Upright Brewing's coffee-cardamom barleywine tastes like no other beer that's ever existed. Tapped only once last December and only at North Killingsworth's Hop &Vine—and perhaps never to be made again—Upright's Coffee-Cardamom Barleywine is a mind-zapping 13.6 percent ABV beer that's like Scandinavian Christmas crossed with a howling war party. Warm cookie spice and an unbitter burst of cold-brew coffee wash over a remarkable intensity of flavor: massive hops, thick malty backbone and boozy heat.
Under normal circumstances, brewer Alex Ganum might never have made it. Turns out, that sixth-barrel of barleywine was the solution to a problem.
Local bartender Jacob Grier had approached Ganum to make a beer he could pair with aquavit at his annual festival devoted to the spiced Scandinavian spirit.
But nothing sounded good. Aquavit is heady, herbal stuff—liberally seeded with caraway, dill and anise.
"I was frustrated for about a week," Ganum says. "I was worried I wouldn't be able to come up with anything at all."
But he kept coming back to coffee—the strong, spiced Turkish-style brew his father made every day when Ganum was growing up.
"There's something about coffee," Ganum says. "I grew up drinking it. My dad's Syrian, so he used to brew it all the time. I thought I would try to make a strong Turkish coffee character in a beer."
Chris Brady of Extracto provided the brew, a Central American batch he said was one of the best he'd ever roasted, aged just long enough to get rid of the astringency.
To get the Turkish spice, Ganum first made cardamom tea by infusing water with ground cardamom pods, then cooled it to room temperature. "The cardamom is the link," Ganum says, the flavor that ties it to the seed-spice notes in aquavit.
He then jacked his barman's toddy maker from the gastropub he co-owns, Northeast Portland's Grain & Gristle.
"It makes a liter and a half at a time," Ganum says. "The coffee was ground and ready to go. We set it up in the coffeemaker, made [the coffee] with the cardamom-infused water, and let it soak overnight."
It was, in essence, Turkish cold brew. Now it was just a matter of mixing that flavor with beer that could stack up to it.
"We needed something strong," Ganum says. And he had just the stuff. After a joint festival with the Commons Brewery at Saraveza in December 2014, he'd gone to his brewery with his mind set on barleywine. He started the beer late in the evening, and boiled it for eight hours overnight.
"A typical boil would be 60 to 90 minutes," Ganum says. "It's a way to get a really strong beer, concentrating it and boiling the water off. We'd never made a beer that was that strong before." Although it came out malty and full of color, it didn't have the harsh alcoholic notes you'd fear from such a beer. It was aged a year—half in steel, half in barrels that had previously been used for whiskey.
Ganum added just a liter of the cardamom-laced coffee to a keg of barleywine. But the flavor blossomed in the keg. The resulting brew didn't just stand up to aquavit—it made it taste better and richer. The beer was both strong enough to knock you on your ass and velvety smooth, wildly flavor-packed and subtle in effect.
It was, in short, a very dangerous beer.