There are very few ingredients we use in brewing that we have such a love hate relationship with like coconut. Love/Hate as in I love to use it, but Michael not so much. Although he normally comes around once we have the final product. I tend to think that sometimes it’s a battle to use, but the rewards are great, while he cusses and swears we will never use coconut again. So, to save you some of the battles we have experienced, I will share the many ways we used coconut and some ways even I might have to experiment with.
The Real Deal
We will start with my preferred way: raw natural coconut. If you’re climbing coconut trees, breaking them open, shredding the flesh and using that; you’re a bad ass and much respect to you, but I’m assuming that most of you will get your coconut the same why I do, the baking aisle of the grocery store. There are a few things to look for and not all coconut is the same. While I did use already toasted coconut the first time I ventured into the ingredient, I have learned a few things since. Coconut, like so many things at the store, can have preservatives. You want to find unsweetened natural coconut. Flip the bag over and check the list of ingredients. If it lists only coconut, then you are golden. I tend to grab the organic large flaked coconut, but have used regular shredded many times. The bags are generally 7 oz and I use two in a 5-gal batch, but you can do more or less for your taste preferences. Just remember that coconut can absorb a lot of beer and you can lose some volume.
To toast or not to toast--that is the question. I say it depends on your desired outcome. For darker beers I like the nutty character that toasted coconut imparts, but for lighter beers I prefer the untoasted method. Toasting the coconut has a few advantages over untoasted. First and foremost is the release of coconut oil. Any oils in your beer can destroy head retention and mouthfeel. By toasting the coconut some of the oil is released before it comes in contact with your beer. I say some because it is impossible to get a uniform toast. To toast coconut, you spread it out on a cookie sheet (on top of foil, it makes gathering it later easier). Set your oven to its lowest setting and stare at it. I’m serious it can go from raw to burnt in a blink. My oven starts at 200 and I stand there, door open with a spatula in hand ready to stir at a second’s notice. I also spend time picking out pieces that are darker than I want them to be from the final product. It is a very quick process. The pace in my kitchen goes something like nothing, nothing, oh crap! Once I’m satisfied with the toast, I let it cool put it in a muslin bag, put it in an airtight container and a few days before pitching throw some vodka over that. Using raw untoasted is as simple as putting it in a muslin bag, putting it in a container and throwing vodka over it.
So, lets address my use of the vodka and the muslin bag. My preference is to use coconut in secondary. So, I treat coconut as a more delicate flavor to extract. At first, I put it in the boil, but that only killed my head retention and did not infuse more coconut flavor into my beer, which I had hoped. Now, I add it in secondary only and I sanitize with vodka. I also always use a muslin bag to contain it. Coconut floats, it doesn’t always sink to the bottom like hops or trub. My first batch using coconut was affectionately named Cluster F*ck after a very long night fighting with a clogged auto-siphon. Lesson learned. Always control your coconut additions with a bag or something like a stainless steel and mesh keg hopper.
A tincture is basically what we described above--soaking the coconut in vodka for a few days to withdraw flavor beyond simple sanititation. The difference is that in using a tincture you are only using the alcohol with the extracted flavors, not the actual bag of coconut. I am sure most homebrewers have at one time or another decided to dump or not dump the sanitizing alcohol into the brew. This can be an interesting way to use different alcohols (cleaner spirits like vodka versus flavored spirits like rum--which can add complimentary flavors). But definitely use caution. First, taste the extract before dumping it into your finished beer--you don't want to over do it. Second, taste it with the beer as you add it, so you don’t go overboard. Start with 1 oz per 5 gals and decide if it needs more based on tasting. It does not have to be done all at once. Of course, you are limited by how much you made to start with. I haven’t done this without also adding the infusing ingredient, but I can testify that the vodka my coconut soaks in tastes amazing. Using a tincture over the raw ingredient should eliminate the extraction of oils and therefore not affect head retention and mouthfeel.
Disclaimer: If you go the raw or toasted route, there should be a moment for disclaimers. Also, a moment of silence please for beers dumped that were probably perfectly fine. If you have ever used coconut oil you know it comes solid, but easily melts and solidifies. We had a stretch of time where every time we brewed with coconut, the batch ended up “infected” this led to A LOT of dumped beer and thrown away plastic fermenters. Also, plenty of the above referenced cursing. Then one of our friends pointed out that when we were cold crashing prior to packaging as we do almost all our beers that the oil from the coconut was solidifying on top of the beer (because oil is lighter then water) and what we perceived as an infected beer was just solid coconut oil. So, if you go the raw/toasted route and you pop open the lid to see floating oil, be sure to TASTE it! If it tastes good, then package and just be careful to leave the oil layer undisturbed as much as possible.
I will be honest in saying that extract is my least favorite way of adding flavor to any beer. But there are occasions when it is the only way I will use an ingredient. For example, peanut butter. For my tastes, it is the only way to add real authentic peanut butter flavor and not just peanut flavor. My advice for using coconut extract however is to Taste, Taste, TASTE. A little goes a long way and you will be threading the needle to find the balance between coconut flavor and “Oh wow, this tastes like sunscreen." However, this does 100% eliminate any head killing oil from getting in your beer. If I was dead set against using real coconut, I would probably make a tincture instead of using a premade extract. Just my 2 cents.
A few months ago, I decided to use toasted coconut and a few other ingredients in a British Brown Ale. After yet another “Oh no! Is this infected?!” scare we decided to brew that same beer using the Toasted Coconut candi syrup from Cascade Beer Candi instead of real toasted coconut. We used the Corpus Coconut Ale as guidance and added half the syrup to the boil and the other half to secondary. When thinking about the differences between the batches, I wish we hadn’t blown the kegs at a serving event and could try them side by side. Based on memory the results are amazingly similar with one notable exception: the beer using the candi syrup is missing a bit of the body and mouthfeel that we kept using the real thing. Thankfully this is an easy fix. We intend to mash a little higher next time around 166F instead of the 162F we normally use on the recipe. Any time you are using a highly fermentable sugar in a beer that doesn’t normally call for it, you want to mash a touch higher so that you do not experience the “thinning out" in the mouthfeel.
You might be surprised by this, but to go along side the existing tropical and juicy hops, there are a few varieties that will impart a coconut like flavor to your brew. I recommend these in IPA’s and Pale Ales you want to dose with a light coconut flavor. It trends towards a hint of coconut and not so much a heavy dose. So, if you are leaning towards a Pina Colada IPA you might want to add coconut in another form in addition to hopping for it. Some hop varieties with a coconut profile include Cashmere and Sabro. I recommend using these as dry hop or very late additions to coax the coconut flavors out.
This is one that falls into the experimental category. I’ve never done it and can’t find much information outside of some experiences of professional brewers who have done it successfully including Dogfish Head, so I feel its worth trying. To cover some basics, we are talking about coconut WATER not coconut MILK. Coconut Milk is made from the grated pulp of coconuts. It is extremely high in fat content and we have already discussed how bad that is for head retention. Coconut Water is the clear liquid found inside when you open a coconut. The information I found recommends using Coconut water as your mash and/or sparge water. Since this is a yet to be brewed experiment, I can’t speak to how much flavor this imparts. I will let you know how it turns out once we brew it. Or if you decide to do it let us know your results!
While not for everyone, coconut is easily one of my favorite brewing ingredients. I have successfully used it in everything from a Stout to a Cream Ale with much success. Just remember that coconut is a delicate flavor that fades over time, so these beers are usually best drank fresh!
Cicerone Certified Beer Server, Homebrewer, and Tireless Recipe Researcher