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In Columbus, Craft Beer and Craft Coffee Work Together

February 24, 2017

By Miles Liebtag, February 24, 2017

“If the U.S. was a person,” Thomas Pynchon wrote, “and it sat down, Columbus, Ohio would instantly be plunged into darkness.”  

Seldom mentioned, oft maligned, Columbus is an infrequently used byword for suburban nonspecificity. Curious, then, that central Ohio has also arguably become the epicenter of Ohio localism, as both ideology and material reality: we boast more breweries than either Cleveland or Cincinnati, more specialty coffee roasters, more nationally-recognized but perpetually-troubled craft ice cream franchises.

Though “local” as an ethos and designation has been so cynically mined for marketing value as to strip it of any core meaning, one can still determine the inherent positive values people seek to foster by shunning globalism: community, sustainability, responsibility, something approximating ethical consumption. The desire to know where a product comes from, to move closer toward it, to capture a bit of the experience of its creation, that desire perhaps closes a little of the alienating distance between you and the material reality of the things you buy, use, eat and drink.

Local beer is, in Columbus and many cities like it, the most visible and vibrant manifestation of this desire. While one can debate endlessly the boundaries and definitions of locality, it’s undeniable that the explosion of small breweries across the country has had profound effects in their respective communities: new jobs, new tax revenue, new meeting spaces, new products, new brands. Many of the breweries opened in the last five years are fiercely local and go to great lengths to identify their fledgling brand with their state, city, even neighborhood.

The praxis of this association opens up fertile ground for collaboration, both between breweries themselves and purveyors of food, beverage, and consumables of all types. In central Ohio specifically, craft beer and specialty coffee have achieved a certain symbiosis, one that enriches both scenes and deepens their connections to the communities they’re helping to define.

I spoke with brewers at several of the region’s best craft breweries, as well as representatives from some of Columbus’ best specialty coffee roasters, to get a sense of how these collaborations work, and how the intersection of craft beer and specialty coffee affects the local culture of both. The results were wide-ranging, detailed and engaging; the first of these conversations is below.

Brad and the brewers at Jackie O’s have been at the forefront of innovation and experimentation in Ohio beer.”

I’d say Jackie O’s is the best brewery in Ohio. But then, I’m hardly impartial: I started school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in the fall of 2005, months before O’Hooley’s, my favorite dive in town, went under and reopened as Jackie O’s that December. A duo of local entrepreneurs took the failing brewpub (O’Hooley’s beers were, even in those heady and less jaded times, pretty universally regarded as bad and getting worse) and, with the help of talented homebrewer Brad Clark (now Head of Brewing Operations), created a business that has both revitalized and revolutionized beer in Southern Ohio.

In the succeeding 11 years, Brad and the brewers at Jackie O’s have been at the forefront of innovation and experimentation in Ohio beer: I recall having my first Jackie O’s sour during Ohio Brew Week in the summer of 2007, and not knowing what to think of it.

Times have changed, and so have tastes. Today, the Jackie O’s barrel aging and sour beer programs are the best in the state, routinely producing some of the Midwest’s most sought-after barrel aged beers, as well as authentic, mixed-fermentation sours and wild ales that stand head and shoulders above the mass of kettle-soured goses and Berliner Weisses that now crowd store shelves.

Between the original Union Street brewpub (amidst whose inlaid wood and copper bartop my heart shall forever reside) and the newer and newly-expanded Campbell Street production facility, Jackie O’s produces a dizzying number of different beers, made with an incredible array of adjuncts, spices, and flavorings, many sourced from within Athens county and otherwise around the state.

One of those sourcing partners, Stauf’s Roasting, based in Grandview, Ohio – a tiny Columbus near-burb – provides the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee for Jackie O’s prized Champion Ground, a bourbon barrel aged imperial coffee stout. Stauf’s coffee made its way into Champion Ground, Brad Clark says, because he had a name in mind.

Eva Deitch / Good Beer HuntingThe joy of the right bean, paired with the right hops, can lift us.

“Champion Ground is a play on the popular reggae cry ‘champion sound,” Clark told me recently. “We listen to a lot of reggae in the brewery, and it’s something I’d heard a lot and thought of the pun. Originally Champion Ground was brewed as an imperial stout that was supposed to be a collaboration with Redstone Meadery out in Colorado, but that didn’t work out due to some regulatory issues. So I had this imperial stout that had been aging in bourbon barrels for ten months, and I had this name kicking around, and that’s when the opportunity presented itself. I wanted to use the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee to go with the reggae theme.” Clark quickly discovered that Blue Mountain is expensive and available somewhat seasonally; after a little searching, he was able to source some green, unroasted beans online.

