Columbus, Ohio has a specificity problem. Stray very far from the smallish core of the city, and you find yourself in a seemingly endless fractal of shopping plazas, big box stores, chain restaurants and parking lots. There are many places in Columbus where one could wake up on the street, look around, and discover virtually no distinguishing features that might indicate location.
Even its lack of particularity is unspecific: this is most of America, after all. “There’s no ‘there’ there,” my father says.
Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing on 4th street in downtown Columbus, wants to make beer with that ‘there’ my dad is missing – specific and particularly flavorful beer.
He started out in the industry at nearby Columbus Brewing Company in 2012, and since joining WRB, Davison has turned the brewing program there from the acclaimed restaurant's sidekick into a major player in central Ohio beer. In September of 2016, Wolf's Ridge Brewing was ranked seventh on a list of Top New Craft Vendors published by the Brewer’s Association, based on supermarket sales of package craft beer.
A large part of that success has been due to the popularity of Clear Sky Daybreak, their coffee vanilla cream ale available in bottles throughout central Ohio. That beer, with its light body, balanced sweetness, and bright coffee flavor has become the brewery’s de facto flagship. Davison’s approach to coffee in beer is thoughtful and specific; he sources particular beans in pursuit of particular flavors to complement his beers. In the process, he’s made WRB beer synonymous with coffee – good coffee, roasted locally.
“I’ve found that a lot of people who may not drink coffee on its own really like coffee beer,” Davison told me recently. “That, to me, plays into why Clear Sky Daybreak has been so successful – the beer to me smells and tastes like a bag of fresh coffee beans, rather than grounds, while still being recognizably a beer. The taste and aroma of the coffee isn’t harsh, like it can be in some stouts and other beers that use coffee mostly to boost roastiness or give the beer an acrid quality.”
Davison attributes Clear Sky Daybreak’s clarity of flavor to the high quality of the coffees used in its creation – all of the coffee used in Wolf’s Ridge beers comes from nearby One Line Coffee, a roaster and purveyor of high quality specialty coffees with cafes downtown and in the Short North.
“Using single origin, specialty coffee definitely makes a big difference in the final quality of what’s in the glass, and helps prevent some of the off flavors you get in coffee beers, specifically the green pepper quality,” Davison says. “We use light roast coffees from One Line, which preserves more of the nuance of the bean. The balance of flavors in Clear Sky Daybreak is delicate; the beer is light so it’s a great showcase for coffees with a lot of floral and fruity notes."
There are other aspects to pursue in your coffee choice. "We’ve found that the coffees that work best in that beer have sweeter notes that complement the vanilla," Davison continued, "the more fruity and floral a coffee you use, the less people tend to perceive it as coffee. I really like experimenting with these lighter roast, higher acid coffees, though – sometimes I’ll throw coffee into our helles lager, and the fruity and floral coffees are great for that. We haven’t done many light roasts in Dire Wolf [our imperial stout], but it’s always interesting when we do – it doesn’t always present obviously as coffee, but some light roasts add a lot of sweetness from the bean, sometimes they add red fruit or berry notes."
There are some easy guideposts: "Generally we use lighter roasts for lighter beers, and darker roasts for stouts and darker beers.”
Wolf’s Ridge’s willingness to experiment has been helpful because the coffees themselves often change. A curious side effect of partnering with a local specialty roaster like One Line Coffee is that the beans are subject to availability dictated by complex and variable market forces.
One Line sources their coffee ethically, seasonally, and in small batches. When a favored coffee allotment dries up, it’s gone – sometimes permanently. Davison has had to be flexible in choosing beans and blends to use in his beers; thus the variability of Clear Sky Daybreak’s coffee character.
“There’s no one real solution for Daybreak,” he said. “Roasts and beans change in the beer as availability from One Line changes. It’s always high quality coffee, but not always the same coffee. I panicked a little when my old favorite blend for Daybreak ran out, but in cooperation with One Line we came up with another blend that worked well. It’s a collaborative process.”
