In recent years, there has been a trend of aging coffee. The hype goes something like, "Aged wine is great. Aged whiskey is great. So is aged coffee!"
While it sounds great, it's not necessarily true that all coffee is going to be superior just because it's aged (nor is it with aged wine or whiskey, for that matter). However, aging coffee isn't exactly a novelty, either. It does deserve some credit and it can produce some impressive coffees to try.
Here's the lowdown on aged coffee's history, hype, and truth.
The History of Aged Coffee
When coffee first came to Europe in the 1500s, it was aged coffee. At that time, Europe's coffee supply came from the port of Mocha in what is now Yemen. Importing coffee to Europe required a long voyage by sea around the southern tip of Africa, so it naturally had some time to age en route. This held true as coffee production spread to Indonesia and India.
With these three coffee origins, time and the salty sea air changed the coffee significantly. Europeans came to prefer it over the taste of fresh coffee. In fact, when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Europeans largely rejected the fresher coffee that was newly available to them in favor of the aged stuff.
And so it came to be that some coffee was intentionally aged for six months or longer in large, open-sided warehouses in shipping ports. This location provided plenty of salty sea air to help mimic the aging process to which Europeans of that time had become accustomed.
Over time, the preference for aged coffee faded, and fresh coffee beans became the preferred type of coffee in Europe. Similarly, the United States' relationship to aged coffee shifted over the years as fresh coffee became increasingly available. However, in recent years, the trend of intentionally aging coffee has been on the rise in Europe, America, Taiwan, and elsewhere.
Many marketers are hyping aged coffee as a connoisseur product akin to aged wine or whiskey. While this is true for some aged coffees, others are simply stale, old coffees being repackaged as a specialty item. It's definitely a case of buyer beware.
Furthermore, some people claim that all coffee ages well. This is highly debatable. Some people also claim that the older a coffee is, the better it gets. Once again, very questionable.
Only certain types of coffee age well. They must be aged under the right circumstances or else they lose the oils which give coffee its aroma and flavor. Otherwise, the coffee simply becomes stale.
Also, most experts agree that coffee does not continue to improve the longer it ages because it simply loses more of its flavor as it ages. So while you can buy coffee that's eight years old, you may not want to drink it!
Which Types of Coffee Age Well?
Generally speaking, only certain types of green (unroasted) coffee beans age well. Usually, the best beans for aging will be high in body and low in acidity, though this is not always the case.
Good candidates for aging may include low-acid coffees from India and Indonesia, especially semi-dry processed Sumatra and Sulawesi coffees. These can develop a spicy, complex flavor as they age. Also, bright/acidic wet-processed Latin American coffees do very well because they tend to mellow as they age.
The Coffee Aging Process
Aged coffee is not the same as old coffee. Real aged coffee is carefully aged, usually for six months to three years. It is regularly monitored and the beans are rotated to distribute moisture and even out the aging process between coffee bags. This also prevents mold and rot from occurring.
Coffee is usually aged at its origin. It is often done at a higher altitude because the temperature and humidity are more stable than at lower elevations.
One of the more recent trends is for coffee roasters to age coffee themselves. They will often use barrels like those used for aging wine and whiskey to age their coffee. This imparts a whole new range of flavors and aromas on the beans. It also allows the roasters far greater control over the roasting process.
Coffees are usually tasted several times a year during the aging process. The beans are roasted after they have finished aging.
Usually, a dark roast is best, as it will even out the flavor and accentuate the body of the coffee. This is a common approach for a blended aged coffee or an aged coffee that is part of an overall blend. However, some connoisseurs prefer a light roast on their single-origin aged coffees. This tends to emphasize the single-origin nature of these unique products more heavily.
Good aged coffee does not taste like stale coffee. Coffee that is simply old will taste boring and flat.
Aged coffee has some oomph in its body without much acidity. It may or may not have some funk or "bagginess" (a burlap taste from storage). And it may be mellow and smoky, or (if it's aged in a barrel) oaky, woodsy, winey, or many other "-y"s. Each aged coffee is different, and that's part of what makes them so interesting to today's coffee drinkers.
Who Sells Aged Coffee?
There are many companies currently offering aged coffee. You can simply look for it on the label when shopping or ask your local coffee shop or roaster for recommendations. If a coffee company takes the time to age their beans, they're certainly going to let you know about it!
Here are a few suggestions for your tasting pleasure:
- Starbucks Coffee ages coffee at a warehouse in Singapore. These beans are then used in certain single-origin coffees and signature blends, such as their Christmas Blend and Anniversary Blend.
- Cooper's Coffee Company specializes in barrel-aged coffee. You can taste the difference between beans aged in old whiskey, rum, or wine barrels.
- Peet's Coffee offers an aged Sumatra coffee that is worth tasting.
- Bones Coffee Company Bourbon Barrel Aged Coffee
It should be noted that you will find barrel-aged coffee marketed by some big names in the whiskey business. The packaging and description make it sound like the bourbon is "infused" into the coffee bean. However, the "oaky" flavor they talk about really comes from the barrel, which (most likely) previously housed that brand's whiskey.
The actual whiskey would not have touched the coffee beans and the coffee is nonalcoholic. It's the same process any other coffee roaster would use; the brand name simply adds to the marketing appeal. Try a whiskey and coffee cocktail.