“Coffee Lager“…ordinarily, those two terms would make most people think, “Well…how? Why? I’m skeptical.” And for the most basic of reasons: Coffee means strong, dark, pungent, acidic, bitter, overtones of chocolate and sometimes tobacco and sometimes licorice and always fistfuls of grace notes and tones. Lager suggests light, crisp, feather-weight body, effervescent, not all that complex but enormously appealing. A real crowd-pleaser. SO much a crowd-pleaser that, for over 100 years, all the beer about 90% of Americans could find on store shelves and in bars, both divey and ritzy, was Pilsner, the light, rather straight-forward variation of German lagers, and a dumbed-down version, at that.
When Adolphus Busch, founder of what would become the juggernaut Anheuser Busch, married the daughter of brewery owner/soap and candle-maker, Eberhard Anheuser and told his new FiL that he could run the family beer company, he called his brewers into a room and handed them a recipe that he had rewritten from the original German tradition. “This is what we’re making,” he said, “Americans don’t know beer, anyway. They’ll never know the difference.” It was pretty much a rejection of the whole idea of a Pilsner and that “difference” was flavor. And $$$: Adolphus took the Euro recipe and subbed in rice and corn for the more expensive barley and wheat. Even he couldn’t stomach the finished product. He referred to Budweiser, in his fruity German accent, as “dot schlopp“. (“That slop”) Adolphus drank wine,instead…but he was dead-right about us Yanks and our beer tastes. We guzzled his crappy Pils for over 100 years and are STILL doing it, buying the even worse Bud Light like it’s the last bottled water before Death Valley. In the words of the late, great British beer guru, Michael Jackson, Budweiser – that dumbed-down lager – tasted like “wet cardboard that comes in new shirts“.
“In Seattle, we have a special feeling for Michael. On his first visit, there were no local craft brewers…Per capita consumption of craft beer here is, thanks to him, among the highest in the country. Who knew, when we asked that London operator for the number of Michael Jackson, that he would go on to change our world? Perhaps he knew, but if so, he didn’t reveal it. Michael remained humble to his dying day.”
Yes, he was. And Budweiser still tastes exactly as he said it did.
And that dull, dishwater lager became, for generation after generation of American young people, what the word “beer” meant.
Today, craft breweries have gone back to those lovely traditions of the original German Lagers – not just Pilsner but Octoberfest/Marzen/Dunkel, Kellerbier, Zwickelbier, Schawrzbier, etc. etc. etc. – and America has gone batshit crazy for them, basically for one core definition: “Light, less hoppy, low alcohol, easy-drinkin’ “. To some degree, the Lager craze is a backlash against the increasingly intense, aggressively bitter, higher ABV ales that dominate the US craft beer culture. As more and more adults and young drinkers drifted into the world of craft beer – because it’s, uh, kinda Cool – many brought with them their aversion to bitterness and intensity of flavor. As one dorky East Coast food writer put it, “Jesus Christ, can I not just get a beer that I don’t have to analyze and worship for its stylistic authenticity and think about? Can I not just chug a fucking beer, anymore?”
Into this stylistic clapback steps the brewery crew at Deschutes, certainly one of America’s Top Five breweries and possibly THE best US brewery at rethinking and expanding established styles. Deschutes is located in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, Okay, okay, so it’s actually in Bend, which is in the Oregon High Desert but it is still a hotbed of our two main PNW obsessions: beer and coffee.
Coffee is Hot, around here, and has been since, well, forever. Beer is Hot and getting hotter. We started out with coffee being added to beers that kinda tasted like coffee, anyway: Stouts, Porters, Dopplebocks…Dark beer, in short. But then, because coffee is a quasi-literal religion around here (think gun-totin’, extremist, cult-style religion), soon enough brewers started looking around for what else they could shove it into. And this Quest begat the infamous (and usually not very good) coffee IPA…a beer style that is as hard-starting as a rusted-out ’54 Studebaker.
The Lager eluded this treatment for a LONG time, in beer years, but here comes Deschutes, with their virtual mantra – “Hey…why not?” – and this results in…
Luna Jo Coffee Lager. Partnered up with the guy who is arguably one of America’s most forward-thinking coffee maker – former Crux Fermentation Project founder, current mastermind behind Bend’s envelope-pushing Riff Cold Brewed Coffee, Paul Evers – Deschutes started messin’ around with how to get coffee into a Lager without it tasting like either a perfectly good Lager that somebody ruined with some pushy coffee or a nice cuppa coffee that had some beer dumped into it. They were looking for something considered, balanced, thoughtful…maybe even good-tasting? So, did it work?
In a word: YES. Yes, with bells on.
Luna Jo is easily the best coffee Lager anyone is making today. That statement comes with the disclaimer that hardly anyone is making them. The venerable BeerAdvocate lists FIVE, in the whole country, all of which I’ve tasted, so I can say “best” with some confidence. In fact, in at least one case, the brewer emailed me to say that he loved the idea of a coffee Lager but thought his was kinda crappy. “Adding coffee to a lager is like trying to put oregano into anything,” he fumed, “It just kinda takes over.” His was NOT crappy but it was not Luna Jo. It was a nice enough beer but I had to hunt around a bit to get any coffee flavor. Not so with this Deschutes/Riff newbie.
Coffee, in Luna Jo, is soft and expressive but definite. You taste COFFEE, not an intimation of coffee. It’s more like a café au lait than a cuppa black; mild, tinged with cocoa notes, no detectable bitterness, and finishing a touch sweet. And it is perfectly balanced with the subtle, light, toast ‘n’ tree fruit character of the Lager. The hops are there but an enhancement, not the main event. None, in fact, of the flavor elements of Luna Jo scream at you. They sing in lovely unison and make perfect sense. It is a delicious, well-conceived, nicely flavorful – NOT intense, in any sense – and at just 5% ABV, you can have more than one.
All that said and all that absolutely true, SOME (probably not many) ale freaks (like me) may not find Luna Jo muscular enough for their tastes. I usually want to be knocked out of my sneakers by the coffee – pardon me, COFFEE – flavor in an infused beer. I would happily drink Luna Jo anytime and already have. (Two six packs and counting, shared with the fam, ALL of whom lost their minds over it)
And, yes, I still think coffee in beer works best in a dark beer. But if you are going to push hard on the stylistic envelope and try to marry Lagers with Java, Luna Jo is what you pray you come out with. And Deschutes, that best of all PNW breweries, already has.
Luna Jo Coffee Lager is a genuinely great beer and a ground-breaking Achievement and that, my friends, is really ALL that matters. TRY THIS. If you like beer and coffee, this stuff is a bona fide slam dunk. 96 Points