Most brewery founders don’t think to themselves, “This beer thing is going well...let's make cold brew coffee!” But most people aren’t Dale Katechis. After all, the founder of Oskar Blues Brewery has always done things his own way. Like the time he opened a Mexican restaurant that’s also a bike shop. Because why the hell not?
Katechis founded Hotbox Roasters when he bought a tiny coffee roaster and began canning whole beans in Oskar Blues’ crowlers. At first, he distributed them to friends and locals; soon, his operation had grown to become is its own thriving coffee company. The business’s roastery is currently housed inside OB’s brewery in Longmont, Colorado, with a canning line for its nitro coffee in a separate building.
I met with Hotbox’s roaster/coffee expert (and longtime craft beer lover) Matt Herren, to get the lowdown on their nitro cold brew coffee operation, their inventive beer collaborations with Oskar Blues, and how a guy with an enormous Anchor Brewing Liberty Ale tattoo ends up roasting coffee for a living.
Tasting coffee is a way of life
I walk into Hotbox’s office -- which is less of an office, and more of a large white room inside Oskar Blues’ warehouse filled with some of the best beer in the world. Green bins of whole bean coffee line the walls, and a beautiful coffee roasting apparatus regally sits in the back. Herren, covered in tattoos, greets me with a welcoming smile. He’s in the process of freshly grinding the three types of beans Hotbox uses in its whole bean coffee (which, unlike its canned nitro coffee, you can buy online in big-ass cans). He wants me to taste them all by “cupping” them. No, it’s different from the gross-looking kind that Michael Phelps does -- in the coffee biz, it just means that we’re going to slurp the coffees really loud from a spoon.
“We’re going to cup three coffees today: a Brazilian, an Ethiopian, and a Rwandan,” he states. “What we’re trying to do in that [slurping] process is to completely soak the olfactory senses with coffee,” he explains. “We want coffee over our entire palates.”
And cover, it does. I inhale the coffee’s aromas from a centimeter away and slurp it right up. I taste berries in the Ethiopian cup, and citrus in the Rwandan. Having been in the coffee biz for over 20 years, Herren cups java every day to ensure the customer gets a consistent product -- so he also tastes “body and butter” in the Brazilian, and brown sugar in the Ethiopian. But all of the coffees are delicious.
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Canned coffee is the future
I drink more cold brew coffee than is likely healthy, but it’s probably better than napping six hours a day and being fired from my sweet gig at The Beer Necessities. Cold brew is made by steeping roasted coffee grounds in cool or room temperature water to extract the coffee over an extended period of time.
“The cold brew process takes a ton of acidity out [of the coffee],” Herren says. “You end up with far lower acid and a much smoother coffee.”
And Hotbox’s offering is unique in the cold brew world not only in that it’s a canned product (other ready-to-drink coffees are in glass bottles or cartons), but that it’s also infused with nitrogen! Nitrogen gives coffee the same sort of mouthfeel as a Guinness, without any cream or sugar (no booze, either!). It can be found in the refrigerated sections of specialty supermarkets across the country.
The guy roasting Hotbox coffee is a beer nerd from way back
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Herren wears his beer nerd pride on his chest -- where he quite literally has a tattoo of the Liberty Ale logo.
“I grew up in San Francisco, and I’m a beer guy,” he tells me. “I grew up drinking Anchor Steam. And I had a dog named Liberty who passed away far too young. One day, I was in Seattle in my dear friend’s tattoo shop. He had this tattoo drawn on his wall, and I gravitated right to it. I [saw the Liberty Ale logo] and said, ‘Fuck, that’s bitchin’. Who’s that for?’ And he said, ‘You.’”
Damn, that guy is good at getting people to buy tattoos! Three months later, the piece was done. Herren remembers drinking Liberty Ale back when it was considered a “cutting edge IPA,” and that he’d always go to house parties with a six-pack in hand. And now that beautiful work of art is on his chest forever.
The recent Hotbox Coffee IPA used a limited-edition coffee bean that’s now gone forever...
Oskar Blues is the 10th largest brewery in the country. It also brews a handful of coffee beers with beans roasted by Hotbox. But Hotbox still roasts more coffee for coffee cups than for beer mugs. Recently, OB released a Hotbox Coffee IPA that used a “very expensive Ethiopian coffee” grown in small quantities.
“It’s a beautiful coffee that was intensely lemon, acai berry, and blueberry,” Herren tells me. Initially he didn’t think he’d be able to use it in any way, shape or form in a beer or as a regular Hotbox release. But then inspiration struck! “I was talking to Tim, the head brewer at Oskar Blues, who asked me what I wanted to do for a coffee-related spring seasonal,” he says. “And I’m kind of bored with coffee beers. It’s always the same thing: coffee porter or coffee stout. I think brewers are looking at a beer recipe, and they’re taking out the dark malt and adding coffee.”
It turned out to be a perfect opportunity to use this tiny batch of Ethiopian coffee. “I told Tim I can cup this coffee that I think would make for a fantastic beer, but it’s not going to go into a stout or porter. I told him the flavor characteristics. He said he’s been wanting to use Simcoe hops -- a single hop that can stand up and have legs for all these interesting flavor profiles. We settled on an IPA. I called the coffee broker [Editor’s note: a broker is a middleman for buying coffee from around the world] and said, ‘I’ll take everything you’ve got.’ It was eight bags -- probably one of the biggest coffee purchases dollar value-wise that Hotbox has ever made. I roasted it and threw it all in the beer. There was none left afterwards. It’s a beautiful, coffee-based beer.”
...But many more collaborations are in the works
Right now, OB produces Hotbox Coffee Porter on a regular basis. Last year, the brewery debuted Java Ten Fidy, a Hotbox coffee-filled version of its popular imperial stout. And for the lucky few that snagged it, OB also brewed a Barrel-Aged Java Fidy for which Herren says had people lined up around the block. While he couldn’t yet share with me any of the new beers coming up, he assured me that there’s plenty more collaborations in the works. And based on what we know about Hotbox and Oskar Blues’ ability to innovate, it likely won’t just be porters and stouts.