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Event Recap | Uppers and Downers 2019

Uppers & Downers 2019
Mike Zoller

To call Uppers and Downers “just” a coffee beer fest would be a disservice to how the event highlights both the coffee and the beer industry.

While it might sound corny, Uppers and Downers is a celebration of coffee and how versatile the ingredient can be—and not just in beer. Of course, there are coffee beers (more than 20 of them were poured this year), but that’s just one part of the festival.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Put on by Good Beer Hunting, Uppers and Downers showcases the creativity brewers, baristas and mixologists use to create amazing drinks.

Walking into historic Thalia Hall, those in attendance had a variety of stations to visit including a full espresso bar where you could try all different types of coffees from local and out of state roasters, cocktails that highlighted unique ingredients paired with craft spirits and, of course, the coffee beer options.

The espresso bar was a great way to experience how different coffees can be. I was able to sample espresso from Go Get Em Tiger in California to Kickapoo located in Wisconsin. What came through was the passion these roasters have in the same way that brewers go about their trade. Instead of talking about the hops they used, they talked about how they got the beans they roasted and the notes that each gave off. In many ways, the roasters and brewers sounded very similar, just showcasing a different product.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

In the center of the hall was Cruz Blanca and their “case study” sensory experience. Partnering with Sparrow Coffee, Cruz Blanca featured a bunch of different ways to experience coffee and beer. From coffee-infused cotton candy to shaved cold brew ice with their Loco Dinero barrel-aged coffee blonde beer, there were so many things to try.

My favorite from the Cruz Blanca centerpiece was their Neapolitan Parfait Float. Cruz Blanca’s nitro imperial strawberry ale was poured into a glass and then a shot of Espresso Cremona was poured over it. The result was a strawberry flavored coffee that had notes of creaminess and bitterness that played well off one another.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

After spending a good deal of time at Cruz Blanca’s tables, I started circling the coffee beer options.

With more than 20 in all, there were some great examples of solid beers featuring coffee, but there were also some that showed creativity with the ingredients.

My favorite coffee beers that maybe weren’t creative, but really great examples of coffee in beer, were from Hop Butcher. Their World’s Colombian Coffee Exposition is a well-known beer in the city;  it flies off the shelf when it hits distribution (for good reason).

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Rolling Meadows’ Coffee Break is an 8.5% imperial brown ale with a great balance of coffee, maple syrup and caramel flavors. The brewery, located just outside of Springfield about three hours from Chicago, is quietly producing some very high-quality beers.

Lastly, Goose Island brought out 2017 Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout. A brewery that is no stranger to barrel-aged beers or using coffee, this variant has aged very well over the last 17 months. The Black Cat Espresso beans from Intelligentsia still provide a robust coffee flavor with lots of bitterness that combined well with chocolate notes from the Bourbon County.

There was no shortage of breweries that thought outside the box when it came to coffee and beer.

Maplewood brought Foeder Cherry Apocalypse, a foeder fruit beer aged with lactose and conditioned on Metric Coffee’s David Flores beans. The icing on the cake was adding a foeder cherry to the beer at the end of the pour just to add a bit more flavor and a little bite at the end.

One that surprised me was Illuminated Brew Works’ white stout with peaches, cinnamon and Abacus Coffee. White stouts already possess a cold brew coffee flavor and creaminess that, when coupled with the peaches, added a fruit element that was very apparent throughout the taste. The fruit was the star of this beer and if IBW wanted, they could easily substitute peaches for other fruits and have a really strong line of variants.

Lastly, it was time to try some coffee cocktails. Earlier in the week, there was a cocktail competition as part of the lead-up to the Uppers and Downers event. The winning cocktail was one that was actually a late entry to the competition. Made with Powers Irish Whiskey, Counter Culture coffee, raspberry, demerara and apricot cream, it was a hot cocktail that featured a flurry of flavors all at once but somehow managed to allow them to all come through individually. You had the bitterness from the coffee that made way for the sweetness of the raspberries, sugars and apricot; the whiskey in the background added body and layers to the drink.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Again, Uppers and Downers is way more than a coffee beer festival. It celebrates how coffee can be used in so many ways to challenge your palate and introduce you to new flavors and tastes you wouldn’t have thought of. If I had one main takeaway from the festival, it would be that I’ll be looking at coffee very differently going forward.

It’s not just something to wake you up in the morning. As someone who covers craft beer and appreciates the nuances brewers use in their process, coffee roasters and baristas have a similar process and I’ll be sure to appreciate all the great independent coffee roasters we have here in Chicago.

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