Specialty Coffee vs. Craft Beer

Exploring the delicious similarities

July 18, 2017
HOME Taste & Drinks Specialty Coffee vs. Craft Beer

These days, the lines between specialty coffee and craft beer seem to be blurring. Case in point? Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew. Our small-batch cold brew, slow-steeped for a super smooth taste, gets even better. We infuse it with nitrogen by pouring it through a tap. It comes out similar to a dark beer featuring a cascading, velvety crema with a rich and mocha-colored body. The nitrogen reacts to the coffee and brings out a natural sweetness and adds a creaminess.

“I think you’re going to see more and more overlap when it comes to coffee and beer,” said Chris Smith. “The flavors are very similar but also I think the people that enjoy coffee are the people that enjoy beer.”

Coffee and beer are two things Chris knows well. The former Starbucks partner (employee) spent 10 years devoted to all things coffee. He started off as a barista, went on to train baristas and supervisors, led trips to coffee origin countries and helped open the Starbucks Reserve® Roastery & Tasting Room. Today, you’ll find him pursuing another passion—beer. About three years ago, he founded Lowercase Brewing in Seattle and serves as Head Beer Guy.

There are more similarities between coffee and beer than you might realize. Watch as we tapped into Chris’ coffee and beer knowledge.

All About Extraction

In the beginning, the methods for preparing coffee and beer are strikingly similar. You’re taking a product (coffee beans or malt), grinding it up and exposing it to water to extract flavor, more specifically sugar when it comes to beer.

“We take those sugars, we feed them to the yeast, and the yeast then in turn through fermentation produce alcohol. So it’s very similar, we’re both after flavors. But in the case of beer, we’re using a little bit of a different process and a little bit of a different temperature profile to target a very specific element within the malt,” Chris said.

Coffee & Beer Regions

The terroir, or the taste of place, also plays a big role in both coffee and beer. The region where a coffee tree is grown—the elevation, the type of soil, the climate—can all impact the flavor of coffee. The same is true for several key ingredients used to brew beer, like malt, yeast and hops.

“The climate here in the Pacific Northwest makes a very specific kind of malt. And so we want to make sure our beer tastes like it’s from this place,” Chris said.

Similar to the Coffee Belt, the region around the equator where coffee is grown, there are also specific regions known for growing hops.

Washington produced 75 percent of the country’s hop crop last year, according to the 2016 National Hop Report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Washington produced 75 percent of the country’s hop crop last year, according to the 2016 National Hop Report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“The majority of hops are grown in the Northern Hemisphere. If you circle around the globe, you’ll find that hops are grown here in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Michigan, Ohio. When you cross the pond, then you’ve got the U.K. varietals,” Chris said.

The Perfect Pair

There’s a reason why coffee and beer make such a tasty combination: you can find some of the same flavor notes in both. For instance, Lowercase Brewing makes a Brown Ale that has cold brewed Guatemalan coffee in it.

“The malts that we use in brown ales already have those coffee, toffee notes. And so by introducing actual coffee, we can just kind of amp up those flavors a little bit,” Chris said.


If you like a certain kind of coffee, chances are you might like a certain kind of beer. Those who prefer a light roast may gravitate toward pilsners and lagers. Chris says that’s because both have a lighter profile and cleaner flavor. Or if you enjoy the bold taste of espresso, hoppy IPAs might be your beer of choice.

The Industries & The Experience

The origins of coffee and beer date back centuries. Chris points out each industry also experienced a craft revival in the U.S. around the same time.

“Craft coffee [started] with Starbucks and craft beer started with Sam Adams, or The Boston Beer Company. So those are two patriarchs that have created industries and now from those industries, there’s a ton of growth,” Chris said.

As Chris works to expand his brewery, he says his time at Starbucks influences him in many ways.

“Mainly, I would say it’s that a brand can have a personality and can stand for something,” he said.

Lowercase Brewing opened a taproom last November in South Seattle with a coffee shop-meets-brewery kind of feel.

It’s about the collective and bringing people together. No matter what’s happening, we can always take some time, drink some coffee, drink some beer. It’s a relaxing moment, and I think I’m lucky to be able to do that.
-Chris Smith
Lowercase Brewing Founder

Great words of wisdom from Chris. If you want to take some time to chill with a Nitro Cold Brew, visit your Starbucks Mobile App or check out our Starbucks store locator to find a store with Nitro Cold Brew near you. Cheers!

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