A few weeks ago I took a few steps across a relatively new frontier of coffee connoisseurship known generally as “pairing,” i.e. recommending certain coffees that best pair with certain foods. Although I’ve always found the pairing process interesting, I’ve never pursued it in any depth. But when I was offered an opportunity (in this case a modestly paid opportunity) to attempt to pair coffees with chocolates I took it up.
Pairing coffee and chocolates has always seemed a bit more apropos to me than pairing coffee with porcini mushroom soup or pomegranate braised duck leg. For one thing, coffee and chocolate share origins and processes that both overlap and diverge in fascinating ways.
Plus I had as my co-taster Mark Magers, currently CEO of the North American distributer of Divine Chocolates, the producers of a line of attractive chocolate products that incorporate cacao produced by a Fair-Trade certified cooperative in Ghana. Mark, with whom I have on occasion worked before, is, in the old vernacular, a cool guy, calm, incisive, and very fair-minded. Mark coincidentally also has a long connection with coffee, most recently as a manager at TransFair USA, the organization that provides Fair Trade certification and promotion for coffee and other products in the U.S.
The “deliverables” for this project, as they say in the business world, were sets of notes for six pairs of chocolates and coffees, with the coffees provided by Paradise Roasters and chocolates chosen from a selection from four different companies. We ended by including chocolate bars from three companies in our pairings: Amano Artisan Chocolate, Divine Chocolate and Lake Champlain chocolate. Readers interested in the results can find them at https://www.paradiseroasters.com/categories/Merchandise/Gifts-And-Samplers/For-Chocolate-Lovers/. Keep going past the rather fervent sales pitches for the paired products (for which we bear no authorial responsibility!) to the product description pages, where you will find the actual tasting notes I delivered with Mark’s help near the bottom the pages devoted to specific chocolate/coffee pairings.
Most of the relatively small selection Paradise coffees made available for our tasting were familiar to me. On the other hand, we had a huge stack of chocolates to choose from. Mark agreed with my essentially purist’s decision simply to not test the chocolates that had things added to them: hazelnuts, fruit, etc. We experimented with all of the pure chocolates, however, both dark (minimum 70% cocoa solids) and milk (30% cocoa solids).
Basically, we approached the pairing experiments with a simple two-part schema: we started by testing coffee/chocolate pairs that promised intensification of similar or overlapping characteristics (like +like), then went on to pairs that contrasted in certain dramatic ways while promising to complement one another by creating balance through difference.
Here are a few things I learned from this experiment:
— Properly tasting chocolates requires patience. One is asked to allow the chocolate to slowly melt on one’s tongue, observing the changes in sensation as it melts, including texture or mouthfeel, basic taste structure (particularly bitter and sweet) and the development of various flavor notes. The long melt on the tongue could be taken as analogous to the coffee cupper’s practice of repeatedly sampling the same coffee as it transitions from dry fragrance to hot aroma to room temperature cup, a sequence of acts aimed at capturing the full trajectory of the coffee’s sensory expression.
— The beauty of the coffee-chocolate pairing is the opportunity to literally combine the coffee and chocolate by waiting through the melting-on-the-tongue routine until the chocolate is almost liquid, then taking in a mouthful of coffee into or over the liquefying chocolate and experiencing the interaction from first contact to finish. I found it interesting to experiment with introducing the coffee at different moments in the trajectory of the melt; the best and most telling moment for me was the point at which the chocolate had almost but not quite resolved into a heavy liquid.
— Some chocolate companies, like Divine, offer only two (both excellent) pure chocolates: dark and milk. I suppose this is roughly equivalent to coffee programs that build their businesses around a medium roast and a dark roast of the same single-origin coffee or blend. On the other hand, such chocolate companies have the opportunity to diversify their offerings by adding dried fruit, nuts, etc. to the two basic chocolate styles.
— Other chocolate companies, like Amano, offer diversity through a geography of single-origin chocolates. For years I have trundled back from northern Europe with gift assortments of origin-specific chocolates for family and friends. I always enjoyed nibbling on them myself, but this was the first time I systematically worked my way through an entire range of origins. I found this experience remarkable, both owing to the quality of the sensory profiles of the single-origin chocolates as well as to the clear-cut differences among them. I also was struck by how much overlap exists between the sensory repertoires of single-origin chocolates and single-origin coffees. It’s true that coffee appears to offer considerably more sensory range, both positive and negative, than chocolate, given that coffee is a much less processed product than a single-origin chocolate bar. Experiencing cacao in a chocolate bar is, I suppose, analogous to always tasting coffee with some milk and sugar added. Nevertheless, the various Amano single-origin chocolates, particularly the dark chocolates, were impressively distinct and immediately recognizable once one had cracked their sensory code.