There are few coffees that our customers get more excited about than our Bourbon Barrel aged coffee. And it is true, they have a fantastic, unique flavor to them. They’re bright with very strong vanilla, caramel and bourbon aromas and flavors in the cup. We don’t do flavored coffees, so this is about as close as we’ll get to flavored coffee around here.
Seems pretty basic. We always look to get local barrels. We’ve had some in our barrel aged coffees from Penrose Brewing. We’ve been able to source a couple of other barrels elsewhere. Most of the time, we’re purchasing from some of the bigger bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Bottom line – they have more used barrel inventory than most of the craft distilleries do.
One of the most important parts of finding a barrel is to get one that’s been emptied very recently – as recently as possible. Ideally within the last month, but definitely no more than 3 months old. After barrels have been sitting around for a while, they dry out and all of the wonderful bourbon smells disappear. We’ve attempted to re-hydrate some older barrels and it just doesn’t work out quite the same.
Let’s be honest – I love a great coffee with subtle flavors, bright acidity, and fantastic, unique flavor notes. Nothing beats our Ethiopian Yirgacheffe in a Chemex for it’s bright acidity and flavor notes. But when you do bourbon barrel aged coffee, all of those subtleties are for the most part going to be completely lost by the bourbon. Don’t use that beautiful Kenyan coffee that has a cupping score of 92.5 for this. Pick a mid-range Central American coffee with a full body and some heavy flavor notes. Maybe a Sumatra if you want something heavy.
Our preferred coffee for barrel aging is our Honduras coffee. The combination of a medium body and the mild acidity of this coffee lends itself well to the way the bourbon is going to change the flavor of the coffee.
These steps aren’t really complex, are they?
I don’t have a set of coopering tools so I need to keep my barrels intact as much as possible. Green coffee beans don’t flow as nicely as liquid does into the barrel so this step can be a bit of a trick. I usually form a cardboard funnel the size of the fill hole in the barrel and slowly scoop the green coffee beans into the barrel that way.
In other situations, we’ve cut a square cutout about 4″ x 6″ around the fill hole with a skill saw. This gives us a lot more room to scoop beans in rather than using a funnel. It all depends on how much you want to keep your barrel intact.
If you have a 53 gallon barrel, you can put anywhere between 40 pounds and 200 pounds of coffee in the barrel. The important thing to know is this: The more coffee you put in, the longer it’s going to take to get the bourbon flavors into the coffee and you might need to turn the barrel more often or let the coffee sit longer. We usually go with something between 80 pounds and 158 pounds (a full bag of Honduras coffee).
Needless to say, filling a barrel this way isn’t the most exciting step.
I’d recommend at least a week if you have a new barrel. Those coffee beans soak up flavor pretty quickly. If your barrel is older and a little bit drier, you might need to let it sit for 2 weeks.
If your barrel is only slightly full – say 25%-30% full, you don’t need to do much to the coffee. There’s enough exposed surface area where they’ll soak up the flavor pretty well. However, if your barrel is over 50% full, you should probably take some time to agitate the beans every day or so. Just rolling the barrel down the hall a couple of times should do the trick.
Sorry – you gotta cut the barrel. You can try to roll the barrel around and move it so the beans come out of the bung hole, but it’s not gonna work. I make a cut along the barrel stave around the bung hole and pull it out. This gives us enough space to roll the barrel over an open container (bucket,
I’ve also have tested using a (very clean… mind you…) shop vac, sticking the hose in the bung hole and sucking the coffee out. That works until the last bit of coffee at the end and then it’s way too difficult to get to the edges of the barrel. You’ll end up leaving about 3 or 4 pounds of coffee in the barrel which isn’t ideal – especially when you’re only doing a small amount in the first place. But then, if you want to keep the barrel intact, this might be the best way to go.
Generally, we stick to the same roast profile we normally do for whatever coffee is in the barrel. With one notable exception. Depending on how new your barrel is, your coffee has sucked up a whole lot of moisture. You need to let the batch dry out for a little bit at the beginning of the roast.
Depending on your roaster, you can do this a couple of different ways. We’ll drop the coffee in the drum and kill the gas for the first 2 or 3 minutes of the roast to let it kind of wash around in the dry heat of the drum for a few minutes.
Another option, especially if you have a smaller drum roaster, is to set your charge temperature much lower. We usually charge our drum at 400-420 degrees for a normal roast. If we wanted to let the coffee dry first, we might charge the drum at 200-250 degrees.
Both of these methods are probably going to add about 2 minutes or so to your roast time overall.
Bourbon Barrel aged coffee can bring a lot of unique flavors to a cup of coffee. It’s certainly not for everyone. Personally, it’s not my morning coffee. However, for dessert along with a piece of pecan pie a la mode? It’s a little piece of heaven on earth.
There are probably other ways to do this as well. If you’re a roaster and have experimented with barrel aged coffee, drop us a comment below. We’d love to hear how you’ve done it.