It’s a fairly universal problem: Is it too early for a beer? Too late for a coffee? Enter coffee beer. Lucky for us, Columbus is home to some of the best coffee beer around.
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing was recently awarded a coveted silver medal at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, whose winners are recognized world-wide as the best of the best. Clear Sky Daybreak, its best-selling unusual coffee beer, has made Chris Davison, the brewery’s head brewmaster, a sort of local celebrity among craft beer enthusiasts and beer buyers.
“People who don’t know much about beer know about this competition,” he said. “Members of our staff have had relatives congratulate them and beer buyers all over town are yelling ‘congratulations!’ to our drivers.”
With nearly 9,500 entries from 2,700 breweries and only about 300 awards to go around, the award from the Great American Beer Festival is an important win for Columbus’s Wolf’s Ridge Brewing. “The competition keeps getting fiercer,” Davison said. “Wolf’s Ridge has been entering the competition since 2014, and this is our first win.”
Davison is extremely passionate about his craft. He’s also open to experimentation. “The first time I wanted to experiment (with coffee beer), I just grabbed some coffee from the restaurant and it produced really good beer,” he said. He decided he wanted to know more about the coffee he was using and figure out what would be best for the beer, so he reached out to Dave Forman and Mick Evans of Columbus-based One Line Coffee. The men have become friends and collaborators over the years, and Davison says the partnership is to credit for the award-winning brew.
Coffee is complex, said Forman, director of coffee for One Line. “Within a cup of coffee, there can be up to 800 distinct molecular structures we can taste and smell. A lot are shared with fruits and flowers, things like that,” he said. “When we taste an apple, we taste malic acid and we associate that flavor with apple, but it can also be in coffee. I’ve literally had a coffee that tastes more like a carnation than a peony. That’s always been the way we’ve talked about coffee. Finding a brewer that understands that was awesome.”
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Fortunately for coffee beer lovers, the feeling is mutual. “They work with farms with good practices, and it is really very high-quality coffee,” Davison said. “In general, we are very fortunate to be working with One Line Coffee. [Our collaboration] started because it was the convenient answer, but they truly do make some of the best coffee in the country,” he said. “The beer would not be what it is without them, their support, and knowledge.”
Coffee beers are typically dark, heavy and robust. What makes Clear Sky Daybreak stand out is its blonde appearance and slightly shifting flavor profile. “Because it’s not a Starbucks coffee or something like that, the exact same bean is not always available. So for Clear Sky Daybreak, which we are brewing year-round, it can sometimes have a more chocolatey or nutty profile and other times it’s more fruity and mellow,” Davison said. “We do try to have consistency in the beer, and the consumer really likes a medium-roast flavor that’s a little more chocolate-forward than fruity.”
Achieving that perfect flavor profile was not a simple feat. It took Davison’s persistence and some tweaking. “We tried adding cold brew; we tried crushing the beans and sieving it. There are all kinds of ways you can edit,” he said. “The profile I prefer comes from using the whole bean. That combination helps extract the oil from the coffee bean, so you get the flavor and aroma without the acidity. It’s a smooth flavor.”
In the award-winning beer, One Line’s Colombia El Progreso coffee beans really shine. “What I really love is that if someone is drinking the beer and asking about it, they can get a cup of the coffee right now [from Wolf’s Ridge Brewing’s restaurant],” Davison said. Additionally, Wolf’s Ridge uses only real Madagascar Vanilla beans in the beer. “They are expensive, but we have strong feelings about how real vanilla is better. It makes almost any beer better,” he said. The high-quality vanilla adds a hint of sweetness, without being “sweet” per se.
Both Davison and Forman says they feel honored to have been part of the creation of this popular beer. “We are super happy for them, and they are one of my favorite customers because of all the collaborative work we do,” Forman said. “If Wolf’s Ridge is successful, then that’s good for us, too.” Davison said he’s humbled by the win, given the tough competition. “We put an incredible amount of passion and thought into this. Since I have been a professional brewer, it’s something I’ve dreamt about.”
Visit Wolf’s Ridge Brewing at 215 N 4th St. For hours and operations, visit wolfridgebrewing.com.