Good Beer Hunting: Uppers and Downers


"For more than eighteen months, Good Beer Hunting and Intelligentsia Coffee have been working to reinvent the coffee beer category through a series of educational and experiential events. [...] [Uppers and Downers] is both a culmination of that work, and the beginning of what we believe will be the future of coffee beers," Good Beer Hunting.

The festival featured 14 breweries, 6 roasters and expanded case studies from two of the Chicago area's best breweries -- Goose Island Beer Company and Solemn Oath Brewery. We, Tommy Crawford and Dylan Nelson, were fortunate enough to attend the event. Here is a brief recap of our experiences and thoughts:

Tommy -- Walking up the stairs to Thalia Hall, I had high expectations for Uppers and Downers. Without ever having been to a Good Beer Hunting event, I knew that the name by itself represents impeccable branding and attention to detail and a wealth of industry knowledge and connections -- and you know what? Good Beer Hunting brought it.

Upon arriving, guests were immediately handed a flute tasting glass -- branded with gold "Uppers" and "Downers" logos on opposite sides -- and a canvas bag filled with a festival guide, 15 beer tickets, buttons and stickers... swag. The event was thoroughly branded and its decorations were appropriately minimal for a venue as beautiful as Thalia Hall. I was impressed by Good Beer Hunting's ability to confidently take a back seat and let its partners, the roasters and breweries, stand in the spotlight and showcase their products.

My three favorite beers of the afternoon were Perennial's Old Fashioned (an English-style barleywine, blended with Kanya AB Gatuyaini beans), Solemn Oath's Beverage of Champions (a double milk stout aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels with orange peel and cold-brewed Intelligentsia Ljulu Lipati coffee) and Goose Island's 2014 Bourbon County Stout Barleywine infused (Randalled) with Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso.

Personally, I really appreciate how well coffee compliments a more malt-forward beer. The sweet, roasty and dark fruit flavors found in a lot of stouts and barleywines allow coffee to be pushed out front on the palate. While a lot of the more hoppy and experimental beers were fun to taste and often very delicious, I felt the coffee flavor was buried or only recognizable enough to list it as one of the many spices used to brew the beer. I also realize, though, that for these new styles of coffee beer, this is just the beginning.

Michael Kiser, Intelligentsia and the rest of the Uppers and Downers team should be extremely proud of what they accomplished with this event. I do think for brewers and beer geeks, this is just a jumping off point into the rapidly expanding world of coffee beers. If there was one thing I'd like to see improved when or if there is a next time, it would be more integration between the coffee and beer tasting experiences -- side-by-side comparisons, deeper conversations about the outcome of using certain beans and the processes used to extract their flavor, etc. Don't get me wrong though. I stood around for 4 hours and drank some of the best and most interesting coffee beer ever brewed. I have  absolutely nothing to complain about.

So Dylan, what did you think of the festival? Would you call it the beginning of what will be the future of coffee beers? How did your favorites compare to mine?

Dylan -- I love coffee and I love beer, but I’m not sure they make natural partners. That’s not to say that coffee and beer never go well together, but I’ve found that coffee, as a rule, either dominates its host beer or all but vanishes among the beer’s other flavors. The Uppers and Downers event provided some notable exceptions, but if anything they only solidified my feelings — they were the exceptions that prove the rule, if you will.

I had the same favorites as you, Tommy — Beverage of Champions, the Old Fashioned, and the 2014 BCS Barleywine Randalled through Black Cat espresso — and these beers stood out to me because they did what other beers so often fail to do. Beverage of Champions uses a riot of orange peel to offset the blast of roasted flavors from malt and coffee. The Old Fashioned was unique. It is the only time I have tasted coffee’s  acidity and berry notes harnessed in beer, and Perennial managed to pair them just right with whisky sweetness. And the 2014 BCS featured a more subdued espresso presence that snuggled right up with BCS’s aggressive oak and barley bite. These three alone were worth the price of admission.

I thought other experiments were less successful. IPAs tend to clash too much with coffee, and bitter-dark stouts tend to overshadow it. And then there are styles that you have to get just right — saisons, doppelbocks, pale ales—just to make them play nice with coffee. Many of the beers I tried either fell short of their parent style or made me wonder why they needed coffee at all.

The creativity and eclecticism on display at Uppers and Downers is a great example of what makes American beer the best in the world right now. We love strong flavors, we embrace diverse influences, and we love mixing our intoxicants. Coffee beers can be original, coherent, and even subtle — but I’m not sure they have such a bright future. I’d say, instead, that they’re having their moment.