Our fourth year, our third festival, nearly a hundred experimental coffee beers by now, dozens of single origin espressos, cold brew cocktails, even coffee-rubbed pork and biscuits from Bang Bang Pies and Butcher & Larder—oh my! Uppers & Downers keeps finding news ways to explore a cultural mashup that started with coffee and beer, and has started pulling others into its gravity like wayward comets we never saw coming. With our partner, Stephen Morrissey, the festival has become a world of its own.
This year saw the return of the case studies—one of my favorite endeavors—where a brewer and roaster partner to bring drinkers a spectrum of coffee-beer experiments that express a unique approach to sourcing, brewing, extracting, and blending coffees and beers together.
Goose Island chose to showcase an all-BCS lineup going back to 2012, offering festival goers an intimate tasting experience in one of Thalia Hall’s theater boxes, six at a time, as a brewer walked them through the vertical. Impressively, the brewer for the first session, Dan Floyd, was an Intelligentsia roaster before becoming a Goose Island brewer. Which is to say: he was a perfect host. And in case that all sounds just too precious, they randalled BCS Barleywine through some fresh coffee beans for good measure.
(Those lines, tho. We’ll work on that for next year. We had no idea it would be even more popular than we planned for!)
Solemn Oath and Intelligentsia’s case study featured some of their stand-out coffee beers that launch in conjunction with the run-up to the festival each year, lead by Beverage of Champions and Most Important Beverage of the Day, one of DRAFT Magazine’s best 25 beers of 2016. Described by brewer Paul Schneider as “all the flavors you would hope to find in a poorly-balanced liquid breakfast—tangy orange juice, the last few drops from the cereal bowl of highly concentrated cocoa puff milk, and a full-bodied, fat, juicy, fruity, and roasty coffee.” This year’s coffee was Intelligentsia’s Tikur Anbessa from Ethiopia.
Whiner Beer Co., a Chicago startup making some beautiful Saison, sour, and barrel-fermented beers, brought a new case study this year with their shared-partner roaster, Four Letter Word Coffee, originally started in Istanbul before expanding state-side. Lead by Bryan Taylor and Ria Neri, these two took two base beers (a dark Belgian and a barrel-aged kettle sour Saison) and two coffees (a Geisha and a lactic fermentation roast), and made four permutations. The ricochet of flavors was next level, and some of the tastiest things we’ve ever poured at the fest. The close proximity of these two companies—both are located at the Plant in Chicago—has clearly elevated their ability to collaborate.
Downstairs, our cold brew cocktail competition winner from Dusek’s had a whole crew whipping up the black cardamom and candied macadamia nut Mint Julep with Fernet-Branca and Templeton Rye whiskey. Upstairs, Stumptown took over the bar for a series of draft and nitro cold brews, including a sparkling version, and a series of new flavored canned cold brews they just launched.
The main bank of coffee beers and ciders was overwhelming again this year. I don’t even know how to adequately capture how diverse and ambitious some of these things were. But off the top of my head, in session one, Hop Butcher had the biggest punch of a Stout I can remember with the World’s Columbia Coffee Expedition (Hero Coffee) alongside Firestone Walker’s monster, Parabajava (Dark Nectar). I can’t believe those two were side by side. Angry Orchard steeped cascara (the cherry fruit of the coffee bean) in a wild fermented, calvados barrel-aged cider from their Walden, NY cider house (MadCap Coffee). Another cascara beer, Breakfast Hand Grenade from Central State infused in a nose with lemon peel (Dark Matter). Off Color returned with Hyper Predator, their Farmhouse Ale (Metric Coffee) and Perennial returned with two variations of the eponymous Sump.
Session two brought even more cascara with 4 Hands Prelude, an amber sour aged in second-use bourbon barrels and cascara cherries (Goshen). Hopewell produced the only decaf beverage of the day with Squad, a Belgian-style Quad infused with a coldbrew/cold-steep decaf Columbian (Ipsento). Metropolitan put on their barista aprons and made Caramel Backiato, a German Bock with Brazilian Capricornio coffee (Metropolis), toped with caramel sauce and whipped cream on the spot. (I asked no questions.) And Penrose featured Wild X, a french-oak aged sour red with vanilla and Guatemalan cold brew (FreshGround).
Making this list is ridiculous. Just go read the rest, please. It’s nuts.
And of course, the undersung hero of Uppers & Downers is the rare-to-the-world multi-roaster espresso bar featuring about a dozen of our favorite roasters (mostly from the Midwest, but swinging wider every year) on La Marzocca home machines, pulling single-origins espressos on the spot with help from technicians from Acacia scales. Watching these people work like machines all day is only balanced by how completely fucking happy they look doing it. Check out the list of shots pulled this year. For coffee geeks, who so rarely get to try espressos side-by-side like this, it’s a yearly event worth traveling for. We had fans from both coasts and Europe this year drawn in by the multi-roaster bar alone.
And just like that, it was over. Strike the scene.
We gathered the next morning at the GBH Studio to send off our out of town brewers and roasters, and Jordan Michelin from Sprudge.com who helped us host a podcast (coming this weekend). And while it was all still fresh in our minds, we started looking ahead to Seattle in April where we’ll be hosting a pop-up version of the fest at the Global Coffee Expo with the Specialty Coffee Association, and another version of the fest in London in September (details coming soon!).
We hope you had an absolute blast this year. For anyone that didn’t get a t-shirt, glass, or poster, they’re in the shop!
Coffee and beer don’t make the world go ‘round. They make it go up and down.