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Knowing Beans About Beer: Coffee in Maine craft brews

by | Feb 9, 2021

photos/Tom Major

Most craft beer drinkers can — and, too often, will — talk ad nauseam about hop varieties and yeast strains. It’s not that they’re wrong about the subtle differences in flavor, it’s just that it’s all been said. So what’s left for a beer geek to nerd out about? Well, how about the various origins, roasts and brewing processes of coffee in beer?

Rising Tide Brewing, for example, uses a special blend from Tandem Coffee Roasters in its Waypoint Coffee Porter. Tandem’s Will Pratt worked with Rising Tide’s Nathan Sanborn to create the recipe, adding Ethiopian and Guatemalan beans at both the mashing and fermentation stages.  

“Nathan has always been very intrigued by Will’s emphasis on coffee ‘as a fruit’ and has always tried to highlight some of the bright, fruity notes of Tandem’s coffee in our Waypoint porter,” said Heather Sanborn, co-founder of Rising Tide.

“If you are looking for just a ‘coffee’ flavor, then any of our washed coffees from Central or South America would work perfectly,” Pratt told me, noting that they used Colombian beans for Bunker Brewing’s We Are Happy to Serve the Servants imperial stout. “If you are looking for something a little more noticeable, that could lend a little more spice and fruit to the beer, then you might want to use a coffee from Ethiopia or Kenya.”

Matt Bolinder, proprietor of the wood-roasted coffee company Speckled Ax, agrees. He provides beans to Allagash, Banded Brewing, Liquid Riot, Goodfire, Battery Steele and Austin Street. “Everyone gets a different coffee. There are no repeats,” Bolinder said of the breweries he works with. “We’ve been fortunate that all the beers we’re in are really good.”

The first beer for which Bolinder provided coffee was Allagash’s Barrel & Bean (formerly James Bean). Jason Perkins, the brewmaster at Allagash, wanted to use coffee as a complementary component to beer, rather than just a source of bolder “brown notes.” Bolinder brought five different coffee varieties to Allagash. They brewed and sampled together, eventually selecting a natural-processed Ethiopian variety for the bourbon barrel–aged tripel ale.

Allagash later created a Belgian coffee stout, Map 40, using Speckled Ax’s eponymous Mokha Java blend. The name refers to Bolinder’s favorite wilderness spot in the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.

When Banded Brewing founder Ian McConnell wanted to make a coffee stout, he asked for a recommendation from his neighbor, Michael Macomber, owner of Elements, the Biddeford coffee shop, bar and bookstore. Macomber, who has since begun roasting coffee himself, recommended Speckled Ax. (Elements now provides the coffee for First Crack, a coffee maple stout from Bissell Brothers, available the first week of February.)

Bolinder worked with McConnell to find the right coffee variety for Jolly Woodsman, a robust 7.5% ABV stout. They selected a Kenyan variety for its acidity and vegetal notes. Banded uses about 500 pounds of coffee annually to produce Jolly Woodsman and its bourbon maple-syrup, barrel-aged version, Woodsman Reserve.

Rwanda Bean, which has retail coffee shops in Portland and South Portland, will soon move its roasting facility next to Bissell Brothers Brewing, on Portland’s Thompson’s Point. Co-owner Peter Bissell is looking forward to working with their new neighbors. “They are planning to age coffee beans in our spent barrels at the very least,” Bissell said. “And I have to imagine we’ll collab with them when they get up and running.”

From left: Christian Kayiteshonga, Nonesuch co-owner and brewer Michael Schuler, Rwanda Bean founder Mike Mwenedata, Shea Cusick, Nonesuch co-owner Tim Boardman.

Rwanda Bean already has a collaboration beer with Nonesuch River Brewing, in Scarborough: Ikawa Porter, which uses bourbon barrel-aged beans cold brewed for lower acidity. Nonesuch brewery rep Shea Cusick said they appreciate both Rwanda Bean’s coffee and the company’s mission to donate half its profits to community causes.

When beer geeks begin to explore the range of coffee flavors out there, they’ll find a whole new rabbit hole to tumble down. And yes, speaking of tumbling down, Farmington’s Tumbledown Brewing uses Backdraft Dark Roast from neighboring Carrabassett Coffee in its Dawn Patrol Coffee Porter, and Carrabassett’s Costa Rican blend in their Krummholz White Stout.

Tom Major aspires to write a whole beer column in Latin someday. Contact him at majorinbeer@gmail.com.

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