The bigger a craft brewery gets, the more it usually tries to streamline its operations, brewing and packaging beers in a uniform manner that keeps things simple. But not Epic Brewing, which was founded in Salt Lake City and operates its major production facility in Denver. The company has always brewed and bottled a mind-bending array of options, squeezing as many of them as possible onto liquor-store shelves and into restaurant and bar tap handles.
But its latest project is the most complicated one yet — requiring brewery staffers to drink plenty of coffee in the morning and all throughout the day: cold, hot and steeped, in cups...and in beer.
Son of a Baptist, as the beer is called, is an 8 percent ABV imperial coffee stout that is being brewed with more than twelve coffees from at least twelve different roasters, each one from a separate market across the country where Epic distributes its beers.
“The beer world is becoming uber-competitive, so you have to develop an expertise in something and be able to do something that others can’t. We call it creating ‘defensible space’ in the market,” says Epic national sales director Darin McGregor. “It’s a friggin’ logistical nightmare, but the payoff will be what we learn about coffee and how it adds to the flavor and aroma of beer.”
In other words, Epic wants to become the go-to brewery when it comes to coffee beers — a style that has been growing in popularity and is particularly hot now at the beginning of 2016.
The project was fueled by the public’s interest in Big Bad Baptist, Epic’s award-winning flagship imperial coffee stout that is aged in barrels. Epic has worked with a variety of coffee roasters to brew Big Bad Baptist, and it numbers each batch so that beer drinkers can go to the brewery’s website and figure out what coffee is in each bottle they are trying.
“We started to branch out with different coffee roasters and developed a long list of people who wanted to work with us, and they would send us different coffee. But as we got better and better at figuring out how to use it, we realized that because of the size and complexity of Big Bad Baptist, it really worked best with the same or similar medium to dark beans,” McGregor says. BBB is a huge, 12 percent ABV imperial stout that is made with coffee as well as cacao nibs.
Even so, the dramatic differences between the beans were intriguing to the staff at Epic, and they started talking about ways to use other kinds of roasts in a beer where the nuances wouldn’t be lost. “We developed the idea to build a similar beer from the ground up, with the sole purpose of highlighting coffee beans and different roasts," he explains.
So as McGregor traveled the country for his job, he began introducing himself to small-batch artisan coffee roasters in different cities, trying their wares and reading coffee blogs. Over time, he developed a network and eventually asked each coffee purveyor to send him a light roast, a dark roast and a roast that the coffee maker felt was a signature roast special to that purveyor.
Then a sensory tasting panel of Epic employees began trying each one in warm cuppings, cold steeps and in other ways, so that they could see what brought out different flavors.
The verdicts weren’t always unanimous, but Epic moved forward with the winners in twelve markets: Novo Coffee in Denver; Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in Columbus, Ohio; Rowster Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Red e Cafe in Portland, Oregon; Cultivar Coffee in Dallas, Texas; Caffe Ibis in Logan, Utah; Conduit Coffee in Seattle, Washington; EVP Coffee in Madison, Wisconsin; Misha’s Coffee in Alexandria, Virginia; Snake River Roasting in Jackson, Wyoming; Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa, California; and Larry’s Coffee in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Epic has also struck a deal to do a thirteenth batch of Son of a Baptist with beans that were aged in tequila barrels by Hotbox Roasters in Longmont, a company owned by Oskar Blues Brewery.
So far, Epic has brewed ten to thirty barrels of most of these and distributed them in kegs for bar and restaurant accounts in each market — so that the areas around Columbus, Ohio, for example, have the Stauf’s version. Epic also brewed about sixty barrels of the Colorado batch, which has been packaged in 22-ounce bomber bottles and is currently available for sale around Denver.
The eventual goal is to make larger batches of each version of Son of a Baptist this fall, can them and distribute them in the corresponding market, although McGregor says some of the markets have asked if they can try some of the other batches as well. It’s likely that the tap room in Denver may host some events at which coffee beer fans will be able to try and compare multiple versions.
All of the information about each batch — including details about the roaster and the specific beans that were used — will be available online so that drinkers can read about them.
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Although the logistics of making twelve batches of a similar beer with twelve different roasts and then distributing each in a different market has been complicated, it has also been fun, McGregor says. And Epic has the ability to do it more easily than some other breweries.
“We are neither large nor small, as a brewery. We are somewhere in the middle, and we are embracing that with this project,” he explains. In addition, since Epic has two breweries, one with a ten-barrel system in Utah and one with a twenty-barrel system in Denver, the company has a lot of flexibility when it comes to brewing schedules and the size of each batch.
And Epic might make things even more complicated by adding new roasters in some of its markets. “There are lot of roasters we want to work with,” McGregor says.
“It’s been education. It really has,” he adds. “We thought we had a pretty good coffee education because of Big Bad Baptist, but we are realizing there was a lot we didn’t know.”