What is it? Why is it? Stop doing it.
London Coffee Festival 2016, a beautiful place where people come together to celebrate the joy of coffee. To socialise with their peers, to experience great things. But also, to innovate.
I walked up to the stall occupied by The Gentleman Baristas on one of those fateful days because something caught my eye. The lads there were brewing their revolutionary Whiskey Barrel Aged Coffee, something I had never heard of before, and, in the spirit of trying everything once, I had a go.
Now, whiskey and coffee are often paired together, sometimes after a meal, choosing a coffee which will compliment the notes of the whiskey to offer a unique experience.
But barrel aged coffee goes that one step further, ageing green coffee beans in used whiskey barrels for around two weeks, letting the beans absorb all of the flavours of the whiskey but without the alcohol before it is then roasted and brewed.
In America, by law when whiskey or bourbon is made, it must be aged in brand new oak barrels. As each barrel is only used once, the used barrels are often shipped to other parts of the world for use in whiskey production there.
This makes it relatively easy to get a hold of them. They must have been pricey for The Gentleman Baristas, but there is clearly a vision and the stall was generating quite a bit of buzz.
There were two forms of the barrel aged coffee to try, one being as a filter (I think chemex but possibly V60, I don’t quite remember) and espresso. I tried the filter, and you know what, I was quite surprised. The taste of the coffee was there with a really nice aftertaste of the whiskey. Exactly what they were going for.
A little while later I was searching online for some of this coffee to brew myself but wasn’t having any luck. The Gentleman Barista website didn’t and still doesn’t have an online store so I did a bit of searching and managed to find some from Edson Taylor.
It was around 8 pounds for 200 grams, single origin Nicaraguan Pacamara which is fairly pricey. I wouldn’t normally pay that much for that quantity but considering there’s an added cost there, I was happy to give it a go.
I figured I would start brewing as I normally would any coffee. 20 grams in a V60 is my go to. I wasn’t very impressed, the entire coffee flavour was lost behind an artificial whiskey taste. It certainly didn’t taste like what I had at the festival which was much more delicate, granted it was roasted by different people.
I took a bag to work to get some of my colleagues to try. Over there, we brew with 24 grams of coffee in a beehouse type pour-over and we were overwhelmed by the perfumey-ness the coffee gave out. The room was full of the smell which, again, was more artificial than a pleasant whiskey aroma, almost stale. There were no fans.
So, I figured as I had a bad experience with an increased dose, I would reduce it and see the results. I had to take the dose down to around 10 grams to even get close to that subtlety I originally experienced, by which time the coffee was, expectedly over extracted.
Now, recently clear coffee became a thing. The method of making it is a guarded secret (not that anybody is trying to copy it) but, essentially, you evaporate brewed coffee and collect the condensation. It very quickly proved to be a gimmick without much in the way of quality. Really, whiskey barrel aged coffee is the same. What I believe is a really cool idea in theory mostly falls down when it comes to actually experiencing it. Why distort delicious coffees that have complex tasting notes?
Yes, innovation is important but we have to remember what’s most important of all and that’s simply the coffee. The best coffee we can find, brewed in the best way possible without the gimmicks.
After all, that is what the public trust us to do.