You know those people that can’t take anything at face value, the ones that always have to take things too far and go to extremes, have to know everything about something, become completely involved in their latest interest before flitting on to the next thing? Well, I’m probably one of those people. Actually no, I am one of those people. I couldn’t take up jogging without challenging myself to run a marathon, watch a film without seeing the rest of the trilogy or drink a beer without understanding how it’s made.
There! I’ve said it.
And this is why I stop myself before it’s too late. I don’t drink much wine or whisky because I know what would happen if I really got into them. The same goes for tea and coffee; reading the back of that packet is the first step on a slippery slope, before you know it you’re researching grind granularity and optimum brewing temperature. Too much money, too much time, too much liquid to consume!
I've always enjoyed good coffee though; after dinner with some dark chocolate, first thing in the morning with a bacon sandwich or as a flavour characteristic in beer. Whether it comes from beans added to the mash, espresso added to tank or just heavily kilned malt, I can't think of a single beer with coffee flavour that isn't dark in appearance. Well, at least not until I heard about Mikkeller Koppi and Kernel Brewery Coffee IPA; beers deliberately attempting to fuse the striking flavour of American hops with artisan coffee. The former was brewed in collaboration with Swedish roasters Koppi and uses a combination of Tomahawk hops and Ethiopian Guji Natural coffee beans, whereas the latter was made in partnership with Square Mile Coffee Roasters of London and features a coffee from the same region called Suke Quto.
The battle of appearance is an easy win for Kernel, pin-bright with a fluffy white head, dismissing the murky haze of the Mikkeller offering with little effort. Koppi has an aroma that's bursting with coffee notes, like wetted coffee grounds, used and allowed to cool, rather than the smell you'd associate with freshly brewed coffee. In the mouth it has a thick texture, milky and creamy, smooth, something that really works well against the coffee flavour. And then in the background lurks some distant hoppy fruit, locked out by a caffeine hit squad no doubt, forced to play second fiddle to masses of coffee flavour, fresh and zingy and light rather than roasty and burnt, exactly like a mug of coffee would taste.
The Kernel is a different beast entirely. Almost the polar opposite in fact. Its aroma is packed full of fruity hops, citrus and pine; it jumps out at you as a fantastic IPA before a slight hint of coffee appears. The same is true of the flavour, it’s like when Equatorial Guinea decided that Mr Moussambani should definitely enter the Olympic 100m swimming race; by the time the coffee flavour crosses the line, the hops have got out and hit the showers. But I don’t mean to sound negative here, the subtlety of the coffee flavour is great, it means it can work off the hop flavour rather than clash with it. The Kernel beer is thinner and drier than Koppi and the long coffee finish works well with that to add an extra dimension to the bitterness of the beer.
On paper, the idea of a coffee IPA is a stupid one; how could those two flavours ever co-exist? But both these beers are great, completely different, but totally delicious in their own way. I loved the full-on coffee hit of the Mikkeller but the subtlety of the Kernel was fantastic too. It would be great to see a beer that combines both elements and finds the middle ground; in-your-face fruity coffee being balanced out by assertive hopping.