Sad day… the 3-day Labor Day weekend is over and it’s time to go back to work… for all intents and purposes, summer is over… and we have the last of our three coffees from Vesta Coffee Roasters in Las Vegas. This one is a wine barrel aged coffee from Vesta’s experimental series, so let’s check it out!
VESTA COFFEE ROASTERS WINE BARREL AGED SAN MARCELINO
I really enjoyed drinking Vesta Coffee Roasters’ Ethiopia Kocehere and Peru Amaybamba (links above) coffees. This new-ish Las Vegas roaster/cafe really went for it right out of the gate and I like their sourcing and their roasting. Very enjoyable, nice coffees. Check out Sprudge’s Build Outs of Summer article above for more of the back story on Vesta, too. I saved what I figured would be the wild card coffee for last! This is the kickoff first release in Vesta’s Experimental Series and it’s a wine barrel aged coffee with notes of, “red wine, dark chocolate, coconut” according to Vesta.
For me, barrel aged/conditioned coffees are a bit of a catch-22. I drink coffee because I like the taste of coffee. Sure, occasionally I’ll have a milk-based drink or a cafecito or something else, but 99% of my coffee and espresso consumption is unadulterated. Within the last handful of years, coffee roasters have started to condition coffee in booze barrels. I believe this is a cue from the craft beer industry, who’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time. I’ve had a couple wine barrel coffees, a coffee aged in a rum barrel, and a few whiskey barrel coffees. On the one hand, the whole point of doing this is to taste something new and different in the coffee, but on the other hand, these methods can mask the inherent flavors in the coffee, too. I guess I’m a little bit of the “If I want a cup of coffee, I’ll have a cup of coffee, and if I want a glass of wine, I’ll have a glass of wine” type of guy. All that being said, I’m interested to try this coffee and I’m always open to new experiences. Vesta even acknowledges that, “It’s not for everyone” and they suggest this as an after-dinner coffee, which probably makes more sense than drinking it in the morning like I am!
It’s a well-known fact that green coffee beans quite readily soak things up from their environment. Many importers can tell you stories of entire containers of coffee destroyed because they were shipped next to chemicals or something else that tainted them. Green coffee needs to be handled quite carefully because the beans are like little flavor sponges. Vesta took advantage of this by putting green coffee beans from Finca San Marcelino into spent Cabernet barrels made from American Oak. These beans were in the barrels for 30 days and they picked up a lot of character from the wood and the wine that was left over in the barrels. This all happens prior to roasting as you wouldn’t want to roast the coffee, then put it in barrels and age it because the coffee would be losing its freshness at that point.
This coffee itself is Orange Bourbon variety grown at 1300-1650masl on Finca San Marcelino located near the town of San Isidro in the Sonsonate department of western El Salvador. It’s a washed coffee, which being the “cleanest” coffee process gives it the best chance of picking up interesting things from a barrel, probably. I used my usual pourover routine of a 1:16 ratio of 28g of coffee to 450g of Third Wave Water in a notNeutral Gino dripper with Kalita 185 filter. My Handground grinder was set to 3.
Opening the bag, the fragrance from this coffee was that of a natural coffee. It was a little boozy, a little fermenty and fruity. Blinded, I would’ve called it probably a Central American natural, maybe a “funky natural” from Nicaragua, even. It was definitely more fruity than winey, just smelling the beans. LIkewise, the aroma coming off the coffee was more something I would think of from a natural process coffee rather than an overt winey-ness. Thinking back to the first wine barrel aged coffee I had a couple years ago, it was so subtle I couldn’t taste anything in that particular coffee. Not the case with this one from Vesta! At just-brewed temps, this one whacked me on the face with the wine and oak notes! It mellows as it cools, again keeping an aroma that is more consistent with the fruit notes I get from Central American natural process coffees.
Taking a sip, though, the wine and wood character of the barrel really comes on strong. There is a bit of a fermented berry tone to the fruitiness of the cup rather than the complexity of wine, at least in the front of the sip. There’s a lot of oak in the early part of the sip, too. In the middle of the sip it’s really all about the wood, which then tapers off into a bit of an astringency and some charred wood notes in the finish. There is definitely a wine-like mouthfeel to this coffee and the astringency from the oak is a little too much for me, but not bad. Waiting a while between sips definitely leaves a wine-like aftertaste and makes me feel like I’ve been sipping on wine and not coffee! It’s hard to know what is in this cup that is coffee and what is from the barrel, really, because the dominant notes are things I associate with the wine and barrel, or maybe with an experimental style of natural processing, but not with a washed coffee. In this instance, the coffee is really the vehicle for the wine and wood.
Getting more into the coffee, it’s a medium-light roast and there are some roasty notes in the cup, but I suspect those are from the wood (I’m assuming there is some level of toasting or charring on Cabernet barrels but I could be wrong) of the wine barrels. There’s a medium body and nice caramel sweetness to the cup. That’s about all I can get from the coffee itself. The dominant flavors in the cooling cup are a fermented berry/red fruits note and oak in the middle of the sip. Larger sips are less astringent and have a nicer finish for me. I do get some dark chocolate and especially vanilla notes in the long, long, long aftertaste between sips, too. The wine character with the sweetness of the coffee itself reminds me of a port wine or a dessert wine like a Hungarian Tokaji.
I had no idea what to expect from this coffee and I quite like the result. I would call Vesta’s first foray into their Experimental Series a success. I think they’re correct, that this is not a coffee for everyone (is there any coffee that is for “everyone”?) and I also agree that this would be a great post-meal coffee, maybe doing well paired with a dessert or even a pipe or cigar. Even going into this with strong biases of liking coffee, and liking wine, but liking to keep them separate, I did enjoy my cups of this wine barrel conditioned coffee. Since I’m mostly a morning coffee drinker and rarely have coffee once the day’s work is started, a coffee like this (or anything conditioned in an alcohol barrel) is not really in my wheelhouse, but it was still enjoyable and I would say the experience is most similar to a really wild and weird natural coffee like one of Miersch’s funky naturals. I found my palate attenuated to some of the oakiness as I made it into my second cup of this coffee and that highlighted the fruitiness and ferment-like qualities of the coffee. I think coffee drinkers who love a super clean cup would probably have some issues with this coffee, but if you like weird Indonesian coffees or off-the-chain naturals, I think you’re already halfway there to really enjoying what Vesta did with this San Marcelino. Would this be a go-to cup for me? No, and I don’t think Vesta intends it to be, but that being said, a lot of very complex coffees aren’t necessarily a “go-to” for me because at a certain point, complexity and drinkability are inversely proportional. Did I enjoy this coffee? Very much so, and for me, that makes it a win!