Mary Allen Lindemann and Jeremy Rävar, of Coffee by Design, raise glasses of coffee tonics in front of a display of coffee trees and gin barrels at the flagship store on Diamond Street in Portland. CBD and Three of Strong distillery collaborated on barrel-aged coffee beans. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Last fall, after noticing barrel-aged, spirit infused coffees popping up at coffee shops and roasteries around the country, Coffee By Design co-founder Mary Allen Lindemann decided her team should give barrel aging a whirl.

Lindemann and Coffee By Design Director of Operations Jeremy Rävar reached out to Three of Strong Spirits, a neighbor on Diamond Street in Portland, to ask if they could use some of their rum barrels for the project. The distillery didn’t have any rum barrels available, but lead distiller Graham Hamblett offered Rävar three 25-gallon, American white oak barrels they’d used for aging both their rum and their newest product, a golden-hued, 95-proof gin called Working Title Vol. 3.

“Jeremy tried some (Working Title), and his eyes kind of lit up, and he’s like, ‘Wow, this could actually be even more intriguing than a rum-barreled coffee,’ ” Hamblett recalled.

Normally, coffee beans are ready for sale after roasting. But with barrel-aged coffee, the raw beans spend weeks or months in empty spirits barrels provided by distillers, where they absorb residual liquor flavors along with notes of the barrel’s charred wood interior. Only then are the beans are roasted and bagged for sale.

After barrel-aging raw, green coffee beans from Honduras for three months, Coffee By Design launched the first in its “Spirits Alive” series in March. They named the coffee “Dame Alice Greele,” after a storied 18th-century Portland widow who owned a tavern where the Portland Food Co-op stands today.

Already, Coffee By design has sold half of the roughly 250 pounds of Dame Alice beans.


“The momentum of interest in it is growing,” said Lindemann. “Customers have been coming up to me lately and saying, ‘I have to talk to you about that Dame Alice Greele.’ It’s almost as if they bought it as a special coffee, and they’re trying it now and saying, ‘That’s an amazing coffee.’ ”


Maine is rife with creative collaborations between restaurants, craft brewers and distilleries. Partnerships between coffee roasters and breweries alone have produced a number of popular coffee-flavored beers in recent years, including Jolly Woodsman from Banded Brewing Company and Speckled Ax, Waypoint from Rising Tide Brewing Company and Tandem Coffee, and Fall from Maine Beer Company and Coffee By Design.

But while roasters can’t sell the collaborative beers in their coffee shops without a liquor license, the trace amounts of alcohol in barrel-aged beans burn off during the roasting process, so the coffee producers can benefit more from the partnership.

Chris Schofield, co-owner of Barreled Souls, and Michael Macomber, co-owner of Elements Coffee Roaster. Behind them are barrels used to age spirits and, a relatively new trend, coffee beans. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Barrel-aged coffee has been brewing nationwide since about the early 2010s, but the trend seems to have had another surge in recent years. Elements Coffee Roasters in Biddeford partnered with Saco’s Barreled Souls Brewing four years ago to develop Dionysus, their whisky-barrel aged Honduran coffee, and two years ago with Portland’s Liquid Riot Bottling Company, which provided rum barrels for Elements’ Bacchus coffee, made with Costa Rican beans.

“It’s a cool way to incorporate flavors that you wouldn’t get from the bean itself or through roasting,” said Hamblett. “It’s not like there are sweet flavors added, but it adds another layer of interest.”


“I am a whisky lover, so I love the flavor profile that comes through from the whisky, bourbon or rum barrels,” said Elements co-owner Katie Pinard. “I love those charred tasting notes. For the bourbon or whisky barrels, what comes through is the vanilla extract, maple kind of flavor of the whisky itself, which pulls all the way through the roasting process.

“There’s this light booziness that kind of makes you feel you’re treating yourself first thing in the morning,” Pinard added. “It kind of feels like an afternoon cocktail, but without the alcohol. It’s not sweet or cloying – it just brightens my day.”

While barrel-aged coffee contains no alcohol, the potent aroma released when grinding and brewing the beans suggests otherwise.

“Sometimes I walk in here and I know right away someone got a pour-over of the Dionysus, you can just smell the whisky,” said Elements co-owner Michael Macomber. “The joke is, ‘Don’t get pulled over with a cup of this.’ Because you’re going to have to try to convince someone there’s no alcohol in your coffee.”

Speckled Ax owner and roaster Matt Bolinder, arguably the first Maine roaster to produce barrel-aged coffee, knows exactly what Macomber means.

“We had one customer mention that his coworkers were looking at him with eyebrows raised,” Bolinder said. “He felt the need to explain what the smell was, but it was pungent enough to get side glances in the office.”


A display at Coffee By Design includes Oaked Portage Gin from Three of Strong distillery, Dame Alice Greele coffee beans that were aged in gin barrels, a coffee tonic, unroasted beans and roasted beans on a gin barrel. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Barrel-aged coffee beans tend to cost more than other roasted beans. Coffee By Design sells 12-ounce bags of Dame Alice Greele for $28, for instance, while many of their other coffees sell in one-pound bags for $18-$20. Anthony’s Small Batch Roasters sells one-pound bags of most of their coffees for between $14.99 and $17.99, but their 12-ounce bag of bourbon barrel-aged beans costs $21.99.

