Brewing Beer With Coffee (Steeping Grounds or Adding Brewed/Instant)

Coffee beers hit that sweet spot of combining refreshing beer with the pick-me-up of caffeinated coffee. If you enjoy coffee beers, you may be considering brewing your own. It’s not as tricky as it sounds.

The best way to add coffee to beer is by brewing the coffee (hot brew, espresso shot, or cold brew) and adding it to your beer during bottling to dial in the perfect ratio of coffee to beer. Coffee can also be added during the boil, after the boil, or during fermentation for a subtler flavor.

Coffee can be intimidating with all of its styles, roast levels, and origins. How do you know what kind of coffee to pick or even what kind of beer to brew? What impact do different brew methods have on your finished product? Read on to find out more about coffee and best practices for incorporating it into your next homebrew recipe.

Can you brew beer with coffee?

Coffee beers really began to explode in the 1990s, when both craft beer and specialty coffee began to grow in popularity. Both coffee and beer production involves a lot of skill and responsible sourcing, making brewers and coffee roasters natural partners. 

Coffee can be added to beer – particularly dark ones – to enhance the bitter, roasted flavors of the brew. With the exception of whole beans, virtually every form of coffee can be used in homebrews, although freshly brewed coffee, espresso, and cold brew are the best choices and should be added either after the boil or during bottling.

A few of the most popular coffee beers are:

What kind of beers work best with added coffee?

Coffee and beer might not seem like the most obvious combination, and it’s not if you’re mentally trying to combine the dark, bitter beverage with a Pale Ale or a classic Pilsner.

The most traditional beer styles that go well with coffee are porters and stouts. This is because the toasted malts used in these styles are similar to the roasted flavors of coffee. This also means that these beers can become very strong in bitter, smoky flavors very easily.

More and more brewers are experimenting with adding coffee to other styles of beer, for example, Steel Hands Brewing Coffee Lager. 

What kind of coffee type or roast should you use?

There’s more to consider when it comes to coffee than most casual drinkers realize. Coffee professionals “cup” coffees to explore their many nuanced characteristics. The Specialty Coffee Association is a great resource for those looking to set up their own cuppings at home. 

It can be overwhelming to choose a coffee for a homebrew recipe. Rather than studying common characteristics between every coffee-producing country in the world, consider the following:

  • Roast level – The darker the coffee has been roasted, the more bitter, smoky flavors it will add to your beer. Sometimes, this may be desirable, but especially if you’re using toasted malts, beware of overdoing it. Lighter roasted coffees can add complex fruity notes to a beer while still maintaining subtle smokiness.
  • Processing method – Coffee beans are the seeds of coffee cherries, and processing refers to the method of separating the fruit and pulp from the seed. This process happens long before roasting, but can have a huge impact on the coffee’s final flavor. Most coffees are “washed,” meaning the fruit has been thoroughly washed off of them, making for a “clean” tasting cup. Naturally processed or semi-washed coffees let the fruit of the cherry ferment onto the seed before it’s removed. This means fruity, sometimes boozy flavor notes in the coffee itself.
  • Freshness – The fresher the coffee, the better! Avoid mass market coffees with no roast date on the bag. These are more likely to contribute flavors and aromas that are muted, or even worse, stale.
  • Whole bean – As soon as coffee is ground, it immediately begins to get stale. This is why it’s important to grind your beans right before you use them, whether it’s to brew a cup or to brew a beer. If you don’t have a coffee grinder, your local café will likely be happy to grind some fresh beans for you.
  • Origin – Coffee is produced in the area surrounding the equator, often called the “coffee belt.” It comes from many different varieties of coffee tree, which all contribute subtle and not-so-subtle characteristics to its flavor. Learn more about coffee origins and their history here.

Potential issues with adding coffee to beer

Coffee can quickly overpower the flavor of beer so it’s always best to be careful about how much you add. Dark roast coffee adds extra smoke to styles of beer that are sometimes already smoky, whereas lighter roasts can sometimes produce fruity or even sour flavors. 

