It’s not a particularly well-known drink, but those of us who are lucky enough to have been introduced to it at some point in our lives are absolutely fanatical about it.
Maybe a friend’s abuela whipped some up a few Christmasses ago. Perhaps someone’s tito was well-known for making a batch around New Year’s. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have been raised in a Puerto Rican family who brought this out every year over the holidays.
Either way, the combination of dark spiced rum, cream of coconut, sweetened condensed milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg has brought joy to countless generations of Puerto Ricans throughout the holiday season. Commonly referred to as “Puerto Rican Egg Nog”, there’s only one drink that fits this bill.
So creamy. So coconut-y. So spicy and so, so delicious.
At Straight to the Pint, we firmly believe that the best way to understand and appreciate a culture is by sampling their cuisine. And at Cape May Brewing Company, we believe that the best way to honor a culture is by brewing a beer based on that cuisine.
So, this holiday season, we understand, appreciate, and honor our friends from that small Caribbean island in the only way we know how: with a beer based on their favorite holiday drink: Coquito.
The concept for this beer came from our own Social Media and Design Alchemist, Courtney Rosenberg.
“I probably would have had it in college,” said CSR. “Maybe after college? It’s hard to remember.”
Nonetheless, the experience stayed with her.
“It’s light and delicious and it’s definitely a holiday drink,” she says. “You’re not going to drink it in April with the Easter Bunny. It’s a drink that a lot of people don’t get, but once they try it, they’ll never forget it. And it’s communal: people jar it off and pass it around and you get to come together over it.”
On the other hand, Innovation Director Brian Hink had never heard of coquito.
“As soon as she suggested it, Tasting Room General Manager Chris Costello was all about it as well, being well familiar with the drink himself,” Brian tells us. “As they started to explain the drink to me, I interrupted them by saying we already had a beer aging in second-use bourbon barrels that would be the perfect starting point.”
As the main alcohol in coquito is dark spiced rum, our challenge was to replicate that rum flavor without adding rum, since that’s against the law. Luckily, rum is typically barrel-aged in second-use bourbon barrels, and, at the time, we had a few of them lying around.
“There are hints of flavor carryover into the rum,” Brian says, “and using spirit barrels is the best way to get spirit character into a beer since we can’t go about adding spirits to beers.”
The barrels held Bourbon Barrel Aged Concrete Ship for about ten months before we transferred it over to a steel fermenter for a few months before we packaged it up. Once the barrels were free, we were looking for another beer to take residence in them.
“With spirit barrel aging, you get a ton of character on the first fill,” Brian explains, “but a subsequent fill will yield significantly lower levels of flavor extraction.”
We didn’t want to fill them up with another big stout or dark beer, but something lighter would allow for more extraction.
“So we brewed a big imperial cream ale to lay down for a year in these second use bourbon barrels without any endgame in mind,” he tells us, “so I’m very glad this project came about because it wound up being the perfect application for it. The vanillans from the wood definitely helped play up the overall sweetness of the beer, with a touch of oak bringing out some tannic quality to help balance the sweetness.”
However, knowing that a light beer is the base of this beer, you may be surprised by the strong copper color of Coquito.
“The color pickup was from the barrels,” Brian explains, “as it was a nice golden straw color going into the barrels. The bulk of the color pickup is from the charring of the barrels — whiskeys and bourbons are clear going into the barrels after all –, but being that these were second-use barrels, the color pickup was lessened a touch.”
As coconut is a huge component to coquito, we toasted 150 pounds of coconut flakes for the eventual conditioning of Coquito.
“The brewery smelled amazing that day,” Brian explained, “as we were toasting the coconut for a good couple of hours to get through it all.”
Conditioning on coconut can be tricky, as Lab Manager Lauren Appleman explains.
“If you go too far it can taste like drinking sunblock or give the beer an unpleasant, oily mouthfeel,” she explains.
We conditioned Coquito on the toasted coconut and “an obscenely expensive number of whole vanilla beans,” according to Brian.
“After a week, the beer was tasting great,” he tells us. “Once we got it off the vanilla and coconut, we did an extra round of conditioning on cinnamon and cloves to be able to carefully dial in that spice component.”
Ultimately, everything came together rather nicely.
“I think the adjuncts that we used complement the flavors that were extracted from the barrels very nicely,” Lauren said.
“We’re not trying to trick the drinker into thinking the beer is a cocktail,” Brian explains, “but rather we’re going for inspiration from the cocktail: the overall drinking experience, the flavors, the mindset of the cocktail. And with this finished product, you can definitely pick up the inspiration from the original drink.”
For those familiar with the deliciousness that is coquito, they’ll definitely appreciate Coquito. The beer’s underlying sweetness is cut by the subtle oaken finish, and the vanillins extracted from the wood are complemented by a generous addition of Madagascar vanilla beans.
“It’s a dessert beer for sure,” Brian explains, “not something you’re going to be shotgunning out of the can and guzzling back.”
But, that’s definitely a good thing. At 11%, pounding these 16-ounce cans should not be in your plans.
“This is a sipper for sure,” Brian says. “Pour it into your favorite tulip, let it warm up, swirl a few times to bring all the aromas to the forefront.”
This beer came together rather well and is perfect for sharing with loved ones over the holiday.
“I plan on hanging onto a couple of cans and break them out for the traditional Christmas morning breakfast of cinnamon rolls with my family,” Lauren says.
Lauren loves the journey of this beer.
“It went into the barrels without a clear idea of what we wanted from it,” she says, “and sometimes the best things can come from uncertainty.”
“This was a really fun project,” he says, “and I’m glad that the end result came out so unique and tasty.”
Coquito is available only in our Tasting Room beginning Black Friday, November 29th, for $18.99 + tax per four-pack. We open at 9am for Black Friday shopping, and the fan appeal is real for this one, so plan to arrive early.