Coffee x Beer: The benefits of collaborating with craft beer companies

Kahwei Yoong
August 16, 2021
brewery holding up a beer

In recent years, coffee has appeared in a wide range of products, from shampoo and whiskey, to wine and hot sauce. Typically the result of a collaboration with a specialty coffee roastery, these products offer an innovative way of attracting attention and piquing consumer interest.

Without a doubt, one of the most popular coffee-flavoured products is beer. Not only does it have lots in common with coffee in terms of target audience, the characteristics in one have a tendency to highlight and accentuate characteristics in the other.

While it may sound like the preserve of a handful of craft beer companies, this isn’t the case: leading players such as BrewDog, Guinness, and Flying Dog have all released their own coffee-flavoured products over the last few years, much to the excitement of customers.

For specialty coffee roasters, working with a beer company to produce a coffee-flavoured drink can help improve brand visibility, extend market reach, and open up new revenue streams. It also offers an opportunity to exercise creativity and think outside the box.

To find out more about how specialty coffee roasters can collaborate with beer brewers, I spoke with head roaster at ONA Coffee, Danny Wilson.

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capital brewing co coffee beer
ONA Coffee teamed up with Capital Brewing Co to create an imperial stout (pictured)

What are coffee beers?  

Beer companies are always on the hunt for new and exciting ways to push the boundaries of their industry and generate buzz around their products.

In such a saturated market, it can be difficult to be heard, which means breweries must constantly adapt and experiment to find ways of standing out from the competition. 

An increasingly popular way of doing this is by partnering with a roastery and launching a coffee-flavoured beer. 

Put simply, a coffee-flavoured beer is a beer that incorporates coffee either at the fermentation stage, by steeping it in coffee grounds, or by mixing it with cold brew.

The first coffee beers appeared around the mid-1990s, when breweries such as Redhook Brewing, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and New Glarus Brewing released their own coffee stouts.

Since then, the market for coffee beer has exploded, with both independent craft breweries and large-scale commercial beer companies launching their own takes on the drink. One of the latest companies to jump on the bandwagon is Guinness, which released its “Nitro Cold Brew” product earlier this year.

Danny is head roaster at ONA Coffee. In 2019, he oversaw a collaboration with Capital Brewing Co., a craft beer company based in Canberra, Australia. This produced two popular coffee-flavoured drinks: a sour beer made with dried coffee cherries (Cascara Cherry Bomb Sour) and a stout infused with ONA’s house blend (First Tracks Imperial Stout).

He tells me that the driving force behind many coffee beer collaborations is the open-mindedness with which breweries approach flavours.

“The beer world has a much more distinct separation between different beer styles and there is an acceptance among its consumers that beers can taste differently,” he explains.

“Whereas in coffee, there is a perception that coffee should only taste a certain way and there is not as much differentiation compared to beer.”

But it’s not just the breweries that have welcomed coffee’s addition to beer: many specialty roasters recognise the advantages that these partnerships have, including increased exposure, new revenue streams, and greater market reach.

Not only that, but the product itself is often something to be proud of. The wide range of flavours coffee offers means that it can be successfully worked into just about any style of beer, while many of its characteristics overlap with beer – particularly with darker beers, such as stouts.

cupping coffee
While breweries often take the lead, a collaboration relies on the expertise of both parties

What goes into making of coffee beers?

While the steps involved in the production of coffee beers vary from company to company, it tends to start with the brewers, who will choose a beer they think will work well with coffee before approaching a roastery.

The roastery will then work with the brewery to find a coffee that matches their preferences, applying their expertise of roast profiles and flavour notes to ensure the coffee perfectly complements the beer.

Danny explains that when Capital Brewing came to ONA, they had a clear idea of what they wanted, which helped the ONA team find the perfect coffee.

“With the cascara sour beer, Capital Brewing described to us that they were after something sour, lighter and refreshing,” he says. “That’s where we hitched the cascara because we wanted something acidic and aromatic, but also something that was easy to work with.”

However, for the stout, Danny explains that Capital Brewing wanted a different flavour profile. As such, a cupping session was set up to allow the brewers to taste and understand each coffee’s characteristics.

Danny also provided advice on coffee extraction, including how to grind the beans and when to add coffee in the brewing process to ensure optimal flavour extraction.

“In the end, we went with a coffee that had both chocolate and fruit elements,” he says. “It gave the backbone of a classic coffee flavour, yet the fruity notes helped to bring in more complexity.”

The scale of Capital Brewing’s operations meant that the collaboration with ONA lasted between one and two months. 

This included sampling the beers and coffees, running through details on the desired flavours, making plans and sorting out schedules, making test batches and, finally, transferring to large-scale production.

In a typical coffee-beer partnership, the brewery will typically take the lead role, while coffee roasters support them.

“In our collaboration with Capital Brewing, they had a strong and clear idea on what they wanted and we mainly supported them in achieving the desired product, which I think works best because at the end of the day, most of these collaborations are for coffee-flavoured beer and beer is going to be the primary product,” Danny tells me.

“So it is probably easiest for brewers to be the primary driver and the coffee people assisting them wherever we can.”

coffee beer
Creating a coffee beer is a completely different playing field

How to start a successful collaboration with a brewery

The versatility of coffee makes it a natural addition to beer. It can add depth, enhance flavours, and highlight boldness.

As a result, the majority of collaborations between roasteries and breweries tend to generate products that do invariably well on the market. But what’s the secret behind a successful collaboration?

Danny explains that, first and foremost, roasters and brewers should share values around flavours.

“Once you can connect somebody with ideas around flavours and how things should taste, it’s easy to then build off on that and figure out all the practical details later,” 

It’s also important to put yourself out there and open a dialogue with the people you’d like to work with.

Visit beer trade shows, book tours around breweries, contact beer companies on social media; by doing this, you will put yourself at the top of the list when breweries decide to create their own signature coffee beer.

At the same time, specialty roasters need to keep in mind that a coffee-beer collaboration is a completely different playing field to traditional roasting and brewing.

Therefore, roasters will need to adapt accordingly by adjusting their roast profiles, grind sizes, and brew ratios, to name a few.

“My biggest learning curve from the collaborations was understanding how to work with coffee outside of how I normally brew things,” Danny says. 

“When you do the numbers on how much coffee is getting into the final beer, it is much lower than how you would normally brew coffee. You kind of throw your normal brew ratios out the window and you have to think about how to extract coffee because it is going to be different.” 

sustainable coffee bag
Coffee beers help diversify revenue streams – but roasters also need to look after their main product line

Collaborations with beer companies are not for everyone. However, for those who do have the opportunity to help develop a coffee beer, it can help extend market reach, diversify revenue streams, and shape brand identity.

That being said, it’s also important to look after your main product range, namely roasted coffee. This includes choosing packaging that both protects the coffee and showcases your brand in its best light.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee bags that can be fully customised to your needs, from additional components to printing methods.

Our kraft paper and PLA coffee bags are fully compostable in commercial facilities, while our LDPE packaging can be recycled by most local councils.

For information about our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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