Beer Nuts

Nostalgia for Classic Black and Tan Brews Up Some Coffee Talk

By JEFF LINKOUS | Jul 12, 2017

In a beer world a long, long time ago, meaning in the mid-1990s, if you stepped into a tavern you were likely to see a shaker-pint glass sitting on the bar, an amber ale filling the bottom half the glass, a layer of stout making up the top. Oh, the black and tan, the pleasure of a caramel/toffee-like pale ale with an Irish stout.

I drank many a black and tan back in the day: Bass Ale on the bottom, on top Guinness poured over the back of a spoon, causing the nitrogen-dispensed stout to spray into the glass and layer atop the Burton pale ale. The result was a pleasing combo, plus a cool visual: two beers in the same glass, kept separate by the gases infused in them (the nitrogen in the Guinness, carbonation in the Bass). A well-poured black and tan could stay separate practically to the bottom of the glass. 

It’s been ages since I’ve had a black and tan, and the stout-pale ale combo came to mind only recently when I was moving some old beer memorabilia, namely a Guinness “perfectionist kit” (disclosure: it’s a pint glass with the Guinness logo emblazoned on it) from one room in the house to another.

The Guinness glass, acquired 17 years ago at the Great British Beer Festival in London, made me wonder: In this anything-goes craft beer era, how might the black and tan get a reboot? (Beers are always getting a reboot of some sort, re-imagined in some way by craft brewers. Session IPA, anyone?)

It’s a different beer world now than the one in which Guinness and Bass enjoyed some high-profile status as go-to import brews that made for a fabled combo.

Everything craft beer these days is writ large, in a sort of hyperbole – black IPAs at 10 percent alcohol by volume; sour beers; funky Belgian-American brews (farmhouse IPAs come to mind), just to name-check some. So I thought  maybe giving the black and tan an update should go beyond just pairing a nitro-poured craft-brewed stout on a craft pale ale or IPA. Maybe it, too, should go to an extreme.

It doesn’t hurt to be clever, either. Who says the black portion of the combo has to be beer? Could it be coffee? Sure, why not?

Coffee has a signature bitterness that, like hops, can be strong or mild, to accompany rich, full flavor; brewers get excited about those qualities and love putting cold press coffees in stouts and porters, or conditioning IPAs and milk stouts on freshly roasted coffee beans.

There’s really no losing with the coffee-and-beer fusion – and infusion. That’s why the can of black coffee on nitro I saw at the store the other day caught my eye, gave me an idea: It’s nitro, coffee and beer go together well … so a nitro coffee black and tan? Again, why not?

On a lark, I gave it a try. It worked well enough, and reasonably matched my expectations: rich enough with evolving flavors as the glass of beer and coffee warmed amid room temperature. Here are my overall findings …

The visual checks out. The nitro coffee sits atop the beer – I used India pale ales for the times I tried it – just like the nitro-stout sat atop the pale ale in a conventional black and tan back in the day. 

The flavor was good, if perhaps an acquired one (you have to really appreciate black coffee). It was also a bit deceptive, for a few reasons. One of them could be your own memory of the black and tan’s taste. It’s hard not to conjure up the malt and roasted barley flavors of the stout and pale ale. It’s the stout’s grain flavor that’s missing in this reboot’s top layer. After all, coffee is coffee, not beer.

So your first swig is big, robust black coffee, deep and flavorful; it only looks like stout. You sip your way down to the malty-hoppy beer, which peeks through the coffee before the IPA identity takes over almost completely.

Toward the bottom of the glass, the taste finished with a flavor that hinted at a coffee-flavored Werther’s caramel. A ratio of 1 part nitro coffee to three parts IPA tasted better than a 50-50 pour of each.

I used a few different IPAs, not shopping for particular labels or brands, but rather looking for differing alcohol contents. IPAs north of 7 percent alcohol stood up to the coffee better.

The downside to the experiment: the cost. The 10-ounce can of nitro coffee (I used Stumptown coffee) will cost you about 5 bucks. That, too, is pretty rich.

jeff@thesandpaper.net

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