The considerable time and attention barrel-aged coffees take to produce accounts for the price difference. Rävar ages the beans for three months, rotating the barrels daily so the beans can evenly absorb the moisture inside the barrel walls.

There are no clear-cut rules for barrel aging – still a relatively new production method – so roasters who take on the science-y project also need to figure out which beans will complement the barrel they’re using, how long to age them, and how deeply to roast the beans afterward.

Bolinder said his earliest experiments involved a home roasting machine and pieces of cedar shingle he’d soaked in bourbon and sealed in mason jars with green coffee to see if it would absorb flavors. “And it did, it worked,” he said.

So in 2012, he collaborated with Allagash Brewing Company, which gave him some charred oak barrels they’d received from Kentucky bourbon and whisky producers Jim Beam.


Bolinder started his trials by putting 20 pounds of green Ethiopian coffee beans in the barrel. A few weeks later, he removed them to find he now had 26 pounds of beans, because they absorbed so much moisture from the barrel.

“So I knew just from weighing the coffee that there’s something significant happening here,” Bolinder said.

“Central American beans for us tend to roast more evenly than others, and I feel more comfortable experimenting with beans from that region so we can know what we’re going to get,” Macomber said, adding that Elements’ Honduran beans are less acidic than their African beans, which also makes them better suited for the barrel-aging process.

The barrels themselves can also range in potency, and whether a barrel is fresh from the distillery or has been used before to age a batch of beans are other variables the coffee roasters need to consider.

“One of the challenges of the conditioning process is matching the barrel to what you want your end results to be,” said Bolinder, who has aged beans between 10 and 30 days, depending on the barrel. “Twenty-five pounds in a fresh barrel might be ready in 12 days, while a second batch in same barrel may take up to a month.”

“There was a time where we let the beans go two months, and it was a bit too much, the flavor was too strong,” said Macomber. Conversely, he said they once tried to reuse a Barreled Souls barrel and found the flavoring too subtle, so they learned to use those barrels just once.


Dionysus coffee ages in whiskey barrels at Barreled Souls in Saco. The coffee is a collaboration between Elements Coffee Roasters and Barreled Souls Brewing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There is a little bit of improvisation at play here. You have to have a little room to move in this process,” Macomber said.

“We worked together deciding how long the beans should be in the barrel, and what size barrels to use,” said Chris Schofield, brewer and co-owner at Barreled Souls Brewing. He and Macomber use 15-gallon barrels that Barreled Souls sources from distilleries around the country. “Some barrels give the beans a different character. I do find that Dionysus is consistent in its underlying base character, but the nuances change.”

Barrel-aged coffees tend to be medium or light-medium roasts, since roasting them darker or longer would negate the hard-earned barrel-aged flavors. “I would rather the flavor be a little forward than too subtle,” Macomber said. “If it’s too subtle, the whole process of aging it doesn’t really make sense.”


Anthony’s Small Batch Roasters in York collaborates with nearby Wiggly Bridge Distillery on a bourbon barrel-aged medium roast.

“It’s very popular,” said Anthony’s coffee roaster, Eric Fernald. “It’s not the coffee people buy during the week. But there are people who tell me, ‘I live in Boston, but when I come up here for the weekend, I make sure to stop in for a bag.’ ”


Fernald uses organic fair trade Peruvian beans with hints of lemon and milk chocolate that pair well with the Wiggly Bridge barrel flavors. He said when they first experimented with the process, he was surprised by how the medium roast affected the beans.

“I thought a lot of (the bourbon barrel flavor) would cook off during roasting, but it almost seems to accentuate the barreled nature of the beans. So it has these notes of vanilla and oak and a little bit of smoky char that permeate into the coffee,” Fernald said. “And it made me wonder about flavoring coffees in other natural ways like that,” like aging in a hard cider barrel, for instance.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with flavored coffee, but barrel-aged coffee is different,” Rävar said. “Flavored coffee is for people who like a particular flavor. This is more for someone who likes coffee. It’s like coffee plus.”

“Coffee in Ethiopia is spiced with cardamom, for instance, so it’s not like adding flavor to coffee is an American novelty,” Bolinder said. “I guess we’ve mastered the sugary artificial syrup game in America. We’ve sort of turned it into a cartoon here, trying to mask the flavor of the coffee rather than complement it.”

Bolinder said when he first toyed with barrel aging, “I thought the idea of conditioning green coffee beans with a natural product was something that would be of interest.”

“We hear of more and more roasters trying (barrel aging) throughout the country, especially as we did research into the process,”  Rävar said. “I think it’s a lot of roasteries who are looking for what they can do with their coffee to make it better, more interesting and unique.”


But the appeal for roasters also includes the creative partnerships they’re able to forge with local brewers and distillers through their barrel-aging projects.

“Originally, we just enjoyed the collaborative spirit of (barrel-aging projects),” said Macomber. “It was less motivated by having a flavored coffee option, and more about, ‘Let’s work with these places and have these collaborative ideas come together.’ ”

Rävar said Coffee By Design plans to partner with another local distillery to produce a barrel-aged coffee this fall for their Spirits Alive series, this time likely using bourbon, whisky or another brown spirit.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of the options of what we can do with coffee,” he said. “There’s so much that can be paired with and played with. We want to be part of the future of coffee.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.