I know, I know. We're all thinking the same thing. Portland found one more thing they could infuse with booze? This time, a beautiful single origin coffee from El Salvador, aged in an oak Pinot Noir barrel? Sure. But think again: beyond gimmick and Portlandianism, to a subtle, thoughtfully conceived coffee roasted by Southeast Portland roaster Water Avenue Coffee, balanced and still very much a coffee beverage.
Water Avenue partner and roaster Brandon Smyth came to the unusual idea—coffee beers are sometimes aged in oak barrels, but not coffee coffees—through winemaking.
"A long while back, when I was still roasting at Stumptown, I was making my own wine. And you can either go out and buy a barrel, which is pretty expensive, or you can add oak powder to wine. And I was making a red wine and I was tasting it before and after I put the oak in there, and what I expected was the oak to tasty oaky, to taste woody. But it actually brought out a bunch of berry, fruit flavor! So I thought, oh man, that'd be cool to try that with some coffee."
Smyth originally dropped the oak experiment on some Sumatran coffee beans, post-roasting, and found the final brew fruity and "more burly" but overall a bit extreme. His next move was to try aging green, unroasted coffee beans for a short time in a barrel used for making red wine. But it's not as easy to find a good used wine barrel as you might think—Smyth says one vintner was "so confused by what I was asking and what I was planning to do with it that he thought I was a crackpot." But when he finally came into possession of a decommissioned Pinot Noir barrel from Oregon vintners Crowley Wines, he knew he just had to use the right coffee. "I opened it up and it just smelled amazing," Smyth said. "Like cherries."
Luckily, Water Avenue already had a coffee called El Manzano from El Salvador in their repertoire—a coffee with whose farm they've had an ongoing relationship, and which offers flavors of apple, dark berries, caramel and chocolate, while still maintaining a sunny acidity. It's also a pulp natural processed coffee, meaning the freshly harvested coffee undergoes its drying period with the fruit's mucilage still on the bean, which can result in sweeter and fruitier flavor in the cup.
"I thought, it's a pulp natural, and the fruit flavor it had had a lot of red apple to it," said Smyth. "There's a certain crispness to it that I felt if you were going to add anything to it, that clarity of that coffee would only bring it out more. The barrel's not going to cover anything up that would actually be detrimental to the flavor," said the roaster.
"To me, those fruits that come out, the cherry from the barrel work really well with the red apple from the Manzano. I also feel like having a little bit of pulp helps the coffee absorb the flavor. Pulp naturals age really well, they have a lot of that pectin on the bean that helps protect them from the environment."
And the results are vivid: a balanced coffee whose intrinsic apple and cocoa flavors and the delicate oak and cherry additions exist in harmonious parallel. You can separate them out in your brain—but in a way that is more likely to surprise and make you rethink tasting than anything else.
Water Avenue has already gone through 300 pounds of the 13-day-aged coffee beans, and they expect to be able to age another 500 pounds before they think the barrel flavor will begin to fade—then again, Smyth doesn't really know when that will happen, because he's never tried this before. What's next?
"I know a guy down here who's a cooper making cedar barrels, so we're going to do a cedar one which might be interesting. I don't want to get too far into it because, while it's interesting and it's fun, I'd like to have one thing going on, or all of the sudden, are we flavoring coffee? Is it just manufacturing it, or a certain kind of gimmick," mused Smyth. "I don't want to get too weird."
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop, is the New York City correspondent for Sprudge.com, and contributes to other outfits worldwide.