For guidance in roasting the beans, he turned to Constantine Faller, a longtime fixture in the Athens community and creator of Athens’ Own, a community organization focused on promoting sustainability and quality local goods. Faller also founded Dawn Chorus coffee, an Athens roaster that supplies the coffee for Jackie O’s perennial draft favorite (and brand new canned winter seasonal) Java the Stout. “Constantine is my local go-to guy for any coffee questions; he told me that for what I wanted to do, I should send it to Stauf’s, because those guys know their shit.” There were other roasters closer to home, but Faller told Clark that Stauf’s was his best bet for a small custom roast.

When I talked to Clark recently, he’d just come from an espresso tasting at Stuaf’s flagship cafe in Grandview: “When I want something very specific or I’m dealing with a higher end product like these barrel aged stouts, I always turn to Stauf’s to figure out how to get what I want, coffee-wise.”

Regarding the coffee for Champion Ground, Clark opted for a coffee unlike the darker, roastier ones he tends to prefer to drink: “That’s a lighter, City roast. The imperial stout that would become Champion Ground was already fairly roasty, as well as fairly tannic from its year spent in the bourbon barrels. So I was looking for a less roasty coffee with a low tannic quality, but something that would have those very rich classic coffee notes; we ended up with a very caramelly, nutty note in those beans which came through in the beer beautifully.”

While the first batch of Champion Ground had been conditioned on whole beans, Clark said they regularly experiment with infusion methods for Jackie O’s coffee beers. “I just picked up a coarse ground, darker roast coffee for this upcoming batch of Bourbon Barrel Vanilla Coffee Dark Apparition, hoping for some bigger coffee character to match up with the bigger character of that beer."

On the variety and flavor possibilities in using specialty coffee in beer, Clark was expansive: “Some coffees give off very nice berry and fruit notes, and with those fruitier ones I find that sometimes the crystal malt – especially if you go a little darker, like 45-60L range and beyond – actually start to get a little raisiny. In combination with the fruity or berry-like coffee, it creates this neat interplay of sweet and fruity, which can push the flavor profile toward more a cherry. You can coax out a rounder, more defined fruit note this way."

At first I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea, but it’s really tasty and fun and people dig it.”

Beyond Champion Ground and Java the Stout, coffee works its way into many Jackie O’s beers. With both a production brewery and the beloved original brewpub, Clark and company have enough space to spread their wings and experiment.

Liam McDonald, head brewer at the uptown brewpub, created Cool Beans, an American blonde ale conditioned on a continually changing lineup of coffees. It was an immediate hit, and, Clark told me, has become the brewpub’s best seller: “This was Liam’s first recipe of his own; he sources all the coffee for it. It’s got some 2-row and a little Maris Otter for malt complexity, as well as some oats and Cara 45 or 10. It’s sweeter, softer and toasty, with a little Cascade hops for some citrus fruit notes. The base beer stays the same, but the coffee is always different. Some are citrusy, some are fruity, floral, some are really big and roasty coffee bombs.”

While acknowledging that Cool Beans is a great beer, Clark was somewhat more agnostic about pale coffee beers generally: “There’s a level of gimmick to it, I believe. At first I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea, but it’s really tasty and fun and people dig it. I still haven’t had a coffee IPA I really like; the bitterness of the hops and the coffee often really butt heads, I think."

Flavor is central to a lot of Clark’s thinking about beer, and sourcing local ingredients allows him to add character and terroir to the beers produced at Jackie O’s. “Sourcing ingredients and adjuncts from Athens county and southeast Ohio allows us to create something that’s intimately ours and unique to this place. Some of our big triumphs in local sourcing have been the black walnuts in Oil of Aphrodite – I’m kind of becoming known as a nut brewer, I guess. Also New Growth – our spruce tip IPA and spring seasonal, where we used primarily spruce tips from the Jackie O’s farm [in Athens county] and from some neighbor’s trees, as well."

Athens is a beautiful, idiosyncratic and isolated place, situated near the center of its eponymous rural county about 90 minutes southeast of Columbus. I asked Clark what he thought of the locality of the brewery, nearly eleven years on. “Being in Athens has completely crafted me and has consequently crafted the beer personality of Jackie O’s. I only had maybe 25 batches of homebrew under my belt when I took over the operation at Jackie O’s, and they were all extract brews. My first all grain was on the former O’Hooley’s seven barrel system. For two years, I was the only brewer in town – literally. I could go to Marietta and talk to Kelly [Sauber, then at Marietta Brewing Company], or I could go to Columbus Brewing Company and talk to [Eric] Bean, or go to Barley’s or maybe Elevator, but for the most part I was living in a vacuum. I kind of learned what to do through trial and error…"

But growing up in Athens also meant connections for Clark: "In that community, and becoming more attuned to it, seeing all of the entrepreneurs, the movements in sustainability, the locavore movement, the farmers markets – it all kinda pushed you to be a little freer, a little stranger. That all plays into what I do quite a bit. By February 2013, when we started brewing at the production facility, I believe that our identity was sealed. Now we’re just trying to dial it in and make it better, riffing off of things, but still being both on our own and embraced and nurtured by Athens.”

