The first craft beer I fell in love with was an oatmeal stout- Black Widow from Yellowstone Valley Brewing (Billings, MT) where I was working. The second was Pig’s Ass Porter from Harvest Moon Brewery (Belt, MT). The third was Beartooth Espresso Porter from Montana Brewing Company (Billings, MT), aka “The Brew Pub”, and this became more of an obsession that a simple case of love. The brewer, Travis Zeilstra (now owner/brewmaster of Black Tooth Brewing Company in Sheridan, Wyoming), only brewed one to two batches per year and every year I waited for the release announcement with bated breath. I didn’t really want to drink anything else until the batch was depleted. It was simply perfect. I normally do not drink more than a pint or two when I go out, and I could drain pints of this all night.
Travis left The Brew Pub to start his own brewery about 2 years before I moved back to Wisconsin to start Karben4. I was very happy for Travis to pursue his dream of his own place after winning a mountain of brewing awards, including GABF Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the year. I was depressed that my favorite brew would likely be no more. Not too long after getting Karben4 off the ground the espresso porter craving began their annual migration to my heartstrings. I’m slow on the uptake, so it took a while for it to hit me: I’m the brewmaster at my brewery. Ipso facto, concordantly, vis-a-vis, dry erase marker, sharpie– I could just make an espresso porter of my own! Duh.
There happens to be an absolutely stellar coffee roaster, Just Coffee Cooperative, about a 5 iron from our front door and we were already buying their coffee so I headed over there for advice. During my first visit to learn what is important in making perfect coffee I learned that the roastmaster is allergic to hops. On my drive back to the brewery that fact kept ringing in my mind, and it became clear that I needed to figure out a way to make the beer without hops so the roaster could enjoy the fruits of his labor in our beer. I learned that coffee is only bitter when made improperly. As everyone knows coffee is packed with flavor and aroma. Hops are used for bittering, flavor, and aroma, so the plan wrote itself: The coffee would just need to perform the same functions as hops. We would use coffee grounds in the kettle so it would get overbrewed and become bitter. We would then make cold brew using the beer instead of water and inject it back into the batch. Easy peasy, and the result was sublime. The first batch we ever made was finished late on a Friday night, kegged Saturday morning brought to Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest an hour later, where it won Fest Favorite.
One year we had the great idea to put some of this delicious beauty in bourbon barrels for a couple months. We also thought it would be great to add coffee grounds to the barrels. What we didn’t realize (that is now obvious since we started our sour beer program) is that Lactobacillus is one of the most common microbes present on and in just about everything- people, malt, dust, air, and coffee grounds. Examples of what lactobacillus is used for is making yogurt, cheese, pickles, kimchi, cider, and kefir. One important fun fact about Lactobacillus is very sensitive to hops, and most strains are not tolerant of more than 7 IBUs. Any beer with even a very small amount of hops is pretty much protected from Lactobacillus. Since Deep Winter had zero hops (apart from one pellet to satisfy definitions) and the coffee grounds likely harbored Lactobacillus naturally along with the grain dust in our warehouse, the worst happened and we ended up dumping the barrels. This year we decided that we needed to add just enough hops to gain lacto protection without affecting the flavor. But the coffee is still the shining star of the brew, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.