In terms of popular beer adjuncts, there’s likely none more universally appreciated than coffee. Who among us doesn’t appreciate the pleasures that a coffee addition can bring to styles as naturally complementary as stout? Even in seemingly contradictory styles such as IPA or kolsch, we’ve seen coffee work a peculiar style of magic. It’s one of the wonders of coffee as a substance—in addition to being the Earth’s second most valuable commodity after only oil, coffee seems to possess an ever-expanding utility. Decades after it first became a popular addition to certain beer styles, we’re still finding new ways to utilize it in the brewhouse.
With that said, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a brewery suggesting coffee as a replacement for hops before. Suffice to say, this new release from New Jersey’s Carton Brewing Co. couldn’t help but catch my eye, for the way it attempts to use coffee in methods that are truly novel.
That beer is Balinator, described via its label by Carton as a “hop-less doppelbock,” using the traditional “ator” suffix. Instead of balancing sweetness in the classical manner, via hop-derived bitterness, Carton has instead attempted to do so by using Bali Blue Moon coffee beans in three distinct ways. As they put it:
To augment this notion, we brewed a proper doppel, subbing out hops with Bali beans. At the beginning of the boil, where hops would temper the malt’s sweetness with a bitter touch, we used raw green beans. At whirlpool, where hops would pull in spicy direction, we used ground, dark roast. Finally, for dry additions, where hops would layer fruit, we used medium roasted whole beans.
At least that’s the idea. Let’s give it a taste and see how well they pulled it off.
On the nose, Balinator is pleasantly coffee forward. It presents notes of roasted nuts and cacao-nib like cocoa nuttiness, with hints of toasty bread and a bit of spice that is fairly similar to cinnamon or cardamom. There’s definitely a light “Turkish coffee” quality here, and I dig it.
On the palate, Balinator is smooth of texture but a bit thin of body, which I suppose makes sense—it is a lager, after all. Nutty flavors of Colombian-like coffee are fairly expressive but not overbearing. Malt complexity, on the other hand, is a bit harder to root out—these flavors are a tad subtle, which makes the moderate assertiveness of coffee stand out all the more. The 8percent ABV is well hidden, although it slowly does emerge over time, showing slightly vinous, cherry-like fruitiness.
A video explaining the goal of Balinator says “ultimately, it shouldn’t taste more like coffee than doppelbock, or more like doppelbock than coffee.” I would argue that in this sense, this beer hasn’t quite been dialed in to where they wanted it, because it’s still ultimately a profile that is defined by various aspects of coffee. This isn’t expressly a bad thing by any means—but it’s not a 50/50 split. Most coffee beers simply aren’t, because consumers want their money’s worth when they see the word “coffee.”
As for how the coffee works in terms of replacing hops, it’s a bit hard to say. It’s not as if doppelbock is a style that typically contains an assertive hop presence, so you don’t find yourself missing hops as a flavor component. Nor is this beer unbalanced in favor of sweetness, as you might fear without the use of bittering hops. Rather, it’s only mild-to-moderate in terms of apparent residual sweetness—on point, as far as a doppelbock goes. So in terms of executing a balanced bitter/sweet profile using coffee rather than hops, you’d have to say Carton succeeded.
In the end, I leave this tasting curious of what other applications one might have for coffee in brewing. What would a beer taste like if it was bittered with green coffee, but not given any roasted coffee additions later on for flavor? How does bitterness imparted by coffee compare to bitterness imparted by hops? There are clearly plenty more avenues here to explore.
Brewery: Carton Brewing Co.
City: Atlantic Highlands, NJ
Availability: Limited, 16 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.