May 25, 2017

Barrel Aged Coffee Beer

The overlap of industries

With craft beer and specialty coffee still in their infancy, innovation has been the focal point of both industries.

Granted, coffee and beer have been around for a few millennia; it’s only within the past several years that the pioneers in both of these industries have really elevated the quality of their products. Small batch roasting is exploding across the globe, and craft breweries are popping up seemingly on every corner. Coffee and beer enthusiasts now have more access than ever to the latest technology, spawning DIY opportunities to create either beverage right in their own kitchen. Sometimes these kitchen experiments have a lasting impact on the market, and new flavour sensations are found almost by accident. Craft brewers are increasingly similar to chefs, concocting some rather wild combinations.

We have come a long way since 1516, when the best-known Reinheitsgebot (or purity order) was adopted in Bavaria, strictly limiting the ingredients in beer to water, barley, and hops. Visionaries have pushed the boundaries of what is compatible and even acceptable when it comes to adding certain ingredients during the process. Coffee beers have been around for several years now. However, with each creative step taken in the coffee industry, the beer brewers are right there to figure out how to incorporate it into their next keg.

So, what’s the latest innovation? Brewing beer with barrel-aged green coffee beans.

Green coffee exporters and roasters take great care to ensure their unroasted beans are protected from external aromas and flavours. Green coffee beans are porous and extremely susceptible to the surrounding environment. During shipping and storage, appropriate measures are taken to limit their exposure as much as possible.

However, a new trend has been developing: intentionally exposing vulnerable green coffee to desirable flavours and judging the result. One popular method that has been growing in recent years is to barrel age the beans. Oak barrels are typically used to age wine and Scotch whisky. Oak imparts aroma compounds to its contents, while also providing the benefit of converting harsh flavour compounds into more favourable ones. E.g. Tannins to Acetals; and acetic acid into fruited esters.

As per the pioneering spirit within the coffee industry, roasters, and wineries, distillers have begun to work together and test the effects of barrel aging on green beans. Beans are usually added to dry whisky barrels in an effort to not too drastically increase the moisture content of the bean, rendering it unroastable.

The general sentiment in coffee for the longest time has been that “fresh is best”. The shorter the time from when the coffee leaves the farm to when it’s consumed, the better (not including post-roast rest time). However, some roasters are resting their beans longer after roast, even one month or more. Now, barrel-ageing beans for weeks or even months prior to roast has become a topic of deep intrigue. So what is the result post-roast of these barrel aged beans? The general consensus is that beans aged in wine barrels pop with fruit forward notes. The barrel aged coffees taste sweeter and brighter than their non-barrel aged counterparts. For coffees aged in whisky barrels, vanilla is the predominant flavour, with hints of butterscotch and cream.

With many businesses owning both a coffee roaster and a microbrewery, it was only a matter of time before these barrel-aged beans found their way into beer. Many brewers were unsure of how some of the more subtle flavours of the coffee would hold up through the brewing process. For Jacob McKean, founder of Modern Times in San Diego, California, it was a surprise.

“The results are truly exciting,” he wrote. “The aroma is huge, with major notes of bourbon, oak, and coffee leaping out of the glass. The flavour is a crazy mash up of the above flavours plus chocolate, roast, and vanilla. It’s exactly the kind of super flavourful, boundary-pushing beer that got me into this whole starting-a-brewery thing to begin with.”

In reference to his barrel aged coffee stout named City of the Dead, he remarked, “We had no idea going into it if the barrel character of the coffee would translate to the beer, but it did, in a big way. It’s not a subtle aroma or flavour. It has strong notes of the barrel it was aged in, along with a really amazing toasted marshmallow character. It would be impossible to mistake a beer made with barrel-aged coffee for a beer made with non barrel-aged coffee.” The fusion possibilities of different beverages seem to be limitless. First, there was the coffee stout. Then there was barrel-aged coffee. Now there are visionaries wishing to merge even more industries. Achieving a drink with contributions from wine, whisky, coffee, as well as beer in one glass is truly revolutionary.

Exciting ventures are planned, and cooperation among various beverage industries is ever expanding. It is not uncommon anymore to see cocktails incorporating cold brewed coffee or beers brewed with a variety of ingredients. From tea to herbs and spices and far more exotic ingredients, the pursuit of delicious refreshments does not need to stop at the boundaries of one particular industry. As spring is just around the corner, more madness is bound to take place. Hopefully one of these wild trials will yield an altogether never-before-seen taste sensation that will take the market by storm.

Story by Zach Mazrim, Cafe Culture China Editor

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