To balance the bitterness of adding bitter coffee to a beer, increase your malts or sugars slightly.

How to add coffee flavor to homebrew beer

There are a lot of ways to brew coffee, and just as many ways to incorporate it into a beer recipe.

You can add coffee to your beer at one of three times:

  • During the boil – Adding coffee during the boil can mute its flavors a bit. Boiling it for too long can actually cause the coffee to begin to roast again, so it’s typically best to add it at the very end of the boil.
  • After the boil – You can add coffee after the boil, or even add a muslin bag filled with ground coffee directly into your fermenter to steep.
  • Before bottling – A great way to test varying levels of coffee flavor is to add it using an eyedropper to each bottle individually. 

Here are the best ways to brew beer with coffee:

  • Freshly brewed coffee or espresso
  • Cold-brewed coffee
  • Ground coffee
  • Roasted and toasted malts
  • Coffee extracts

Though all of these methods are valid, brewing with freshly brewed coffee, espresso, or cold brew is preferred.

Freshly brewed coffee or espresso

You can brew beer using a regular old cup of coffee you brewed in your home drip pot, or even shots of espresso from your local cafe (or from your own espresso machine if you’re really fancy!). 

How much to add

The amount of coffee you add will depend on your brew method. Espresso is more concentrated than coffee brewed in a drip pot, with a pour-over, or in a French press. 

When to add it

It’s common to add brewed coffee after the boil, or right before bottling.

Adding it right before bottling will bring out even more coffee flavor, whereas adding it before fermentation will make it more subtle.

Important notes and watch-outs

It’s important to note that espresso refers to the method of brewing using an espresso machine to force high-pressure water through a densely packed puck of finely ground coffee.

Simply buying a bag of beans labeled “espresso roast” and brewing them using a drip or pour-over method does not make espresso! 

If your recipe calls for espresso shots and you aren’t able to get them from a cafe nearby or pull them on a home espresso machine, your next best bet is to use concentrated cold brew (see below).

Espresso Stout recipe

This Espresso Stout Recipe is forgiving enough to accommodate most coffee brewing methods.

Ingredients:

  • 10.5 lb Pale Malt
  • 6 oz Black Patent Malt
  • 12 oz 80L Crystal Malt
  • 6 oz Flaked Barley
  • 0.5 lb Ground Coffee
  • 1.5 oz Cascade Hops (Bittering)
  • 0.5 oz Fuggles Hops (Aroma)
  • Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) Yeast

Method:

  1. Prepare coffee using your favorite method (espresso extract, drip, or cold water soak).
  2. Mash (infusion) at 154°F for 60 minutes.
  3. Sparge until you get about 6 gal of wort.
  4. Boil for 60 minutes, turn off heat, add aroma hops and prepare coffee.
  5. Cool wort and pitch yeast as usual.

Cold-brewed coffee

Cold brew coffee has been making a splash lately among coffee drinkers.

Most styles of cold brew involve steeping very coarsely ground beans in cold or room temperature water for 24 hours or so. 

Because of the long, slow extraction time, this results in a smooth brew with low acidity. 

How much to add

Start with 4 ounces of coarsely ground coffee and add enough water to fully saturate it. The more water you add, the more liquid you’ll be adding to your finished beer, the less liquid you add, the stronger and more concentrated your cold brew will be.

For extra-concentrated cold brew, start with 2-4 cups of water. Add more to thin it out. Let it sit for 12-24 hours, then strain out the grounds.

Remember: you don’t have to add every drop to your beer!

When to add it

Cold brew can be added either right before fermentation, or right before bottling.

Adding it before bottling will make the coffee flavor of your beer even more pronounced.

Important notes and watch-outs

You can purchase a cold brew system like a Toddy Cold Brew to make your job easier, but you can also cold brew coffee just by adding water straight to coarsely ground coffee, covering it, and leaving it overnight in the fridge.

If you do this, be sure you have a way to filter the coffee grounds out of the cold brew, to avoid unpleasant grittiness in your beer.

