A good coffeehouse creates an atmosphere that encourages interactions among friends, business acquaintances and even strangers. It serves a role akin to a neighborhood tavern, only in most instances without alcohol. But with the arrival of Alterra Coffee Roasters on the Square, the lines between coffeehouse and tavern are blurred, with beer on tap next to the barista's station.
Alterra opened its first location in Madison on April 5 in the Tenney Building, located at the corner of South Pinckney and Main. The coffee roaster is based Milwaukee, but the Madison location is its first foray into house beers. Cortado Imperial Stout is likely to become a signature brew for the Madison cafe because of its rich coffee flavor. Alterra made it with a little help from One Barrel Brewing.
Style: The imperial stout is dark black in color, very rich in malty aroma, and commonly offers a toffee-like or deep caramel flavor with spicy warmth at 7%-9% ABV. Hoppy bitterness and even the roasted malt will give way to sweet malty tones. Some fruity esters may also be found in this style of stout, but the emphasis on robust maltiness. The imperial stout is sometimes called "Russian Imperial Stout," a reference to the famous beer exported to the tsars of Russia at the time of Catherine the Great.
Background: Alterra Coffee co-owners and brothers Ward and Lincoln Fowler are known not just for making coffee -- they're also homebrewers. Their interest, along with that of co-owner Paul Miller and the company's head coffee buyer, George Bregar, is charting new ground for coffeehouses in Madison. About a year ago, Bregar met One Barrel Brewing owner Peter Gentry at a beer event, and the two started trading recipe ideas and sharing each other's homebrewing equipment. Eventually, this led to a partnership in both beer and coffee.
"Alterra has talked about beer for several years, but we never found the right fit," says Bregar says at a pre-opening party for the coffeehouse. "Madison has an excellent craft beer scene; it was at the front of our minds when we were building our cafe here." Bregar and fellow Alterra employee Shawn Bigelow started developing the recipe for Cortado Imperial Stout, and Gentry helped expand the batch size to fit One Barrel Brewing's equipment.
Bregar says their beer is based on one of his favorite coffee drinks, a cortado, which is a blend of espresso and milk. "I really like the ratio of milk in cortado, so we play off that for the beer and use a little bit of milk lactose," he explains. That touch of lactose and some oats adds body to the beer, which also has lots of dark roasted malts that give it dark color and tones of chocolate and roastedness.
At its core is a blend of coffee beans from Brazil and Guatemala, which are placed in a device called a hop rocket -- it resembles a large water filter, and is used in a similar way by brewers to add fresh hop properties into beer. Very hot wort is run through the hop rocket and the beans, so there is actually a brewed coffee effect, Gentry explains. The sense of fresh coffee is what makes this beer a treat. "We wanted to find a way to get the coffee into the beer without it tasting stale or burnt," adds Bregar.
Other methods of making coffee stouts range from putting beans or ground coffee directly into the mash, suspending bagged coffee beans or grounds in the fermenter, or even infusing cold coffee directly into fermented beer.
Cortado Imperial Stout finishes at 8.3% ABV. It's sold in pints for $5, only at Alterra on the Square.
Alterra offers an American Pale Ale on tap called One Tun, likewise made at One Barrel Brewing. One Tun finishes at 5% ABV and 50 IBUs. Bregar hopes to rotate in a new beer every three to four months, and is already thinking about a saison for summer.
- Aroma: Light maltiness, a touched of roastedness and hints of coffee to come. Given that this beer is served in a coffee shop, don't attribute all of the coffee aroma to just the beer.
- Appearance: Very dark black, with tints of brown. A medium, soft, brown head.
- Texture: Medium bodied and round.
- Taste: The chocolate maltiness is up front, with some semi-sweet tones. There is a light roastedness in the background. But there really isn't much in the way of bitterness; just a nice, smooth, cold, coffee flavor.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Smooth, roasted coffee tones build throughout the finish.
Glassware: Alterra offers a nice touch to showing off this stout by serving it in a Willi Becher glass. Its inward flare near the lip focuses the hints of coffee while displaying the beer's deep black color.
Pairs well with: Generally coffee stouts pair well with mild creamy cheeses like brie, Gouda and Havarti. However, because the beer is only available at Alterra, pairings are limited to the cafe's menu. The turkey club with its Wisconsin Swiss cheese and multigrain bread makes a nice pick; its sweetness goes with the beer's malt and coffee tones. Or, treat it like cold coffee and look for something sweet from the bakery case. Anything with a little chocolate or peanut butter and you have an ideal afternoon pick-me-up.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Cortado Imperial Stout has a smooth, mild, fresh coffee flavor that comes through in the early aroma and lingers into the finish. Homebrewing engineer-types Bregar, Bigelow and Gentry deserve credit for using the hop rocket to add coffee as a clean firm accent to the roasted chocolate malts while avoiding any potential harsh acidic-bitterness. Also, brewing a new small batch at One Barrel every week or so should also keep what's on tap tasting fresh.
While I like this beer a lot as a coffee stout, calling it an "imperial" is a distraction from what it really is. Okay, it might be a "sneaky" version of one, because while it is medium-bodied and easy drinking, at 8.3% ABV it does fall into the imperial's range of strength. But basing an opinion of Cortado solely from the label of imperial stout takes something away from just how good the coffee flavor is, and its overall supporting role in the beer's taste. Imperials are known for much more robust-maltiness and a thicker texture, but I can't fault this beer for not being that, because its fresh coffee flavor is so enjoyable. Cortado is a stout that allows the beer to come first and the coffee a memorable second, even while being served alongside espresso.