Just two steps into Pure Intentions Coffee, I found the air smelled exactly as I dreamed it would.
A red-clad person-sized Ambex roaster was hard at work at the back of the room, transforming green coffee beans sourced from Mexico into future morning-fuel.
It’s a far cry from where owner Matt Yarmey began over five years ago; his original roaster sat on a table-top and could only handle a half-pound pittance at a time.
Now, the drum of his current roaster can manage up to 60 times that.
But my trip isn’t for any regular cup of joe. I’m here to see some bourbon barrels (and I promise I’m not lost).
Rewind two and a half years ago or so: Yarmey’s friend Denny Deaton read an article about barrel-aging coffee written by San Diego-based Modern Times Brewery, began a back-and-forth with the brewers, and passed the ensuing conversation along.
“Denny actually got a hold of one of those little table-top Balcones whiskey barrels,” recollects Yarmey of their next steps. “I can’t even imagine it would hold more than ten gallons. We put seven pounds of green coffee in it, just to see what would happen. We took it out, and roasted it for Queen City Brewers Festival. We sold out in ten minutes; it was bonkers.”
“That was before I knew anything about why the barrel was doing what it was doing to the coffee; it was just a dumb-luck ‘we read an internet article and tried it,’ and it worked.”
Green coffee beans are little flavor sponges, with a tendency to soak up their surroundings. As such, special consideration must be given during storage and even shipping. Put a stack of burlap sacks of beans next to a crate of garlic, for example, and the beans will inhale those characteristics.
They’ll do more than simply absorb aromatics; before being roasted, they carry an unquenchable thirst that’s literally dehydrating.
A barrel’s worth of these thirsty beans leaches moisture from the charred staves until daylight shines through the seams.
Pure Intentions has just finished this inaugural run of barrel-aged beans, with a Nicaraguan rum barrel imparting flavors to coffee from Mexico’s Oaxaca region.
During the exchange, the barrel was rotated intermittently to maximize the beans’ exposure to the wood surface.
A sequel is already in the works, which brings me back to those bourbon barrels I sought today.
While the two barrels share a common origin of the A. Smith Bowman Distillery, they house different contents.
The first hosts coffee grown in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s South Kivu region (slated for a March release); the other’s beans hail from the Madriz region of Nicaragua (targeting June).
This is Pure Intentions’ first foray into barrel-aging beans, though several months ago they did age some cold-brew in a barrel from Belmont’s Muddy River Distillery. “I would almost say it’s not worth doing cold brew in a barrel,” he laments. Flavors were front-loaded, and getting liquid in and out of a barrel required synchronizing schedules with Free Range Brewing, plus they had to have enough empty kegs on hand to manage the entire batch.
So what are the next steps in Pure Intentions’ barrel-aging program?
Yarmey has some very specific goals. “By the end of 2017, if I could have at least tried a tequila barrel, a port barrel, and a wine barrel, that would be a successful barrel program for me.”
In mid-February, Pure Intentions plans to open a new, more public-facing facility (2205 N. Tryon St.). But just before those doors open, Matt Yarmey and his beans will fittingly journey westward to where this barrel-aging notion began. He’s accepted an invitation from Modern Times Brewery to pour his wares at the inaugural “Carnival of Caffeination” festival in San Diego.
As much as he enjoys these opportunities, Yarmey realizes there’s room for growth in Charlotte’s locally-roasted coffee scene.
“I hope that, by the end of 2017, I’m not the only person in Charlotte that’s barrel-aging coffee,” he says at the close of the interview. “The more people we can expose to this, the more popularity we can engender, and the more successful everybody’s program is going to be. It doesn’t need to be a specialty, one-off thing. It can be part of a normal coffee offering rotation.”
How can you get your lips on Pure Intentions barreled aged coffee? You’ll have to wait. I asked the same question and Matt told me, “Unfortunately for aging things, we have to let them sit for a determined time, so the next round won’t be released until March. We weren’t expecting such a positive reaction!”