So, it turns out that we were right — you guys love coffee and beer, and perhaps particularly coffee beers. A lot. We packed Thalia Hall with nearly 600 people on a snowy Chicago Sunday afternoon, and when we opened the doors, everything that we could have done to make the experience great was set into motion. I don't think I took a breath for the first twenty minutes. For those of you who went out of your way to tell me that it was one of your favorite events of the year, on your list next to events like FoBAB and Oak Park Microbrew Review, what can I say — we're truly honored.
Uppers & Downers is incredibly special to us. For me and Stephen Morrissey of Intelligentsia, the whole idea started as a way to bring coffee roasters and beer brewers together and strike out for new territory in a dated, somewhat mediocre style of beer that was completely missing critical aspects of the third wave — exciting, bold flavors, acidity and complexity, wild and funky yeast profiles, wood aging, steeping, and blending. These cultures share so many aspirations, and the process knowledge was ripe for transfer between these creative, intelligent craftspeople. So we started small around just a few folks that showed sincere interest, and we slowly built up the concept alongside other groups like homebrewers, baristas, chefs, cider makers, and beer and coffee enthusiasts. And on January 25th, we finally shared over a years' worth of culture building with the city of Chicago.
The day we announced the festival, I picked up the phone to ask some of my favorite brewers if they were interested in exploring new styles with me and some local roasters — to my delight, most of them had already begun brainstorming. We wanted some of the best coffee porters and stouts on the market. We wanted new coffee beers that leveraged lighter, brighter flavors like pale ales, IPAs, goldens, Belgians, and lagers. We wanted outlandish concepts that had to wrestle with big flavors like ciders, berlinerweiss, and barleywine. So when the CO2 started pumping, the pitchers started filling, and the pumps for the La Marzocco GS3s started humming, the brewers and roasters took their positions behind the tables with anxious smiles, and made it clear to me that Uppers & Downers had become an idea for which dozens of professionals now felt a sense of ownership.
Goose Island provided a case study in coffee infusion, setting up their home-made tower that randalled beers like Muddy and Bourbon County Barleywine through a variety of fresh Intelligentsia coffees. They poured a vertical of BCS coffee. And they poured coffee over 312 to create a coffee radler of sorts. They even opened individual 12oz bottles (those mysterious white labels) of their current test batch for an Intelligentsia coffee pale ale, something they've never been willing to do before. But for Uppers & Downers, it was a no-brainer.
Solemn Oath provided a completely different take on a coffee beer case study, focusing on blending and coffee extraction methods like cold brew and hot-over-iced, as well as multiple coffees blended together fresh. SOB brewer Paul Schneider made a trio of IPAs called Muerte Inmaculada, each with the same base beer, blended with three different Intelligentsia coffees for side-by-side comparisons of the unique flavors each coffee could bring. He also blended with the barrel-aged Beverage of Champions, which spent 11 months in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels with sweet orange peel and was blended fresh with 80% cold-brewed Ljulu Lipati - Zambia and 20% dark French Roast for a complex profile full of vanilla, coconut, and caramel. It's difficult to explain how much effort Paul put into this series of beers, working with Intelligentsia's Jay Cunningham to develop a new approach to testing and tasting over the last 18 months. Between these two, I don't think there's more hands-on intelligence in the coffee beer category to be found — this year alone they've created nearly a dozen coffee beers, casting aside dozens more that didn't measure up to their goals in the process.
The Goose Island and Solemn Oath case studies alone would have been an easy sell. But along the main stage were twelve more brewers and nearly 18 more coffee beers for the tasting. Some of these coffee beers have long been favorites, and some have newly set the bar — big, rich coffee stouts and porters from Firestone Walker, Spiteful, 5 Rabbit, 4 Hands, Half Acre, Perennial, and one of the first lighter amber ales on the scene from Local Option Bierwerker.
Many of these beers were created solely for the festival as part of the challenge to explore the brighter, lighter, funkier, and tart flavors that coffee can evoke and impart in a beer. Beers like Off Color's Flower Pouncer, a riff on their Apex Predator farmhouse ale with Quasar coffee blended the funky, citrusy qualities of the beer with a bright, tannic cold brew. Penrose's Desirous, a Belgian white IPA with cracked Intelligentsia Ljulu Lipati peaberry beans and steeped with Buddha’s Hand took advantage of fruity yeast esters on the nose and a subtle clash in the body of the beer between a sharp hop bite and the nutty, sweeter elements of the coffee. 4 Hands' French Pressed, washed in a red wine barrel, blended with Goshen peaberry cold brew was one of the brighter, more vibrant beers of the day. Virtue's semi-dry cider steeped in MadCap cascara created a tannic, tart concoction similar to a hibiscus beer. 5 Rabbit's berlinerweisse with Gaslight cascara doubled down on those bright, tart flavors and create a rich red-copper color. Metropolitan's Metropolitician, a cold-brew blended bock with Metropolis' Guatemalan coffee was nutty and acidic underneath those smooth, sweet bock notes. Perennial's 2013 Vermilion, an English-style Barley wine, blended with Sump Coffee's orangey cold brew Kenya AB Gatuyaini beans created flavors spot-on for an Old Fashioned cocktail. And Forbidden Root's Green-eyed Geisha, a 90% Blonde ale with chocolate rye, and Dark Matter's barrel-aged Geisha coffee melded together flavors from all over the spectrum.
