When you’ve been brewing for a number of years, most brew days and beer go according to plan. You may miss a gravity or mash temp by a point or two either way, but for the most part they go as expected. Then, on the other hand, you have those beer that go awry from the get go, not to say those turn out to be dumpers, but you have issues or trouble of one kind or another.
When I began home brewing these experiences frustrated me a great deal. I’d post issues on a forum online and I’d always get responses telling me to RAHAHB, but this didn’t seem to assuage my contempt for the possible monstrosity I may have created. I wanted to be a good brewer very quickly, and it bothered me when things didn’t go exactly as expected. Now I know those brew days, fermentations, carbonation issues are all part of the learning experience, but are they still frustrating? Of course they can be, but I believe they make you a better brewer in the long run. This coffee stout, for better or worse, turned out to be one of those learning experiences.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m picky about the coffee I drink. I wouldn’t say that I’m a coffee snob, though my wife has mentioned that a few times, but I am selective, just as I am with beer. I tend to only use dark roast or espresso beans, and I buy local when possible. I’m fortunate to have at least a couple of local roasters to choose from, they are knowledgeable and helpful. I try to buy beans that have been roasted as fresh as possible, I only grind enough for two to three days, and I use a Moka Express the majority of the time. When I want to cold steep, which I do mostly in the summer months, I simply use a French press. But, I’m not a guy that NEEDS coffee, I’d rather go without a cup of coffee than suffer through something I don’t enjoy simply to get a caffeine fix. This love of dark, robust coffee naturally goes hand and hand with my love of craft beer, especially when the two meld perfectly in a well brewed coffee stout. Aside from hop forward styles and sours, coffee stouts are something I crave through the cold winters here in Atlantic Canada. I do enjoy them any time of year, but especially when the temperature starts to dip below zero, which lasts for far too long here unfortunately. There are a couple of great examples I can get my hands on from time to time locally. First is Whitney Coffee Stout by Trailway. It’s a solid example of the style with great aroma and flavor of locally roasted coffee by Whitney Coffee. Second is Peche Mortel by Dieu du Ciel. This could be the best beer to come out of Canada. It’s an imperial coffee stout, 9.5% abv, and it gushes coffee aroma and flavor. I still can’t find a single thing wrong with this beer which is consistent with its perfect rate beer score of 100. If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying it yet, go track some down. It’s worth every penny and mile you have to travel to acquire even a single bottle or draught pour.
As usual I am behind on what I want to drink seasonally. I always have hop forward styles on tap but when I want something malty and robust I always seem to be brewing a month or two late. I originally planned to brew a clone attempt of Peche Mortel but at ~10% I didn’t want to have to wait for any alcohol heat to fade before I got to enjoy my coffee stout. So, I decided to settle in on the 6% range in the hopes that with proper mash temps combined with midnight wheat I would get a smooth body to back up the three coffee bean additions I had planned. Why three additions you ask? I brewed a coffee stout last winter that turned out fairly well, and I only used espresso beans in the mash, it had a light to moderate coffee character. Overall I was pleased with it but this time I wanted a beer to scream coffee so I went about researching how I could add even more flavor and aroma without simply using more roasted barley. In the end I settled in on three additions, the mash (again), adding cold steeped coffee at kegging, and also adding whole beans to the keg (dry beaning if you will). I have used a tincture in the past with decent results, but I didn’t want to rely on using any spirits this time around. I wanted to see just how much coffee character I could extract using simple additions with different methods at different times.
There are a few things to consider when adding coffee to any beer. First, a mash addition may add some additional bitterness since you’ll be boiling that (albeit small) addition for 60 minutes. Keeping this in mind I reduced my planned IBUs from 55 to 50 in hopes of not having too much bitterness come through in the end product. Second, when using the cold steep method at packaging, it’s a good idea to boil the water first to ensure you deal with any potential bugs. Let the water cool and begin your cold steep, 24 hours is sufficient. Finally, bean additions to the keg don’t necessarily need to be weighted down in a muslin bag, they’ll float and can be easily retrieved if needed.
Through my research for a Peche Mortel clone I had read a number of different attempts with brewers using a high attenuating Belgian strain. At least one of these claimed to have spoken to someone at the brewery to confirm this, though they didn’t specify which strain the brewery used. I assumed I could use almost any strain as all the coffee additions would likely mute most phenolics from a Belgian strain. So I went to my LHBS and ordered a couple of strains I knew I could use for other styles I had on my list to brew at some point, Wyeast 3711 (my favorite saison strain) and 3522. Both strains, I know from experience, tend to be fairly mild with respect to phenolics, esters and spicy notes. But after waiting three weeks my yeast still hadn’t arrived so I got impatient (I want my coffee stout now!) and reluctantly went with what they had on hand, Wyeast 3724. It’s a strain I hadn’t used before, mainly because I had heard of people having trouble getting it to attenuate fully, but I thought that with a planned OG of only 1.062 if I pitched a large enough starter that it would be fine. WRONG! (more on that later).
