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Starbucks has officially jumped on the barrel-aged coffee wagon. The coffee giant will be selling coffee aged in whiskey barrels. There’s a catch, though. Starbucks whiskey-barrel coffees are only available at the company’s upscale Seattle Roastery – and they come with a price tag to match. An 8-oz Barrel-Aged Cold Brew or Barrel-Aged Con Crema will set you back a ten-spot. It’s all part of Starbucks’ attempt to recapture the cachet they once had, back when the coffee roasting company was a scrappy little startup with big dreams.
For those who follow coffee trends, though, barrel-aged coffee is not a new phenomenon. Companies like Death Wish Coffee and Coopers’ Cask coffee have been experimenting with it for a while, and Ceremony Coffee of Annapolis, Maryland is often credited with originating the idea back in 2012 or 2013. It actually seems to be one of those ideas that cropped up synergistically in multiple places around the country, as often happens with novel coffee ideas. Part of that has to do with the close-knit nature of the specialty coffee industry – it’s not unusual to find Master Roasters behind many iconic coffee roasting houses hanging out on discussion boards or discussing their experimentation with the noble bean from their Twitter accounts. However it came about, by early 2015, there were a number of roasting companies around the country and overseas playing with the specifics of aging coffee beans in old whiskey barrels.
The concept seems like a simple one – dump green coffee beans into barrels that have been used to age whiskey and let them absorb the aroma and flavor. After they’ve aged for a while, scoop them out and roast them in small batches to burn off the alcohol without burning off the flavor.
It works because both the barrels and the beans are remarkably absorptive. Oak barrels retain the flavor of the booze that’s been soaking into the wood for months, and coffee beans – well, they’ll absorb the aromas and flavors of practically anything. It’s one of the reasons that coffee beans make such good deodorizers.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Whiskey is a strong flavor, and it often overpowers the flavor of the coffee. It takes a special blend of coffee beans to stand up to the volatile oils in the old whiskey (and rum and bourbon) barrels and still retain its own flavor notes. A Kickstarter-funded startup, Whiskey Barrel Coffee, spent three years looking for the right whiskey barrels and the right coffee beans to create their signature coffee beans. Other roasters experimented with rum barrels and bourbon barrels, as well as different kinds of coffee beans. They played with the length of time to age the beans, and the degree of roast that would burn off the alcohol without killing the flavor and the finish. It’s not an easy balance – though one suspects that they had a whole lot of fun in the experimentation process.
When they get it right, though, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Renowned food critics and coffee reviewers marvel at the combination of coffee flavor and whiskey finish, and as the process has grown more popular, more and more roasters have jumped on the trend to try their own experiments.
Of course, it was inevitable that Starbucks would eventually pick up the trend and offer its own version of barrel-aged coffee. With its adoption by the most mainstream of all coffee chains – albeit in their luxury, high-end store – whiskey barrel aged coffee is now officially a part of the mainstream coffee culture. It’s only a matter of time before the cutting edge coffee connoisseurs are on to a new trend, but for now, barrel-aged coffee is it. (And, for what it’s worth, you can buy barrel-aged coffee from Death Wish Coffee and other quality roasters for a lot less than $10 a cup.)
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