Eva Deitch / Good Beer HuntingAt Chicago's Uppers & Downers, coffee and beer make love.

Mark Swanson, president of Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, also managed to flourish in a vacuum. Founded in 1988, Stauf’s was the first specialty coffee roaster in central Ohio, and is one of those local stalwarts so firmly enmeshed in the fabric of the city that one may overlook them in the constant churn of the new and exciting. While Brioso’s 15 years in business might otherwise make them the doyen of the Columbus coffee scene, they’re youngsters compared to Stauf’s. “When I started,” Swanson laughed, “there was no such thing as ‘specialty’ coffee; it was ‘gourmet.’”

Stauf’s connection to local beers stretches back to the early 2000s when, Swanson recalled, one of Columbus’ oldest breweries approached them about working together. “We used to do a yearly or bi-yearly Kona coffee stout with Scott Francis at Barley’s. Scott is an old friend of mine; we first collaborated on a beer in 2004 or ’05. So collaborating with brewers wasn’t necessarily new to us. But the collaborations with Brad at Jackie O’s have been really exciting – Champion Ground is a world class beer, and it’s awesome to have our coffee associated with something like that.”

Although as noted above, Clark sourced the first batch of green Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee himself and then took it to Stauf’s for roasting, Swanson said that they now both source and roast the beans for Champion Ground and some other Jackie O’s beers for the brewers.

Sourcing small batches and creating custom roasts is a significant part of Stauf’s business, Swanson said: “It’s not typical, but not that unusual. Like right now we’re doing a project with Engineers Without Borders, and they’re working on a co-op in Guatemala helping with land use and water sustainability. They brought in a bunch of coffee through an importer that we then bought and roasted for them and donated back to the organization; they’re selling it as a fundraiser for their work in these small communities in rural Guatemala.”

The prized Jamaican coffee must be sourced through specific avenues. “I really only buy from Wallingford Estates – for the money it’s the best you can get. The price of Blue Mountain is driven up a lot by all of the futures that different groups own on it, but the coffee is also expensive due to the nature of how it’s grown – very high, like 6000 feet above sea level, and the coffee is also in very high demand and hard to get. A lot of the coffee is spoken for before it’s grown and harvested, which makes it rare, expensive and hard to get. But I know someone who brings in an occasional barrel and gives me a line on it whenever she does.”

The wine part speaks to the earth: how and where the coffee’s grown, the actual business of agriculture, and how those factors come through in the flavor of the coffee.”

Regarding the intersection of coffee and beer, Swanson sees many epicurean commonalities. “The really cool things about coffee are a nice meeting of the elements of beer and wine. The wine part speaks to the earth: how and where the coffee’s grown, the actual business of agriculture, and how those factors come through in the flavor of the coffee. All the olfactory sensations you get on a coffee farm can show up directly in the eventual coffee in your cup. But then you roast the green beans, and you’re caramelizing sugar, which, even in the lightest roasts, produces a nice toasty note that complements malt [which is also kilned and goes through its own similar caramelization of sugars]. So there’s a confluence in coffee of a lot of things that happen in wine and beer – though I won’t say coffee goes well with wine, it certainly goes well with beer."

Swanson tended to think darker roasts played well in the beer arena: “Because in the beer you want a real coffee flavor, I think you do generally want a slightly darker roast to get those toasty flavors that people expect. We carry a lot of lighter roasts that are a lot more fruity and have less of the chocolate flavors associated with sugar caramelization. The coffee we’ve roasted for brewers we’ve tended to go a little darker, like Full City, just to get a little more of that classic ‘coffee’ flavor. Regardless of how they’re using it, making a toddy and adding it to the beer or steeping the beans in the tank, we find those roasts present a little more classically as ‘coffee’ in the beer.”

 “Collaboration” in beer, as in all things, has situational meaning: it can be dynamic and thoughtful, or perfunctory and superficial. Among the brewers and roasters I spoke with, there was always a desire to more deeply intermingle the threads of their respective arts and bodies of knowledge, regardless of the particulars of their collaborative process.

As more innovative and experimental coffee and beer collaborations appear on the scene, and more venues –like the upcoming Uppers & Downers festival curated by Good Beer Hunting in Chicago – come about to showcase them, one can perhaps get a glimpse of the dialectic shaping specialty coffee, craft beer, and the market for both.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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