I can hardly believe that paragraph exists. 18 months ago, as me and Morrissey lamented the state of the coffee beer, descriptions like these would have seemed impossible, let alone printed together in the listing for a single event.
And that brings us to perhaps the most unlikely feature of all — the multi-roaster espresso bar. Brewers are used to, sometimes even jaded by, the amount of side-by-side face-time they get at festivals where they stand for hours on end and pour beer samples. They spend time in each others' tap rooms, in each others' brewhouses, sitting in on panel discussions and conferences. But the coffee world isn't used to interacting this way — it's a much more solitary affair where competition is high and collaboration rarely seen.
Morrissey is well known in the industry for being the 2008 World Barista Champion, and creating other unprecedented roaster collaborations, such as the renowned Coffee Common project that launched at the 2012 TED conference. He also sits on the advisory board of World Coffee Events — an organization designed to promote specialty coffee through unique events and competitions around the world. While Intelligentsia has been in the coffee beer game for over a decade, we recognized an opportunity to elevate the depth of those collaborations by highlighting what roasters around the country can do in the brewing process and help tell their stories. So we used Uppers & Downers as a platform for more than just culture building between beer and coffee, and between roasters themselves. The espresso bar, outfitted with six nearly identical La Marzocco GS3 home espresso machines made it possible for us to bring together roasters with very different approaches to coffee making, and let them pour their best beans in front of a beer crowd for the first time.
Exclusively making espresso, these baristas and roasters were the workhorses of Uppers & Downers. They were making some of the best espresso available in the country, and in many cases, pouring them for guests who were having their first espresso ever. For some, it provided a glimpse into the raw ingredients and methods used in the coffee beer making process. For others, even coffee aficionados, they were able to compare the flavors and textures of many different espressos side-by-side for the first time in their lives. Nick Kohout from Acaia Scales who helped us run the espresso bar was stunned. "I've never seen this kind of engagement around espresso in my life. This might have been the most espressos ever served at a single event ever, anywhere in the world." Alexandria Barnes, an Intelligentsia barista, had her emotions high: "I actually teared up a little bit. I just served someone her first espresso ever, and it was a Geisha. That's crazy."
We intentionally kept the size and scope of the festival focused. This was the first major production between GBH x Intelligentsia, on the back of a series of smaller, intimate events, and more than we wanted to sell tickets, we wanted the highest quality execution we could muster. We wanted both industry professionals and guests to be able to get the most out of these coffees and beers. We wanted their hard work in producing these one-off experiments to be appreciated. And we wanted the venue, the stunning Thalia Hall, to really sing in it's simplicity. We look forward to next year, and to taking this show on the road. We're in planning for events in New York, LA, and more specialized events in Chicago as we continue to build a shared culture between roasters and brewers.
Special thanks to Gary Valentine who produced an impeccable jockey-box-free draft system. To Field & Florist for the lovely floral design. To La Marzocco Home for providing the GS3 machines and Acaia Scales who made the multi-roaster espresso bar look stunning and technically a joy to operate. To the tech team at Intelligentsia for making sure all of the machines worked perfectly. To Thalia Hall and Dusek's for a beautiful venue and a dedicated team. To Eva Deitch for taking stunning photographs and letting me drink up. To Ben Derico for the video work and Andrew Thiboldeaux for the music — both lovely. To Sound Opinions for mixing an Uppers & Downers themed playlist especially for the event. And of course all my friends and colleagues in coffee and beer who created some truly amazing beverages under the banner of Uppers & Downers. You all helped us do something unique and special. But the biggest thank you of all goes to Stephen Morrissey of Intelligentsia who has been my creative partner on Uppers & Downers since the beginning — you deserve an overly-caffeinated kiss.
If you have any constructive criticism, or positive reinforcement that you'd like to share, please get in touch! We'll be collecting your "Notes to GBH" for an upcoming news + updates post.