Portland, Oregon (aka The Hipster Capital of The World) has a long-standing reputation for coming up with some pretty kooky stuff. I mean, this is the birthplace of vegan strip clubs. And now they’ve started aging green beans in wine barrels.
It’s the brainchild of father-son team Bruce and Matt Milletto, who make up Water Avenue Coffee, one of Portland’s much-loved specialty roasters. We met with them to discover the thought processes behind using wine barrels, why this idea could only have been thought up in Oregon, and what it actually tastes like. (Spoiler: pretty damn amazing.)
Wine-Barrel Aged Coffee: The Flavour of Oregon
Oregon has a long history of being a wine country. Settlers to the Oregon Territory planted grapes as early as the 1840s, and the state is best known for its Alsatian-style wines, particularly Pinot Noir, Reisling, and Zinfadel. It’s those Pinot Noir barrels that Water Avenue are using to age their green beans.
The Willamette Valley planted its first strain of Pinot Noir grapes in the 1960s, and the Sokol Blosser Winery created the first locally grown version of the refreshing red vintage in 1977. Since then, it’s been one of the most established and well-known family-run wineries in Oregon.
Bruce and Matt explained to us that the two principal pillars of the Portland food scene are localism and a respect for terroir. And so it was an obvious choice, for them, to work with the winery to produce something amazing.
Wine & Coffee: Two Fruits in a Barrel?
“We were actually toying with the idea of combining the complexities of wine and the nuances of coffee for quite a while, and it only became a reality when we established a great working relationship with Sokol Blosser,” said Matt.
I was keen to ask him about the aging process. He told me that premium green beans from El Salvador are stored in the Pinot-washed barrels. They’re then rotated periodically over 2 weeks in a temperature-controlled warehouse to ensure an even infusion of flavours. Every single batch of the aromatised coffee is then cupped for quality control before it’s packed and sent out.
“Aside from Pinot Noir barrels, we experimented with some white wine barrels for a summer blend. We also tried bourbon barrels and, interestingly, Aquavit barrels too. However, we’ve found that the Pinot barrels really strike a balance between wine and coffee. We aren’t trying to create flavoured coffee – we really want the oak to complement and enhance flavours already in the coffee.”
Needless to say, I was desperate to try it.
Café au Pinot Noir: The Taste
The easiest thing to compare this coffee to is a dry vermouth, or aromatised wine. Just think of it as an aromatised bean. It smells incredibly winey, but tastes primarily of coffee. And what a great combination that is.
“We wanted to preserve the integrity of the flavours of the El Salvadoran coffee, pimping it up slightly with the barrel’s characteristics,” Matt explained to me. “Intrinsically, this coffee is still supposed to taste like coffee. There are notes of black pepper, berries, and caramel, with a very mild hint of tannins. The complexity of this really transcends into the wine world.”
“For this coffee, there’s a really crisp red apple flavour. Amazingly, the barrel-aging process brings that characteristic out while complementing it with this almost cherry-like ripeness. We generally serve it as a Chemex pour over to enhance the brightness of the coffee, but it’s great as espresso too – the intensity of it is multiplied considerably when pulled as a shot, and it definitely leaves an impression.”
Barrel-Aged Coffee That’s Grinder-Friendly
Now you might be reading this and thinking, that’s all well and good but what about my grinder? One of the biggest qualms when it comes to barrel-aged coffee is its tendency for the aroma to really linger in the grinder. But fret not, because we’ve been assured that this coffee won’t taint your burrs.
“The nice thing about this bean is that the aroma of it isn’t completely overpowering, unlike bourbon-barrel aged coffee, for example. In our experience, after a purge, there isn’t much of anything left and you can just use your grinder as per normal.”
A Cocktail of Flavours
But this drink isn’t just a great coffee that won’t damage your grinders. Because when made into a cold brew concentrate, it’s transformed into an incredibly versatile – and incredibly delicious – cocktail ingredient. Old Fashioneds, sangrias, spritzes, martinis… the possibilities are endless!
“If you can sort of picture using coffee as a base spirit in cocktail construction, it really starts to open up a lot of doors,” Matt told me. “There’s a trend right now for low-ABV (Alcohol By Volume) style cocktails. It’s really ingrained in European culture to drink these types of cocktails in the daytime, or over lunch, and it’s also a great option for mocktails too.”
In collaboration with Bull In China, a Portland-based bar accessory company, The Midnight Driver was born. It contains Pinot-barrel aged cold brew, locally sourced sea salt, olive oil, house-made orange creme de cacao, and some other secret ingredients. If that hasn’t inspired you to get something going, then – dude.
The Spirit of Coffee in Bartending
Coming from a bartending background himself, Matt’s excited to see speciality coffee being combined with spirits.
“I think coffee adds an extra element of craft in the bartending world, and vice versa. Treating coffee as a literal product is fine, but the combination of knowledge from both these industries is what we need to take this to the next level,” he explained. “The level of creativity and technicality behind bartending techniques is really helping the coffee industry look beyond the obvious. I personally really like how the World Coffee In Good Spirits is bringing out the historic relationship between coffee and alcohol, and I’d of course love to see the Pinot-aged coffee being used in the competition!”
Of course, making a wine-barrel aged cold brew coffee isn’t always easy. So Bruce and Matt have decided to help us out by also producing a shelf-stable coffee bar syrup. It’s filled with rich, chocolatey flavours from Water Avenue cold brew, and has been carefully sweetened and blended until the finest characteristics of the roast come rising through. What are you waiting for?
If this has blown your mind as much as it’s blown ours, get experimenting! Could this be the first step to a whole new movement in the coffee scene? We’d love to hear what you think about barrel-aged coffee and coffee cocktails in the comment section.
Article written by Christine Seah with special thanks to Matt Milletto of Water Avenue Coffee.
Edited by T. Newton.