Houston beer bar The Hay Merchant is collaborating with coffee shop Blacksmith and Massachusetts brewery Clown Shoes on a beer infused with Greenway Coffee espresso that they hope will be the highest expression of what a coffee beer can be. On Sunday, December 20, Houstonians have an opportunity to get a taste of the un-aged product at The Hay Merchant.
Coffee in beer is nothing new. There are many coffee-infused stouts on the market, but Hay Merchant co-owner Kevin Floyd points out that they are fraught with issues. A great many potential problems have to do with the coffee itself.
Espresso — brewed coffee in general, for that matter — is a chemically unstable substance. It starts to oxidize almost immediately. That’s why it’s intended to be consumed while it is still fresh, especially in the case of espresso.
Then there’s the issue of balancing two substances — coffee and beer — in a way that allows the drinker to appreciate each. “You’re almost always going to have to sacrifice either the coffee or the beer,” said Floyd.
Floyd says a lot of coffee beers also don’t use optimal products. Stale coffee, watery coffee or bad coffee beans are often used in beer production and even when the coffee is good, the beer might suffer. Another interesting aspect is that the beer is often not actually brewed or aged with the coffee included. Instead, coffee is blended into the beer to retain the flavor. “I didn’t want to just blend,” explained Floyd. “Anyone can take good coffee and decent beer and just blend them together. Why would you do something in a brewery that the consumer could do at home?”
As it turned out, when Clown Shoes owner Greg Berman sent several types of Russian imperial stouts for Floyd and Greenway Coffee/Blacksmith co-owner David Buehrer to consider for the base beer, El Salvador coffee farmer Miguel Menendez was in town and able to taste and lend his opinion as well. Menendez’s Finca Santa Barbara, from Apaneca, El Salvador, was selected as the coffee to be used in the beer.
Blacksmith’s staff pulled, one shot at a time, 1,000 shots of espresso from the ground Finca Santa Barbara beans, cleaning and recalibrating the espresso machine as they went. It took eight hours, and the yield was about twice the number of shots Blacksmith uses in an average business day. “This [beer] has a thousand legitimately good Blacksmith espresso shots,” Floyd said.
To stabilize it, the espresso was de-gassed by a vacuum sealing process and shipped overnight to a high-pressure pasteurization company. It’s the first time such as process has been used for preparing espresso as a beer ingredient. The pasteurization company then overnighted the espresso back to Houston, and Floyd and Buehrer shipped it to Clown Shoes brewery in Boston. It was added to the beer the following morning. The entire process took three days.
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Berman held back two casks of the beer as it was going into the barrels to start aging and that un-aged product is what The Hay Merchant’s patrons will be able to taste on December 20. Once the beer is aged and bottled, it will be named Hephaestus, after the blacksmith of the gods.
Despite all of the effort to preserve the integrity of the coffee, Floyd warned that this beer is still very much an experiment. Tasting of the six-week-old, un-aged version will help evaluate if the espresso has held up sufficiently.
“We’re going to tap this [un-aged] beer. I’m expecting it to be kind of out of balance because it was intended for aging. The blend was intended for barrel aging. So, it should be really coffee-forward,” says Floyd.
Once the beer is done barrel aging, which will take about nine months, only about 3,000 bottles of Hephaestus will be available and it will only be sold in Texas.