Dämmerung Coffee Stout recipe (using cold brew coffee)

This Dämmerung Coffee Stout recipe calls for adding cold brew to the finished beer while saving a bit of coffee to steep in the beer during fermentation.

Ingredients:

  • 5 lb (2.3 kg) Maris Otter
  • 2 lb (907 g) Munich malt
  • 1 lb (454 g) Chocolate malt
  • 1 lb (454 g) Victory malt
  • 8 oz (227 g) British Crystal 45L
  • 8 oz (227 g) Midnight Wheat
  • 1.5 oz (43 g) Fuggles [5% AA] at 60 minutes
  • 1 oz (28 g) Fuggles at flame-out
  • 0.5–1 lb (227–454 g) coarsely ground roasted coffee, post fermentation
  • Wyeast 1318 (London Ale III) Yeast

Method:

  1. Mill the grains and mix with 3.1 gallons of 163°F strike water to reach a mash temperature of 152°F. Hold this temperature for 60 minutes.
  2. Sparge the grains with 4.1 gallons and top up as necessary to obtain 6 gallons of wort.
  3. Boil for 60 minutes, following the hops schedule.
  4. After the boil, chill the wort to slightly below fermentation temperature, about 65°F. Aerate the wort with pure oxygen or filtered air and pitch yeast.
  5. Ferment at 66°F for 14 days. Allow the temperature to free-rise while making your cold-brew coffee addition: place ground coffee (minus 2–3 oz) in a sealable container and cover with water, steeping for 2–3 days. At the same time, put the remaining ground coffee in a muslin bag and steep in the beer.
  6. Remove the steeped grounds from the beer, then strain the cold-brew and add to taste into the finished beer.
  7. Cold crash, then bottle or keg the beer and carbonate to 2.25 volumes of CO2.

Ground coffee

Adding ground coffee to your boil brews the coffee in a way similar to the way you’d brew a cup of coffee at home.

How much to add

Depending on how much coffee flavor you want in your final product, as well as the styles of beer and coffee you’re using, start with just 2-4 ounces of coffee. Weigh the coffee after you grind as you’ll likely lose some during the grinding process.

When to add it

You can add ground coffee to a muslin sack along with your grains toward the end of the boil. This will mean some of the coffee flavor will boil off, so it’s not always the optimal way to add coffee to beer.

Important notes and watch-outs

Coffee is not meant to be boiled and boiling ground coffee can actually begin to re-roast the coffee itself, causing it to get even smokier. Use a light roast if you intend to add it during the boil.

Irregular Coffee Beer recipe (using ground coffee)

The recipe found here calls for adding ground coffee toward the end of the boil to make a Cream Ale – a style not often associated with coffee beers!

Ingredients:

  • 10lbs Pilsen malt
  • 1.5lbs Maize, flaked
  • 8oz Milk sugar (lactose)
  • 10g Warrior hops (60mins)
  • 5g Perle hops (30mins)
  • 3oz dark roast coffee, ground coarsely 
  • Joystick (A18) Imperial Yeast

Roasted and toasted malts

Base malts like wheat, barley, oats, and rye are heated, but not roasted. Roasting malt brings out more toasty, smoky flavors without adding coffee. Roasted malts also darken the color of your beer. You can buy toasted malts, or toast your own.

How much to add

The amount of toasted malt to use will depend on what style of beer you’re brewing. Especially if you’re adding coffee, keep the toasted malt to 10-15% of your grain bill.

When to add it

Add toasted malts to the boil the same way you would with base malts.

Important notes and watch-outs

If you toast your own malts, it’s easy to burn them. Start with a low oven temperature of 200-300°F and stir/check the malts every 15 minutes until you’ve reached the toastiness level you desire.

Galways Girl Stout recipe (using roasted malts)

The Galway Girl Stout recipe found here is a classic stout recipe using toasted malts.

