Everything Old Is Brew Again

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
August 2014

Restaurant

Discerning coffee drinkers cringe at the thought of a shot of espresso pulled more than two minutes ago, and a pot of drip coffee left sitting on the burner for hours is practically a death sentence for your taste buds. But how about beans that were kept in storage for seven years before roasting? Jay Caragay, java aficionado, bibitory adventurer, and owner of Spro Coffee in Baltimore, Maryland, is testing the waters of “vintage” coffee and finding that good things sometimes come to those who wait.

Caragay, intent on exploring every step of the bean-to-cup process, has been roasting coffee since 2006, and it was early in his roasting career that he began to experiment with the temporal aspect. “In 2007 I was out in Tokyo, and I stopped in a place called Café de l’Ambre. The owner, he might be 100 [years old] this year, has been making coffee for at least three generations. He’s got coffees in there that are literally 30 years old,” Caragay recounts. “It was the most amazing experience.” Inspired by owner Ichiro Sekiguchi, Caragay returned home eager to undertake his own aging.
 

Spro Coffee – Baltimore, MD

Spro Coffee – Baltimore, MD

Coffee Roaster Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee – Baltimore, MD

Coffee Roaster Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee – Baltimore, MD

Coffee Roaster Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee – Baltimore, MD

Coffee Roaster Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee – Baltimore, MD

G4 Lekepipto, Natural Process, Ethiopia

G4 Lekepipto, Natural Process, Ethiopia

Honey Macchiato: Espresso, Baltimore Honey, and Half and Half</p>
<p>Macchiato di Castagno: Espresso, Italian Chestnut Honey, and Half and Half</p>
<p>Haupia Macchiato: Espresso, Half and Half, and Coconut Milk

Honey Macchiato: Espresso, Baltimore Honey, and Half and Half
Macchiato di Castagno: Espresso, Italian Chestnut Honey, and Half and Half
Haupia Macchiato: Espresso, Half and Half, and Coconut Milk

He selected two varieties from the 2007 harvest for his first round of aging, setting aside 132 pounds of each: Idido Misty Valley, a natural coffee from producer Abdellah Bageresh in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia, and Rancho San Francisco, a washed coffee from producers Delmar and Fernando Guillen in Chiapas, Mexico. The Ethiopian coffee was highly sought after at the time of harvest for its big berry flavors and pronounced citrus notes, while the Mexican beans were full bodied with an oak wood quality and moderate acidity. Caragay stored both beans just like those that were intended to be roasted right away—at room temperature in the roastery, in plastic lexans.

Typical coffee production sees beans reaching their final roasty status anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after they’ve been harvested. The process goes something like this: ripe coffee cherries are stripped of their pulp through either a dry process (also called “unwashed” or “natural”) which involves sun or machine drying to desiccate the pulp, or a wet process (also called “washed”), which involves copious quantities of water and sometimes fermentation to break down the pulp. The green beans are then hulled and polished to remove the remaining two layers of casings, cleaned, sorted, and graded. The beans are often roasted immediately by the growers, or they can be sold green to other roasters.

The Mexican beans that Caragay ages develop a slight peaty smokiness with the dark molasses sweetness of pumpernickel and raisins. And the Ethiopian have mellowed to a darker cherry-like profile, less bold and more nuanced than their original presentation.

As with his fresher beans, Caragay roasts his vintage coffees at about 420°F for 11 to 12 minutes. “When people say it takes 45 minutes [to roast], we consider that to be baking the coffee,” he says. “We just want to dry it out real fast, drop from 11 percent moisture down to 5 percent or 6 percent, and then let the Maillard reactions happen.” He doesn’t assign a brewing method to each coffee, instead allowing customers to mix and match beans and preparations according to their preferences. But coffee that’s been hoarded and coddled this long comes with a hefty price tag: $11 to $12 per cup. Luckily Spro has a dedicated customer base and draws visitors from around the city and country. Not everyone splurges for the high-priced items, but enough people are excited about them to sip right through the 20 or so pounds of each variety that Caragay roasts every year. His fresh coffee output hovers around 8,500 to 9,000 pounds per year.

Caragay embraces the success of these two vintages, but is the first to admit that his experiments don’t always turn out so well. “Not all coffees can withstand this kind of time and aging. Some coffees will be a shadow of what they were even just eight months later.” It’s hard to state with any certainty that coffees of a certain region or processing method are particularly well suited to aging, as harvests vary enormously from year to year, making consistency in the end product practically unattainable. While the 2007 Ethiopian harvest was truly fantastic, beans from that area haven’t reached the same heights since. Meanwhile Caragay has grower friends down in Hawaii who get great results every year, but produce on such a small scale that putting even a few pounds aside for aging means customers might not be able to enjoy any of it right now. It takes constant searching and sampling to find the next batch for which aging might be a viable option.

Exploring vintage coffees might be largely a matter of sailing uncharted waters, and the learning process will likely be a long one, but Caragay is confident about a few basic keys to success: “The coffees that have the greatest potential to do well over time are the ones that are really well grown, well picked, and well processed. It’s like wine making, it depends on the sun and the rain, the moment you pick it, and how you process it.” At the moment he’s got a washed 2011 Nyaziku CWS from Rwanda putting in its time, and if the 2011 Cup of Excellence award these beans received right off the bat is any indicator, they’re going to be well worth the wait.

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