There is a good amount of good coffee that goes into making excellent pints of beer. With early mash-in times, long hours, late nights, and then another early morning brewers are often looking for a caffeine boost.
Discerning brewers care about their coffee and over the last decade a number of breweries have added coffee roasters to their business. This has helped some open the doors to a taproom earlier to catch morning commuters or have created a robust membership bean business. Others have seen success with their coffee brands that it was spun out into a separate company.
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Basil Lee, the owner of New York’s Finback Brewery talked to All About Beer editor John Holl about Invisible Force, the coffee business started by the brewery and how it has helped the beer side of the business.
John Holl: What do you see as the relationship between beer and coffee?
Basil Lee: I think the two do go hand in hand very much in terms of people who drink beer and appreciate beer. Oftentimes they are similar, or there’s intersection between that group and people who drink coffee.
In the basic sense they both provide buzzes. I think they also kind of deal with a lot of the same infatuation about flavor and about making. For us at the brewery it was a passion. We obviously have a passion for brewing and making beer and that’s the same for coffee.
John Holl: How did you come to add coffee to the business?
Basil Lee: We love coffee, obviously, but we were also using it as an ingredient in our imperial stouts and darker beers. There’s already a long tradition of coffee in those beers and we wer were using it in BQE, our imperial stout. We wanted to do a component from Queens and one from Brooklyn. So the coffee was roasted in Queens and the chocolate came from Brooklyn.
And then we did some projects with other producers. We did one where we sent a roaster a barrel and they aged their beans in it, and other fun projects.
Then we opened our Brooklyn location and we wanted to think about how we could be more creative there, and treat the space like a beverage studio and a flavor studio. We wanted interesting beverages to be served in the taproom, not have it as a production focus.
I thought it would be fun to do small batch programs there and so that’s where the coffee piece came from and also our distilling piece. Both are small so we’re just being creative and using ingredients.
John Holl: For the coffee roasting what kind of equipment did you put in?
Basil Lee: It’s a 25-pound roaster. Infrastructure wise it’s pretty simple. It’s not a coffee show. We don’t have an espresso machine. We’re not making those kind of drinks. We’re serving drip coffee and cold brew.
We want to make and roast really top notch coffee and great beans, but serve it in a very simple way. So it’s a simple kind of serving technique. But in terms of the infrastructure for roasting, we have essentially a large scale cafe size roaster. We could be much busier, because a busy café would have this kind of machine.
John Holl: Since you’ve installed the roaster and started doing coffee service, has it impacted the business?
Basil Lee: We’re still in the early stages but it has helped us control our process and express creativity. Each of these pieces add to our ability control different ingredients in our brewing, but in this case, also the coffee itself, is kind of its own project.
It helps us focus on innovation and not doing the same things over and over again.
From a more kind of direct business standpoint I think there’s two pieces. One is the original idea that we wanted to roast the coffee for our brewing so we could control and experiment with different beans and different roasts.
We never had a plan to open a whole line of cafes, this was a component related to the brewery and the tap rooms. We sell the coffee in our taprooms and use it in our beers, but we mainly sell beans or coffee to go rather than coffee service on site.
It’s been a good component for the brewery.
As for the coffee as a standalone, right now I don’t think it will work without the taproom component. That’s the other piece. Over time it’s something that we want to push and grow. We have another taproom coming so we’re probably going to do a bit more coffee on site, coffee drinks, thinks like that.
But I don’t think we’re going to have a coffee shop where we open at seven in the morning or something like that. We’re skewed towards later hours, not earlier hours.
John Holl: Given your experience thus far, do you suggest other brewers give this a go?
Basil Lee: I think it’s the eternal struggle. Do we want to be the kind of company that just focus on one thing and do it really well, which is the old kind of adage. Simplify and just perfect one thing, or do we want to be a bit more and explore. Coffee can be a lot like beer in terms of exploring.
John Holl: You named this project Invisible Force, it’s not really identified with the brewery. Does that help or does it cause confusion?
Basil Lee: We don’t hide the fact that its us. But we did want to do it this way. Finback is the beer side. Invisible Force is the coffee side. We didn’t want to confuse people that Finback was making all these different things, like Finback Coffee or Finback Spirits. We believe that each of them should have their own personalities. We want them to have their own paths and success.
The different branding allows us to have flexibility a little bit where it can take on a life of its own.
The above transcript was condensed and edited for clarity.