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D.C. restaurants and bars have barrel-aged pretty much everything from soy sauce to hot sauce to a range of cocktails and beer. And now, Petworth’s Qualia Coffee is aging coffee beans in a rye whiskey barrels passed on from 3 Stars Brewing Company.
Owner Joel Finkelstein uses generic green coffee from Colombia, although he says the origin is not as important as the process in this case. When they’re added to the barrel, the dried out beans suck up the moisture and flavors of the alcohol. “The first couple batches we did were complete disasters,” Finkelstein says. “I left them in too long. It absorbed too much, and the beans actually started to ferment themselves, and they just get disgusting like vinegar.”
Getting the beans in and out of the barrel was also a challenge, given that it’s made for liquids. Finkelstein ended up drilling a bigger hole, which allowed him to test the moisture content of the coffee every 24 hours. It ultimately took a few days of barrel-aging to get the right balance.
Finkelstein then roasts the beans, which burns off any alcohol. The first successful batch tasted like good coffee, Finkelstein says, but it didn’t have much rye whiskey flavor—until he brewed it as espresso. “What we found out was it really worked very well as espresso, but didn’t work as well as a brewed cup of coffee,” he says. “Now we’re serving it as espresso exclusively, because that’s really where it shines.” He’s calling the stuff Baby Rye Rye, after the band of one of the coffee shop’s customers, Baby Bry Bry.
Finkelstein jokingly put a $120 price tag on the display bag. “We really don’t have enough of the coffee to sell it by the bag,” he says. “I just added a zero to our usual price… That was my way of saying, ‘Don’t ask.'” If you want to try it, a double espresso is only $2.50—the normal price for any espresso. Qualia will sell Baby Rye Rye off and on for the next two to three weeks. While the shop just ran out of its latest batch, it should have more by Saturday.
Finkelstein says he’s heard of people aging coffee in wine barrels before, but never whiskey barrels. He’s since gotten offers to age his coffee in barrels previously used to age cocktails. He also plans to give some of the beans back to 3 Stars for them to brew another beer.
Photo courtesy Qualia Coffee