If you squint a little, it’s easy to see how similar the worlds of beer and coffee truly are. For much of the 20th century in the U.S., these industries were dominated by major manufacturers, who over time whittled consumer options down to a handful of bland brands.
When I was a kid, coffee and beer for the family meant Folgers and Coors Light purchased from our local bodega or supermarket. But things started to change in obvious ways at the turn of the millennium. All of sudden, it felt like there was a cresting wave of new craft breweries, ready to shun the “macrobrews” of Miller and Anheuser-Busch by offering flavorful varietals that many had never experienced. At the same time, the “third wave” of coffee exploded across America, bolstered by debate around the ethics of mass-produced beans and the dream of premium coffee with diverse aromas, flavors and origins.
The phenomenon may have been coincidental, but there’s a reason why coffee geeks and beer nerds get along so well today: Both worlds are fascinated by how natural fruit and grain can transform into such complex drinks, and how small tweaks in process lead to major shifts in flavor and style.
Unsurprisingly, there are a number of excellent coffee-infused beers on the market today, especially in the form of hefty, dark-as-night coffee stouts and porters. But that’s old news compared to the combo that feels cutting-edge (if not outright wrong): Putting a shot of espresso straight into a pint of light-hued beer.
It’s something that never crossed my mind until I saw a recent TikTok from the guys behind Clawhammer Supply, a beer-brewing equipment shop that has won fans on social media through their various experiments. In the clip, we see a shot of chilled espresso being layered on top of a glass of nitro cream ale, and the pairing is jokingly referred to as a “new style” of beer dubbed the “Screamer.”
The disbelieving commenters had the usual to say (a typical take: “I don’t know what this is, but stop trying to make it happen”). But for each hate-reaction, there were others extolling their own love of “boffee,” praising it as the breakfast of champions and a legitimate gourmand treat.
Could they be right? There is, after all, a lot to love conceptually about combining beer and coffee. It’s basically a low-grade speedball, mixing the stimulant hit of caffeine with the mellow vibes of alcohol. And there’s a long history of people using beer as a canvas for exploring the palate: I think of the Irish “half-and-half,” made by gently layering malty Guinness over a much lighter lager, or even the German tradition of adding sweet syrups to Berliner Weisse, transforming an ale into a fruit-forward cocktail bolstered with layers of malt and bitterness.
To learn more about this phenomenon, I fished through social media, looking for evidence of other fans. One intrepid Redditor dubbed u/tazack noted that the trick of adding espresso worked with basically any kind of beer, be it an IPA, wheaty Blue Moon or even just a regular ol’ Coors. Elsewhere, I spotted a coffee account from Thailand experimenting by pouring espresso on a pint of iced light beer (a big no-no in American bars, but fairly normal across Southeast Asia). I don’t understand Thai, but by the looks of it, it was a hit:
Hopeful but slightly nervous, I picked up a few different beers of my own and ordered several shots of espresso from my local coffee shop. The beers comprised a classically hoppy Pilsner, a sweeter, darker ale and — God help me — a can of Coors Light. I dropped a single shot of espresso into each, pouring it over the back of a spoon to accentuate the layering of two colors in the glass. Then I took three big sips, each separated by a gulp of water to cleanse the palate.
Lo and behold: The combination works. My favorite was the blend of ale and coffee, which swirled into a symbiosis of fruit, spice and earth. But shockingly, even the Coors Light was improved by espresso, evolving into a sort of cheater black lager that I’d happily quaff on a spring afternoon.
So yes, you should absolutely be putting espresso in your beer, but there’s one problem: Brewing espresso isn’t exactly friendly for home cooks, unless you happen to be a passionate weirdo with your own home setup. Beyond that, as a snotty former barista, it’s worth noting that espresso is notorious for “dying” in flavor when chilled down. It’s the main reason you never pour espresso over ice, as doing so develops nasty quinic acid and robs the coffee of all its sweetness. That’s why I think the best solution is to use a shot of cold-brew concentrate, either store-bought or (preferably) homemade, instead of spending several bucks to procure a shot of espresso somewhere else.
One side effect of this experimentation is that I’m now fascinated by putting coffee into other carbonated beverages. Turns out, putting coffee into Coke and root beer and Sprite just… works. Is it stupid? Is it alchemy? I have no idea, but now I’m tempted to slip some cold-brew into a damn gin-and-tonic, just to see where this rabbit hole goes.