Designing the rest of this recipe was pretty straight forward, as I wanted enough malt to come through and support the coffee additions. That meant marris otter as the base malt. I find it a slightly more earthy than 2-row and I felt that would support the coffee a little better. Some midnight wheat to add roast character but also mouth feel, chocolate malt simply because I love the flavor it gives in a stout and it will compliment the coffee nicely, honey malt for a little unique sweetness and finally carapils for head retention. Hop choice was simple, magnum at the beginning of the boil for some clean bitterness (but just a little).
Recipe Targets: 5.0 gallons, OG 1.062, FG 1.015, IBU 50, SRM 48, ABV 6.2%
4.00 kg Marris Otter (74%)
0.36 kg Midnight Wheat (6.7%)
0.36 kg Roasted Barley (6.7%)
0.36 kg Honey Malt (6.7%)
0.18 kg Carafoam (3.4%)
0.14 kg Chocolate Malt (2.5%)
0.20 kg Espresso beans (lightly crushed)
20g Polaris (21%) @60
1 Whirlfloc tablet @10
1 tsp Yeast Nutrient @10
3 oz espresso beans (cold steeped in ~800ml water)
1 oz espresso beans (whole,keg addition)
Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison
US05 (1.5L starter) for the potential stall
Brewed by my son and I, mashed in with 14L @165F, mashed out with 8L @199F, and finally batch sparged with 2.6 gallons @170F. 60 minute boil. Unfortunately I had recently made some changes to my equipment profile in BeerSmith and I forgot to adjust the recipe for any possible issues this could cause with respect to gravity and volumes. I ran into my first issue when checking my pre-boil gravity, it was low, nine points low. My OG was seven points low, this is where one simple mistake can completely change a beer (see tasting notes). After three weeks this was still stuck at 1.026, for the fourth week I raised the beer temp to ~74F and it dropped a measly four points. At this point I didn’t want to wait anymore, and I didn’t want to be left with a full stall so I prepped a 1.5L starter of US05 and pitched it 12 hours later when it was quite active. 24 hours later the airlock was bubbling every 4 seconds (whew!). After another week the gravity had dropped to an acceptable 1.015, unfortunately though I found the US05 seemed to have scrubbed much of the coffee character the mash addition had added to the beer. Appearance: Pours with a thick dark tan head which fades to a thin ring within a few minutes. Very dark brown, essentially black in color.
Aroma: Strong coffee and some slight dark chocolate.
Taste: Again, strong coffee and dark chocolate with medium mouth feel. Followed by some phenolics from the saison yeast as the mouth feel seems to thin out as it finishes.
Mouthfeel: Medium carbonation, medium body that thins
Overall: This turned out partly the way I wanted it to. It does scream coffee in both aroma and flavor which is followed by dark chocolate, which I really enjoy. Unfortunately, this is where my love for this beer turns to mediocrity. The typical flavor of the saison yeast are far more apparent than I expected they would be. While I certainly can’t recommend this recipe due to the issues I ran into, I believe it’s a solid base for my next attempt at a coffee stout.
Here’s what I learned from brewing this beer: My failure to account for BeerSmith changes lead to a much lower gravity than expected, my ~6.2% beer finished up at 5.5%. I know it’s only one percent, but a stronger malt presence would have really helped the mouth feel and helped to back up the coffee and chocolate flavor that starts so well. My impatience of going ahead with a yeast strain I didn’t want to use lead me down the road of forcing the final gravity by pitching an active starter of US05. This scrubbed out much of the coffee contributions from the mash addition. Poor planning was the root to all of these problems, I never thought to brew a coffee stout until I really wanted to enjoy one. This has been an issue in the past for me, I always have hoppy styles available but when I want something else, usually malt forward, I’m behind schedule.
Here’s what I’d do differently next time: The BeerSmith changes have already been dialed in. I would likely forego the mash addition of coffee since I think I got plenty of character from the cold steep and “dry bean” addition in the keg. The addition of oats to the mash would certainly help add the mouth feel that this beer is lacking. I’d obviously try a different yeast strain, perhaps Belgian Abbey or even just US05. Finally, proper planning, I will definitely be brewing this style next fall, ahead of the really cold weather and I’ll keep the expected ABV closer to the Peche Mortel level, maybe 8%. As I lead with, I learned a lot during the course of brewing, fermenting and packaging this beer and I believe I’m a better brewer as a result. At the very least I was reminded, time and time again, that patience and planning are some of the most important factors in any beer going from recipe, to grain, to glass.