The aroma alarmed me. It filled my car with the sweet, woody burn of whiskey, as if Hank Williams were riding shotgun with an open bottle in his hand. One minor traffic infraction, I thought, and the cop's going to force me to walk that invisible line, reciting the alphabet backwards.

Baby Rye Rye: Irish coffee for your morning commute. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Baby Rye Rye: Irish coffee for your morning commute. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

But I had nothing stronger in my to-go cup than coffee freshly made that morning at Qualia, the Petworth micro-roaster and java-slinger. Really, I swear. I don't start with the hard stuff until, you know, noon. This was a cup prepared from Qualia's Baby Rye Rye, a reserved line of Colombian beans that are aged for about two weeks in a charred oak rye-whiskey barrel, then roasted and rested.

"No matter where I am in the shop," says Qualia owner and roaster Joel Finkelstein, "if somebody orders a cup of that, I know it." The whiskey aroma apparently hits him like a morning belch from Ernest Hemingway.

It turns out that green, unroasted coffee beans are highly absorbent. They soak up the aromas of their environment. Any environment. Beans, for instance, that are poorly packed can smell of burlap from the bags in which they're shipped, or the exhaust of the trucks that haul them to your neighborhood roaster, says Joshua Harding, design and marketing manager for Ceremony Coffee in Annapolis.

Ceremony was a pioneer in barrel-aged coffee. More than two years ago, the roaster was experimenting with a variety of coffees and a wide range of whiskey and wine barrels. "It was all guess work," Harding says. "We were just curious on what would happen."

What happened was that Ceremony, through sheer genius or dumb luck or some combination of the two, created eight barrel-aged beans that the roaster liked enough to release to the public. Among them were Costa Rican beans aged in a cabernet sauvignon barrel and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe aged in a bourbon barrel. The coffees earned raves from third-wave geeks.

And then they were gone, never to return.

"Our goal is not to experiment and distort the coffee further from what it is, but to bring the focus to the purity of the coffee itself," Harding says. "We just decided it wasn't going to be a series that we continue."

Other local roasters have filled in the gap, however, including Finkelstein, who has been perfecting his recipe for barrel-aged coffee for more than a year. He learned that some green beans, like those from Sumatra, don't not work well after barrel-aging. "It would smell like turpentine," the Qualia owner says.

Finkelstein settled on a wet-hulled Colombian coffee (wet-hulling involves removing some or all of the outer cherry of the beans and letting them ferment for a day before drying).  The beans offer the kind of blank canvas that Finkelstein desired. "I wanted something that was a little bit bland," he says. "I wanted it to be a little bit of a background [note] to the bourbon."

Unlike Finkelstein at Qualia, Chris Vigilante, founder and roaster at Vigilante Coffee, prefers the malty, low-acidity and dark chocolate complexity of Sumatra beans for his barrel-aged coffee. Then again, Vigilante creates a far different product than Qualia — and relies on a far different process. Vigilante ages the Sumatra beans in a 9-year-old bourbon barrel from One Eight Distilling after he roasts them. Then he turns the barrel-aged beans into a cold brew, which Vigilante sells for $4 for a 16-ounce serving.

"To be honest," Vigilante confesses, "our coffee guys weren't in love with it."

But Vigilante's customers love it. So do the coffee drinkers at Qualia. "That stuff flies off the shelf," Finkelstein says.

This is the unfortunate dynamic of barrel-aged coffee: It takes a week, or sometimes multiple weeks, to produce a small batch, but it can disappear in days, no matter what the coffee geeks think of it. Vigilante has sold out of its latest batch of cold brew. Qualia was down to just a few scoops available on the counter.

Vigilante doesn't expect to produce another batch until the spring, at the earliest, when customers are ready to consume cold drinks again. Qualia, however, already has its next batch aging in a barrel at 3 Stars Brewing Co. "I'm trying to get it ready before Christmas," Finkelstein says.

So be prepared for it: Qualia sells individual cups of Baby Rye Rye for $3.41 each (or $3.75 with tax) or $15 for an 8-ounce bag of whole beans.

In the meantime, you could sample products from the coffee roasters' partners. One Eight Distilling, for instance, sells an Untitled Whiskey No. 3, a Tennessee sour mash aged in the same barrel used for Vigilante's roasted Sumatra beans. You can buy the whiskey at the distillery's Ivy City location (1135 Okie St. NE) for $17 for a 200 milliliter flask or $48 for a 750 milliliter bottle. One Eight also sells 200 milliliter flasks ($17) of Untitled Whiskey No. 4, which is aged in a barrel that Vigilante used for green coffee beans.

The green-bean experiment, incidentally, was a disaster from Vigilante's point of view. The alcohol-saturated beans didn't exactly catch fire when roasted, Vigilante says, but they "came out a lot ashier."

3 Stars will soon have a coffee-related product for sell, too: Called Desolation imperial porter, the beer undergoes a secondary conditioning with the fully roasted, barrel-aged coffee beans from Qualia, lending the beer a dark, malty and chocolate character. The porter will be available at the end of the week at the brewery (6400 Chillum Place NW) or at local retailers such as Whole Foods stores or Cairo Wine & Liquor on 17th St. NW. The porter has a suggested retail price of $11.99 per 750 milliliter bottle.

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