What sort of beer is most likely to impress Melburnians? For Dennis De Boer, head brewer at Modus Operandi Brewing in Sydney's Northern Beaches, the answer is obvious: one with coffee in it. "You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a city more obsessed and innovative with coffee than Melbourne," he says, which is why he's brewed a Vanilla Mocha Stout for this week's Good Beer Week Gala Showcase.
The beer will only be available in Victoria, but interest in coffee beers goes well beyond the state border. It's a global style: coffee and beer – the yin and yang of modern drinks culture – were first brought together by American brewers over 20 years ago, but it's only recently that breweries have started to really explore the flavour possibilities.
This is as true in Australia as elsewhere; there has been a spate of interesting Australian coffee beers in the last few months. There's Pact Beer's Alter Ego Cold Brew Cream Ale, Southern Bay's Coffee IPA, Grifter Brewing's Ceremony and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, La Sirene's collaboration with their near neighbours in Alphington, Seven Seeds, called Seven Sirens.
Released in the spring, it's a farmhouse red ale made using coffee from Matazano Farm in Honduras. The planning and brewing process were designed to ensure the final beer had all of the coffee's acidity and fruit character, says Costa Nikias, brewer and owner of La Sirene.
"It was a slow process: we had them over here, and we went to them for cupping sessions to pick the beans. We wanted to do something different, which is why we started with a red ale; we wanted it to be somewhat neutral to allow the coffee to shine.
"The thing I like about Seven Seeds is that they tend to roast coffee on the lighter side. We decided to do a light roast and cold infusions to allow us to get more of an acid and fruit profile from the coffee."
When we're not drinking beer, we're drinking coffee.
The coffee was added in four different stages, Nikias adds, during brewing, fermentation and after fermentation, to ensure that the coffee's delicate characteristics are preserved. "It's got such an intense, clean coffee character and acidity," he says. "There's no roastiness at all; I love that because that's the way coffee is heading, it's getting lighter and more delicate."
Modus Operandi, who worked with Axil Coffee Roasters on their Vanilla Mocha Stout, has used coffee in a number of previous beers. They decided to go for bold flavours on this occasion: "A stout was the way to go for us; we've enjoyed coffee beers that are light in colour and are nicely blended with coffee, but we wanted something big [this time]," says De Boer.
"We did a series of cold brews and added them post-fermentation. We feel like we have a pretty good understanding how to work with coffee, and when to add it to ensure we get the results we want. This stout has depth to it; we've been adding the layers with the roasted malt, plus significant amounts of vanilla and chocolate. The awesome part is seeing someone's first impression, and then another wave of flavour comes in to give them more."
It's the flavour range – from classic roastiness to sharp fruit acidity – that explains why coffee is increasingly popular with brewers around the world. Modern Times in San Diego, California, is both a brewery and a roastery; De Struise, in Flanders, Belgium, recently invested in a huge Probat roaster to improve the quality of the coffee used in their beers; Magic Rock, in Huddersfield, England, has worked with local roastery Darkwoods on a coffee that is aged in whisky barrels to mimic the flavour of Common Grounds, their coffee porter.
And then there's Uppers and Downers, a festival in Chicago and London devoted to coffee beers that began in 2013. It's run by Good Beer Hunting, an American website about modern beer and beer culture, and Irish former world barista champion Stephen Morrissey. He says the event emerged out of his dissatisfaction with some famous American coffee beers.
"I worked for [coffee roasters] Intelligentsia when I first moved over to Chicago from London," he says. "They had done two major collaborations: Dark Lord by Three Floyds and Bourbon County Coffee Stout by Goose Island. Both had a massive following, but when I tasted them I was underwhelmed – they're fine but the quality of coffee coming through is pretty generic. You might as well be using any kind of low-price coffee because the coffee is one-note."
This has long been the case with the use of coffee in beers: it's most commonly added for extra roastiness in a stout or porter, beers that already boast plenty of roast malt character. "[In some of them] You could be using Nescafe," says Morrissey. "I still feel that way about coffee beers: while some are delicious, lots are clumsy."
For Morrissey, the most interesting coffee beers are often pale, where acidity and fruit flavours have more space to shine. "It definitely gets more interesting when you're dealing with lighter beers," he says. "But coffee stouts can be delicious; there is nothing inherently wrong with a stout or a porter that has coffee in it.
"The problem is that in the States there's a fetishising of big, intense flavours: 'We did this! We put this in this and it's so big it'll melt your face!' It's about espresso, the caffeine is the allure .. but the beer world is learning now of the greater value of restraint."
One of the most fascinating things about Uppers and Downers, he says, is the way it has allowed him to explore the relationship between coffee and beer in Chicago and London. Having recently moved back to London – where he works as brand strategy director for the Specialty Coffee Association – he has noticed that coffee and beer cultures are closer there. "Coffee shops and pubs are very different spaces in Chicago – you don't see much mix there, but here [in London] it's way more blurred," he says.
If coffee and beer are close in London, though, it's equally the case in Australia's major cities. "It's definitely a close relationship," says Nikias. "When we're not drinking beer, we're drinking coffee – and for the guys at Seven Seeds it's the same. The people who get involved in craft brewing and micro-roasting are people with a similar mindset." His point is borne out by Modus Operandi, who are planning to work with Coffee Brothers, based close to them in Mona Vale, later this year.
Melbourne's status as the home of the modern coffee shop – where coffee is one option alongside good food, beer, wine and much besides – only amplifies this beer-coffee connection. "Melbourne is the beacon for a lot of people [around the world] right now," says Morrissey. "It's one of the best-realised scenes, it's a place where coffee weaves into other stuff."
Including, of course, into beer. Visitors to the Gala Showcase will get the first chance to try Modus Operandi's new beer, but for those who miss out it'll be available at the main event in May. It promises to be worth waiting for. "We knew that whatever we put forward had to be special," says De Boer. "If you can't go big at Good Beer Week, when can you?"
The 2018 Good Beer Week Gala Showcase will be taking over the atrium at Federation Square on Thursday March 22 and Friday March 23; goodbeerweek.com.au