Davison pointed to that process of collaboration as a major reason for sourcing the coffee locally: “If I run short of beans or have a new idea I want to work on right away, I can drive a mile down the road and try a new coffee or buy a bag of beans, or call the owners at One Line. It’s great to have that resource; they’re into it and want to help, and the reciprocal brand awareness helps us both.”
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing beers using One Line Coffee have always incorporated the OLC logo prominently on their packaging, including most recently War Mug, an innovative kettle sour ale brewed as a collaboration between WRB, OLC and Urban Artifact in Cincinnati. “I know some larger breweries use dedicated or proprietary blends from larger or national roasters, but I’d rather work with someone local, support the local economy, and hopefully some people who are into our beer will seek out the One Line shop and vice versa.”
Mick Evans, Director of Retail Operations at One Line Coffee in the Short North, agrees. “Coffee drinkers and beer drinkers come from similar demographics; for people who really get into coffee, it seems like beer is something they’re often already excited about, and vice versa.”
One Line’s connection to Wolf’s Ridge actually predates Davison’s hire; the Wolf’s Ridge Brewing restaurant has been serving OLC coffee since opening in 2013, and Evans was impressed that “very early on they decided to do it right, invest in the right equipment, and really prioritize quality coffee.” Davison very simply used OLC coffee in his first WRB coffee beers, like Dire Wolf, his acclaimed imperial stout, because it was the coffee on hand in the building. From that bit of serendipity grew a mutual admiration and fruitful collaborative relationship.
“Chris told us early on that he wanted to do some innovative things and experiment with coffee in lighter styles, not just throw dark, roasty coffees into dark, roasty beers,” Evans said of their initial conversations. “Chris would consult with us and come to cuppings and taste different coffees looking for the right flavor profile; it was very conscious and deliberate in terms of picking coffees that were harmonious with the beers he planned to brew.”
Asked what types of coffees seem to him to work best in beer, Evans laughed. “Really pretty much anything, depending on what you’re looking to do. Alcohol is such a good solvent for coffee solubles, we don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about the technical part of it, so we can concentrate on flavor."
"I don’t think there’s a perfect coffee, varietal or origin [that works universally]; it’s more about what the coffee beer is designed to do. If someone’s doing a pale or an IPA, I think a more acidic coffee profile is beneficial, since it will echo the bright character of the hops: citric and floral qualities, for example. So lighter roasts with higher acid tend to work well in pale beers; with darker beers, the opposite – you don’t want something that’s going to compete with the roasty or toasty notes of the beer, so we’d use a coffee that’s rounder and lower, with notes of caramel, nuts and chocolate.”
Evans was also effusive about the reciprocal benefits of the collaborations to both the OLC and WRB brands. He expressed to me his disappointment, as a beer consumer, with breweries that don’t go to the trouble to make the quality of the coffees they source an important component of their coffee beers: “We see in a lot of cases these coffee beers that make no mention of the specifics of the coffee itself – where are they getting this stuff? We don’t know, but it’s very likely they’re using coffee that is not specialty grade.”
Specialty coffee is a specific designation within the coffee industry, not a general term –˜ according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a coffee trade group, it refers to coffee that scores 80 or above on a 100 point scale used to evaluate flavor, aromatics, bean size and consistency, etc.
“Whenever the source of a coffee isn’t made known, I’d assume it’s commercial coffee, probably a blend, that’s not going to have specific character of the beans that comprise it," Evans said. "As a coffee consumer, I don’t trust the quality of coffee whose origin isn’t made known, so for me, the same thing applies to coffee beers."
"That’s why I get really frustrated when I see a coffee beer that makes no mention of the coffee used in it," said Evans emphatically. "It’s like going to a diner and getting whatever the fuck they’re brewing without knowing what it is. When the brewery doesn’t take the trouble to make known what coffee they’re using, I find that problematic.”