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Oak Aged Coffee, Oh My!

This year at the Coffee Fest NYC show I started feeling a like I was going through the motions. It was great to see all my familiar friends and colleagues however it was starting to feel like groundhogs day or CF Seattle… until I ran into Ronnie Hass and Andy Springer from Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, Maryland.

They were brewing pour overs of a new experiment in coffee roasting technology… barrel aged coffees. That’s right, we’ve all fantasized about the idea at some point, why not, they age everything else in a barrel. Well Ceremony actually did it and it was delicious!

How? They took premium green beans, poured them into barrels; everything from Chardonnay wine barrels to bourbon whiskey barrels and let them sit for a spell. The results were oaky, winey coffees with added fruit elements and the round cheese-like nose of a white oaked wine.

Green coffee beans aging in oak barrels previously used for wine.

Green coffee beans aging in oak barrels previously used for wine.

Ronnie Haas, Ceremony’s Director of Wholesale was the one who came up with this project. Between Coffee Fest and SCAA we took a moment to talk about this unique coffee.

F+B: how did this brain-child form?

Ronnie Haas: Like most roasters, over the years we’ve experienced green coffee absorbing off-notes from the immediate environment. These have ranged from diesel fumes (during transit) to jute characteristics (during lengthy storage). Our working hypothesis for the BCS (Barrel Condition Series) project was that we could use green coffee’s absorbent nature to an advantage, positively affecting aromatics and flavors, by throwing it in used barrels that smelled unbelievably good.

F+B: Before conducting the experiment, what did you hope and fear would be the outcome?

RH: We went in aiming to augment gorgeous, fresh coffees without diminishing what made them delicious. Some of our early concerns were that through the barreling process we would lose the coffee’s core character, muting acidity or sweetness or dominant flavors. But that never really happened.

F+B: What were the various stages of the experiment? What different types of barrels did you use? What were the differences in the effect?

RH: We started out with a full-sized, neutral Cab Sauv barrel, loading in 75 lbs of green Mexico Santa Teresa. We rolled the barrel every 2 days and pulled samples from it every week to rather unscientifically check the progress (e.g., we smelled a lot of samples for winey, grapey aromatics until they actually started to appear).

F+B: What incarnation of the wine aged coffee do you like the most?

RH: It’s tough to call. The BCS 02 had bourbon and jelly doughnut going on, which is insane, while the BCS 07 has everything lovable about a tasty, washed Yirgacheffe with lots of dark and tropical fruit complexity added. See what I’m saying?

F+B: You were telling me it scored better after the aging process by, Ken David? Please explain what happened?

RH: It’s like turning base metals into noble metals, or something like that.

The Mexico Santa Teresa crop from this particular experiment (BCS 02) was roughly an 86 point coffee. It metamorphosed into a 95 point fruit nugget, I guess. Kidding aside, the whole project isn’t too drastically dissimilar from processing going on at the farm or mill, if you consider that some flavors are direct results of processing method.

Roasting works at Ceremony

Roasting works at Ceremony

F+B: Are you only using fresh green or is this a great way to improve a coffee that is past crop?

RH: Fresh, vibrant coffees only. I don’t know if we have any oldie-but-goodie coffees right now. Maybe someone will try it and find that baggy notes diminish in the process. But my assumption is that it would take a lot of barrel influence to do so, and you’d be left with an over-conditioned, unbalanced coffee as a result.

F+B: How long did you actually age the coffee for?

RH: It’s like the secret to wealth in the coffee business or the few pounds of Robusta sitting in the corner of the warehouse. No one’s talking about it. The truth, though, is that we’re constantly pulling from the barrels.

F+B: Will this be a new offering on Ceremony’s permanent menu?

RH: We sell out of the BCS coffees in less than a week, so unless we ramp up production/conditioning on them, these coffees will remain ultra-limited. We’ll continue to experiment with new barrels from different winemakers and distillers for the next year for sure.

F+B: Who do you view as the ideal customer for this great new product?

RH: Maybe the skeptics for starters. Some specialty coffee purists/colleagues might see this project as gimmicky or too far afield. Honestly I’ve been skeptical about every coffee we load, thinking it’s surely headed to hell by way of astringency or woodiness or ferment, but we’ve been able to avoid those pitfalls and manage cup quality extremely well.

F+B: Some purists did not like how much of the wine characteristic it took on, “not enough of the original coffee flavor.” how would you respond to them?

RH: I can see some people saying that regardless. We’ve compared the conditioned coffees with the originals ad nauseum, and in each series we’ve released the core characteristics are intact. We have the advantage, of course, of doing these side-by-side evaluations where others may just be tasting the BCS version.

F+B: What’s next, Hickory wood chips? BBQ coffee? Balsamic?

RH: The Bourbon barrel experiment was just released. It’s our first time releasing a Bourbon barreled coffee and our first time using an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. I think our first batch was a little light out of the roaster, but our second go at it is spot on, and the feedback is all-good. Imbibe Magazine got a chance to try it, and they just made BCS 07

the Imbibe Unfiltered drink of the week in April:

F+B: Where can we get this new coffee?

RH: You can find these coffees at your local coffee place brewing Ceremony or order it through our website:

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