12 oz.)

8. Meantime Coffee Porter (Greenwich, England): 26 points. British beers tend to be milder and this is no exception. The brewery's website says it uses fair-trade Araba Bourbon beans from Rwanda's Abuhuzamugambi Bakawa co-operative, but the panel hardly detected fresh coffee notes. Though it's a porter, Rosen dinged it for its caramel color and flavor, O'Sullivan said it "missed the mark on attenuation," whereas this blogger felt it tried to get by with a mere trace of Kahlúa. (6 percent ABV, $4/330 ml.)

Tune in next month when a new panel will blindly taste a variety of holiday beers.

Other categories in this series:
Pilsners
Hefeweizens
Stouts
Pale Ales
IPAs
Summer beers
Summer fruit beers
Oktoberfests
Pumpkin beers

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow Brian Yaeger at @yaeger.

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Speakeasy Ales and Lagers

1195 Evans, San Francisco, CA

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