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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Light Snow
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Beer Here: Deep Winter Coffee Stout from Karben4 Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

Karben4 brewmaster Ryan Koga is creating a buzz with his latest beer, which is made without any hops. The buzz is even stronger because he is using coffee to replace the bitter aroma and flavor that hops typically provide. It's name is Deep Winter Coffee Stout.

"I wanted to find a way to make this beer without hops and still make it a mind blowing experience," says Koga. The result is a vivid, black strong stout with assertive coffee aroma and even a little caffeine to build all the buzz among beer enthusiasts who taste it.

What is it? Deep Winter Coffee Stout from Karben4 Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin

Style: Stout is made with dark roasted malts that lend the style its characteristic black color and sweetness, with hints chocolate and caramel. The stout emerged in the 18th century as a strong version of the English porter. It became synonymous with Arthur Guinness' brewery in Dublin, which was one of the few to continue making the style into the 20th century. Stouts often come in sub-styles such as the sweet stout, oatmeal stout, dry Irish, Foreign (Export), and the hearty Russian Imperial Stout. Most stouts range in strength from 3-6% ABV, though Foreign and Imperial versions may approach 8-10% ABV.

Making beer without hops might seem unusual, but it's not. Historically, hops came into prominent use in brewing during the 13th century. Prior to that, one style of beer known as Gruit was commonly made with herbs and spices.

Background: Ryan Koga set out to develop a new beer with Just Coffee Cooperative, located just a couple of blocks away from the brewery down Stoughton Road on the north side of Madison. While working on it, though, he learned that Casey Blanche, the co-op's master roaster, has an allergy to hops. "There was no way I was going to brew this and leave him out in the cold -- not able to enjoy a beer that incorporated the fruit of his team's labor," says Koga.

Since hops provide bitterness to beer, using coffee as a substitute isn't that far-fetched. But developing the right approach for creating bitter flavor, as typically provided by hops, was a challenge. To provide the bitterness he was looking for, Koga started with a small amount of over-brewed coffee that was added into boiling wort (during the beer brewing process). After the beer was finished with fermentation, he added a dose of cold-pressed coffee made with the base (stout) beer while the final product was conditioning (before getting kegged). At a rate of about one pound of coffee per barrel of beer, there is some noticeable caffeine effect, explains Koga. "I could drink this out of a coffee cup for breakfast," he says with a smile.

When developing the recipe for Deep Winter, Koga selected Bike Fuel -- a Just Coffee brand of blended organic, shade-grown beans grown in Bolivia and Mexico. This was used for the initial dose of coffee added during brewing.

However, most of the coffee flavor and aroma comes from the cold-presed java that was added later. Koga says he brought a growler of the initial beer over to Just Coffee and asked his neighbors to taste it. "Just give me a coarse ground of what you think is appropriate," Koga asked. Their choice for the second dose of coffee was a lighter aromatic blend of Guatemalan grown beans. "I was looking for flavor and aroma -- after all, that's what coffee is supposed to be," he says.

Koga used to work at Yellowstone Valley Brewing in Billings, Montana, where a friend and fellow brewer taught him to make an espresso porter. "I loved drinking multiple pints of that, it was perfect," says Koga. "I was really missing it, so I decided to make one myself."

The name Deep Winter doesn't require much explanation to Midwesterners. "We wanted to give people something to look forward to during this time of year," says Koga. The beer is a seasonal release for Karben4, and is expected to be available through March. "As long as we're in deep winter, and especially with the thought of another polar vortex, I want to keep Deep Winter on tap," says Koga. While looking forward to seeing how well the beer sells, he is also considering making a bourbon barrel-aged batch for later release.

Deep Winter Coffee Stout finishes at 6.8% ABV. The stout at the center of this beer has a light amount of oats which lend a silky smooth body. It's also made with roasted barley, and lots of chocolate and coffee malt. "I wanted to make sure there were malt flavors that played nice with the coffee," says Koga. He certainly succeeded, as Deep Winter is a smooth, full-bodied brew in which it is hard to determine where the coffee ends and the beer beings.

The beer sells for $5.50/pint and $16/growler (refill) in the brewery's taproom. As with other Karben4 beers, resident artist Tom Kowalke created a painting to embody and accompany Deep Winter Coffee Stout. The brew was served at the fifth annual Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest on Jan. 19 (where it was my top pick of the festival), but will mark its official debut with a release party at Karben4 on Friday, Jan. 24, starting at 11 a.m. Inspired by Deep Winter's assertive coffee character, the brewery's kitchen will be serving -- including pancakes, and biscuits and gravy -- all day and night long.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Like a strong cup (make that pint) of coffee.
  • Appearance: Dark black, with a soft brown head.
  • Texture: Full-bodied, with a silky smooth, soft mouth feel.
  • Taste: Strong cold coffee like flavor up front. Roasted and toffee tones throughout. The caramel and chocolate maltiness competes, but the coffee eventually leaves its mark on the palate.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: A dry roasted bitterness. It’s not a sharp astringent bitter, just cold coffee bitter.

Glassware: Deep Winter is a great beer for a snifter-style of glass to focus its coffee nose and to encourage sipping.

Pairs well with: Try this beer with non-smoked cheeses, including a sharp well-aged cheddar. Even a Gouda would go well with Deep Winter.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: Karben4 Deep Winter Coffee Stout does not have enough ratings to be evaluated at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.

The Verdict: If you like chilled coffee, Deep Winter is a beer for you. The flavor is assertive, lingering, and you'll notice the caffeine right away. The solid underlying malt qualities lend a smooth body, as well as chocolate and caramel flavors. There's clearly a stout here, but the lasting impression is that of fresh coffee, including the feeling provided by the caffeine.

This is definitely a fun beer to try, and I expect that coffee beer fans will love it and want to drink this out of cup. (Maybe even early in the day?) Deep Winter is probably at its best while fresh. The coffee aromatics are at their strongest right now, especially in recently filled kegs. Don't wait -- try it sooner rather than later.

Deep Winter is also a beer that will appeal to those looking for a twist since it was made without hops. Koga found a way to get bitterness and coffee flavor that's smooth and pleasant. Too many coffee beers taste like what was left in yesterday's pot. Koga's selections of beans, alongside advice from those at Just Coffee who know their roasts, make this beer a very drinkable brew.

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