Happy accidents in the history of food and wine have resulted in many of the world's great gustatory pleasures. During voyages to the New World, tropical heat unintentionally cooked the brutally acidic Madeira, softening it into a delicious wine. A piece of cheese left with some bread in a cave in southern France formed a moldy mess that eventually became the famous blue cheese we call Roquefort. A similar fortunate mishap created aged coffee.
Coffee beans shipped to Europe from India and the East Indies in the early- to mid-18th century were stored in the hulls of wooden sailing vessels. During the four- to six-month voyage around the Horn of Africa, humid conditions within the ship leached out the acidity from the coffee, making it smoother and more mellow, with added layers of complexity, much the way a tannic wine softens and develops nuances with age. The advent of steel ships and a shorter route though the Suez Canal stifled this aging process, though it took years for people to figure that out. When they did, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they created their own aging processes for coffee, much like Roquefort producers who inject penicillin bacteria into cheese instead of waiting for nearby bread to get moldy.
Aged coffee turns on its head the notion that good coffee has to be made from fresh beans. Still, aged coffee is "an acquired taste," says Jerry Baldwin, chairman of Peet's Coffee & Tea in Emeryville, Calif. "It's like an Islay single malt Scotch. Aged coffee develops nutty or woody flavors that are quite unique and quite different from fresh coffee from the same origin." To me, aged coffee intensifies the characteristics of non-aged coffee from the same region, much like a wine with more extract and body.
Aged coffee represents less than 0.5 percent of specialty coffee, according to Ted Lingle of the Specialty Coffee Association, an industry trade group based in Long Beach, Calif. (Specialty coffee, which comprises about 12 percent of all coffee sold in the United States, is made from superior arabica beans, as opposed to supermarket coffee, which is made from lower-quality robusta beans.) Nonetheless, John Martinez, a coffee roaster in Atlanta, has high hopes for aged coffee. He thinks that in the not-so-distant future we will see vintages for coffee the way we see vintages for wine, and coffee lists will be as common to restaurants as are wine lists.
|How to Get It
Aged coffee costs from $11.50 to $14.00 a pound, about $1.00 to $2.00 a pound higher than regular coffee from the same origin. Mail order is often the best way to buy coffee because beans are usually roasted the day they are shipped, ensuring freshness. Here are some sources.
| J. Martinez & Co.
| Josuma Coffee Co.
Menlo Park, Calif.,
(5 pound minimum for espresso, 10 pound minimum for Monsooned Malabar)
| Peet's Coffee & Tea
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Indonesia is the prime production area for aged coffee, in part because it's one of the two places where it all started. Coffee from the island of Sumatra is the most widely available aged Indonesian coffee. Exactly how the aging is done is a bit mysterious. In its most elemental form, beans are stored in burlap sacks in well-ventilated warehouses to prevent mildew. But that's a bit like saying wine is stored in wood. Subtleties abound. For example, Martinez thinks that aging beans in the parchment that naturally surrounds them enhances the fruitiness of the coffee.
Monsooned Malabar is an aged coffee from India. The aging, or monsooning, process, begins with the monsoon (or rainy season) in mid-June, near the town of Malabar, on India's western coast. Over the next three months, coffee beans are spread 4- to 6-inches thick on the floors of warehouses. The beans are raked every two hours to even the absorption of moisture, which swells the beans to almost twice their size and helps minimize mildew. This process also bleaches the beans to a pale gold color (from their normal green color), making them look more like peanuts than coffee beans. Then the beans are bagged in burlap for a period and opened onto the floor again. How long the beans are raked and how long they are kept in bags varies. Though it lasts only three months, the monsooning process gives beans the equivalent of three years of "traditional" aging (the way Indonesian coffee is aged, for example) according to Joseph John, whose Josuma Coffee Co., in Menlo Park, Calif., imports Monsooned Malabar.
What's the optimum age for aged coffee? What's the optimum age for Cabernet Sauvignon? For Pinot Noir? It depends. John says aged coffee has to be at least one year old. Baldwin shoots for two to four years. Since coffee aging is still relatively uncharted waters, Martinez says he isn't sure what the peak is. "Ask me in five years when I know more," he says. Martinez's aged Sumatra is a minimum of five years old, which is the oldest he can get right now.
Because even people in the coffee business don't know a lot about aged coffee, hanky-panky is not uncommon. Occasionally, coffee is passed off as aged when it's just plain old, like wine forgotten in a closet instead of carefully maintained in a temperature-controlled cellar. Rather than tasting rich, mellow and nutty like aged coffee, old coffee tastes cardboardy, flat and dull. In India, some coffee processors try to mimic the monsooning process by spraying the beans with water. "It's like putting wood chips in wine instead of aging wine in oak barrels," Martinez says.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Cooking to Beat the Clock