Ingredients:

  • 23L (6 US Gallon)
  • 3 kg Maris Otter malt
  • 1 kg Wheat malt
  • 0.2 kg Munich malt
  • 0.5 kg Crystal 60 malt
  • 0.3 kg Black Patent malt
  • 0.3 kg Roasted barley
  • 0.5 kg Flaked oats
  • 0.23 kg Rice Hulls to avoid a stuck sparge

Method:

  1. Mash at 154°F for 60 minutes.
  2. Sparge with 170°F water and lauter slowly to avoid a stuck runoff.
  3. Boil for 75 minutes.
  4. Add 2 oz Golding (4.3%) then boil for 75 minutes.
  5. Add 1/2 tsp Irish moss then boil for 15 minutes.
  6. Add 0.6 oz Golding then boil for 5 minutes.
  7. Ferment with Irish Ale Yeast.

Coffee extracts

Coffee extract is commonly used in baking to add coffee flavor to desserts like Tiramisu. It can also be used as a substitute for vanilla extract. Coffee extract contains concentrated coffee and alcohol, so use sparingly.

How much to add

Because of its potency, a little goes a long way.

Some brewers recommend starting with 3-5 ounces for a 5-gallon batch. Coffee extract typically comes in a 2-ounce bottle, so you could start by adding just one bottle per 5 gallons to be safe.

When to add it

The flavors of coffee extract will boil off if you add them during the boil, so add it directly to your fermenter before bottling. To truly dial in your coffee flavor, use an eyedropper to add varying amounts directly to each bottle, and do a taste test once your beer has fermented. 

Important notes and watch-outs

Coffee extract is very potent and, like vanilla extract, has alcohol in it. Use it sparingly.

Christmas Coffee Stout recipe (using coffee extract)

This Christmas Coffee Stout is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with both vanilla bourbon extract and a whopping 8 ounces of coffee extract during bottling.

Ingredients:

  • 8lb dry malt extract – amber
  • 2lb brown sugar
  • 0.5lb flaked oats
  • 0.5lb American chocolate malts
  • 0.5lb Belgian Special B malts
  • 0.5lb American roasted barley malts
  • 1.5lb American caramel crystal 90L malts
  • 2oz Chinook hops (60mins)
  • 1oz Chinook hops (30mins)
  • 1oz Perle hops (20 mins)
  • 4oz Vanilla bourbon extract (at secondary fermentation)
  • 8oz coffee extract (before bottling)
  • ¾ cup corn sugar (for priming)

Tips for brewing beer with coffee

No matter what method you use or what style of beer you’re brewing, there are a few things to keep in mind to set yourself up for coffee beer brewing success.

When brewing with coffee, remember to:

  • Choose the right beer
  • Choose the right coffee
  • Start small
  • Balance the bitterness
  • Consider the caffeine

Choose the right beer

You can add coffee to any style of beer, but some styles compliment coffee better than others.

Traditionally, stouts and porters are brewed with coffee, since their already-toasted malts intertwine well with roasted coffee.

Even lighter beers like lagers can be brewed with coffee, however, maltier lagers balance the coffee’s bitterness best.

Choose the right coffee

Not all coffees are created equal, and it’s important to understand how the roast level, flavor notes, grind size, and brew method of the coffee you use will impact your beer.

Get a sense of what flavors besides roast the coffee can add to compliment the flavors of the style of beer you brew.

Start small

A little bit of coffee has a big impact. Its roasty flavors can overpower beer easily.

For a 5-gallon batch of most beers, 2-4 ounces is plenty of coffee to use, though this number will vary depending on when and how you plan to add the coffee.

The first few times you brew a coffee beer, have a light hand with the amount of coffee you use.

Balance the bitterness

Think about the taste of a cup of black coffee: it can be really bitter.

Adding coffee means adding additional bitterness to your beer, so you’ll need to balance that with additional sweetness.

This can come from extra malts or sugar itself, but remember that adding sugar also ups the alcohol content.

Consider the caffeine

Unless you brew with decaffeinated coffee, a marginal amount of caffeine will be present in your beer.

In small amounts, it’s typically not noticeable, but the more coffee you add, the more caffeinated your beer will be.

Some people find this combination of “uppers” (caffeine) and “downers” (alcohol) unpleasant, but when a moderate amount of coffee is used it’s normally not an issue.

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