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Brewing up some perfect pairings for coffee
By John H. Isacs

Wine and coffee are two of the most beloved adult beverages. While quite different, they still share fascinating similarities.

One helps you wake up while the other is a perfect way to end your day and facilitate the onset of sweet dreams. Enjoyed in moderation both are good for your health.

Once seen as detrimental to one’s health, many modern diet pyramids encourage the moderate intake of wine and coffee.

Of all mankind’s greatest liquid creations, wine stands out. It is the most sophisticated, complex and progressed beverage in the world.

Tea, beer and sake all boast their illustrious histories, distinctive cultures and avid followers but none measures up to wine in terms of diversity, delicacy and ability to pair with food. Coffee by comparison is a relative newcomer with a mere 800-year history.

Despite a relatively juvenile status, the global popularity and status of coffee has grown exponentially.

Some have called the advent of the 21st century the golden age of coffee. So what has coffee learned from wine and has it actually become the new wine? There exist striking similarities.



The French word terroir has long been an important wine lexicon but increasingly is also popping up in the coffee world.

The most basic geographic breakdown in the wine world is old world and new world with the old world comprising Europe and the Near and Middle East and the new world being everywhere else that makes wine.

Coffee geography has three major areas, Africa and parts of the Middle East where it all started, the Americas that are now the largest producer and the Pacific Islands. Within these basic areas the sub regions are broken down into nations and then regions.

Getting even more precise, like single vineyards wines, there now exist single farm coffees. As is usually, but not always the case with wine, the smaller the defined area of production; the better the coffee.

Wine envy among coffee drinkers is reflected in their ways to describe the sensations of coffee. The modern descriptor vocabulary of discriminating coffee drinkers includes words like crisp, tangy, bright, balanced and even tannic.

Aromas and flavors are commonly described as leather, oak, chocolate, berry, citrus and even nutty. How wine-like!

Quality differentiators between wine and coffee are also similar. Soil, altitude, climate and selection all help determine the quality of wine and coffee.

The processes to make wine and coffee are of course different but a combination of technology and artistry are used in both. Despite these similarities the coffee industry still lacks stringent quality controls.

Unlike wines that are heavily regulated, especially in the Old World, by independent organizations that control everything from farming, yield, authorized varieties, aging, labeling and more; coffee names and even geographic origins have little independent oversight.

Phony premium or specialty coffees still abound though an increasing number of people in the industry are pushing for more stringent controls.

So personally I don’t believe coffee has or ever will attain the status of wine, rather more likely it will become the new tea.

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Coffee companions

We all know that coffee tastes great with cakes, cookies and simple breakfast food but what about enjoying it with other drinks including wine?

In general, coffee and wines should only be served sequentially not side-by-side with wine preceding coffee. Wines are simply too complex, refined and nuanced to share the stage with more brutishly flavored coffees.

Therefore, the golden rule of once your lips touch the coffee cup your wine experience is over, still stands true. Fortified wines are the exception.

I written on numerous occasions on the unparalleled pairing versatility of fortified wines with foods and other drinks including coffee.

While a nice fortified wine is a fine match with coffee, I still believe these wines perform best with food. Dry Sherry with seafood and Port with goose liver are sublime experiences. Therefore in a quest to find the perfect beverage companion for coffee one should really gravitate towards liquors, in particular those made from grapes.

Grappa, Cognac and other brandies all qualify, but for me only Armagnac is the perfect companion.

I personally find grappa a neutral partner with coffee while Cognac is a little too subtle and refined and consequently often overwhelmed by coffee. Enter Armagnac, the ideal coffee cohort.

Armagnac is the oldest French eau-de-vie or liquor dating back to the early 14th century. Unlike Cognac that is distilled twice, Armagnac is distilled only once and therefore retains more of the original flavors from the grapes.

The more southern and temperate climate of Gascony in southwest France where the region of Armagnac is located means the grape achieve greater ripeness thus imparting more robust flavors that better stand up to the equally stout flavors of coffee.

Cognac is dominated by a few large brands that market around the world, while the Armagnac industry remains quite artisanal.

The exclusive status of X.O and Extra level Cognacs is contrasted by the noble yet not elite position of Armagnac. In many ways Armagnac is a more diversified, inclusive and personal liquor. Not overly particular about its partner, Armagnac performs well with a host of foods and beverages including coffee.

When enjoying coffee with Armagnac I suggest pairing similarities, for example serving a young fresh and fruity VS Armagnac with a boldly flavored Ethiopian brew.

The acidic-bitterness of the coffee will nicely balance the lively acidity of the liquor and highlight the pleasant citrus fruit sensations. Older VSOP and Hors d’Age Armagnacs are best paired with more mellow coffees from Costa Rica and Panama that have distinct chocolate notes.

Likewise, the thick cocoa, nutty and smoky qualities of many Pacific Island coffees work wonderfully with the earthy notes and smooth texture of old Armagnacs.

The perfect meal will always be the domain of wine, however as the meal enters its twilight a rich coffee accompanied by a fine Armagnac make for a glorious ending.



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