Last October in Columbus, Ohio, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing head brewer Chris Davison was tucking his daughter into bed when he learned that his brewery had won a gold medal at the 2020 Great American Beer Festival. (When you’re a parent, checking under the bed for monsters comes before professional accolades.) Fortunately, winning a medal at American craft beer’s biggest festival wasn’t new for Davison. The previous year, his brewery won a silver medal for the same beer, Daybreak, in the coffee beer category.
Daybreak is Wolf’s Ridge’s best-selling beer, accounting for nearly a fifth of the brewery’s annual production by volume and outselling its flagship IPA by nearly 30 percent. That’s unusual enough for a coffee beer, but it’s not the only thing that makes Daybreak surprising. While most coffee beers tend to be dark styles that find harmony between coffee and roasted malt flavors, this coffee beer is a pale, light-bodied cream ale. The spritely 5 percent ABV brew is part of a curious regional beer trend in its home state. Ohioans in recent years have proven to love pale, low-alcohol coffee beers — those with base styles such as cream ale, golden ale, and kolsch — not only at Wolf’s Ridge, but at taprooms across the state.
While brewers across the country have experimented with brewing coffee beers, Ohio seems to have taken to this with particular gusto, using lighter beers to showcase the bright character of fresh beans. The style has become common in taprooms and packaged beers across the state, with more examples from Wiedeman’s, HiHo, Sandy Springs, Streetside, MadTree, Esoteric, and Municipal brewing companies on rotation.
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The best theory for this elevated interest? Wolf’s Ridge Daybreak itself.
The Dawn of Light Coffee Beers
Davison developed the best-selling Daybreak Coffee Cream Ale in 2015 after tasting Ballast Point’s Calm Before the Storm, a 5.5 percent ABV cream ale brewed with coffee and vanilla. It was one of the first and only broadly available pale coffee beers at the time, along with Goose Island Brewery’s Fulton Street Blend, a 5.5 percent ABV coffee-infused blonde ale. Daybreak was bottled later that year.
Also in 2015, Athens, Ohio-based Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery began experimenting with pale coffee beer, creating Cool Beans, a 4.5 percent ABV golden ale brewed with lactose and Ridge Runner coffee. It proved popular at the buzzing Athens brewpub, becoming the best-seller and remaining one today. It was also the first recipe brewer Liam McDonald ever brewed professionally.
“Ohio brewers have definitely cultivated a popular genre in pale coffee beers,” McDonald says. “I think it’s really appealing to get a very bright and light beer served across the bar that has intense coffee flavors you’re not expecting.”
Brett Smith, co-owner and head brewer of Branch & Bone Artisan Ales in Dayton, Ohio, finds the style’s popularity in the state, well, strange. “It’s so weird. There are other breweries in other states making these beers, but I don’t think they’re as popular as they are here,” Smith says. “I think Daybreak being packaged aided in that, and made it a more popular style.”
Since opening in 2018, Branch & Bone Artisan Ales’ Dimmer, a 5 percent ABV coffee-infused golden ale, has been brewed more than any other single brand. “We have a lot of fans who love that beer, but it’s not why they’re fans of our brewery,” Smith says. The brewery is known for its barrel-aged stouts and hazy IPAs. “But then — this is crazy — we have people who, that’s all they want from us. If we don’t have it on draft, they’re like, ‘all right, we’ll be back when Dimmer is back.’ When we can it, they buy four to five cases so they can stock up.”
Meanwhile, in Mason, Ohio, Sonder Brewing president Justin Neff reports a similar dynamic with Kato Kölsch, brewed with Ethiopian coffee roasted in-house. “It’s one of our most cultish beers,” Neff says, adding that while it’s never been the No. 1 seller in the taproom, it never drops in sales. “If it comes off the board for a few days, we hear about it.”
He also believes Kato is the “most exclusively consumed” beer in the taproom. “If someone loves another beer of ours, they might still try different things,” he says. “But our Kato fans, that’s just what they drink.”
An Ohio Distinction
While the inability to prove the hunch with hard data was a popular refrain among brewers interviewed for this story, Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, provided national scan data for coffee beers that can provide context. Looking only at breweries the Brewers Association considers “craft,” coffee beers represent a .27 percent share of the market. That means about one in every 374 craft beers sold in 2020 contained coffee. Pale coffee beer is not a unique category, and one can assume they are rarer still. From that, it’s not hard to see how the success of beers like Daybreak and Dimmer, and the list of Ohio coffee beers that have followed, bucks the national trend. Long the domain of dark beer, coffee beer styles are seeing brighter expressions in Ohio taprooms.
Five Pale Coffee Beers to Try
1. Wolf’s Ridge Daybreak
This brewery’s best-selling beer has led the charge in the popularity of pale coffee beers in Ohio, and it’s subtle vanilla addition adds an impression of sweetness to the fresh coffee aroma.
2. MadTree Coffee Table Blonde
This light blonde ale brewed with Guatemalan La Armonia Hermosa coffee from Cincinnati’s Deeper Roots is brewed with lactose for a gentle kiss of creamy sweetness.
3. Branch & Bone Dimmer Golden Ale
This gentle English golden ale with beans from Dayton’s Wood Burl Coffee causes a stir when it’s released in cans, and often features different single-origin roasts as they’re available.
4. Sonder Kato Kölsch
This delicate German ale is brewed with Ethiopian coffee roasted in-house through the brewery’s Script coffee line, and named after the owner’s son, who was adopted from Ethiopia.
5. Jackie O’s Cool Beans
Brewed with lactose, this golden ale is bright and eye-opening, offering a full coffee expression many don’t expect in such a light, low-strength beer.