By E. Roberts
Looking through any number of cigar reviews, one will invariably find several mentions of a coffee flavor expressed in a particular brand. And, one certainly won’t have to look very farsee Russ Ouellette’s Black Market Cigar Review this past December. Indeed, a coffee and a cigar make for a perfectly complementary pairing for a number of reasons. With the remarkable array of both fine cigars and specialty coffees available today, one is presented with an inexhaustible variety with which to investigate these pairings and find a perfect combination for both palate and budget.
Perhaps the most interesting reason that tobacco pairs so effectively with coffee stems from each plant’s peculiar chemistry and its interaction with our own. Biochemically, coffee’s slight acidity makes a good balance for tobacco’s slight alkalinity. Coffee is an exceedingly complex beverage, chemically and gastronomically speaking, and much of its science is still being discovered and analyzed. Acidity is actually one of the most-researched aspects at the moment, with new strains being bred for low acidity, as well as pre-roasting processes and additives for reducing acidity being developed. Coffee contains over twenty carboxylic acids, all of which affect the taste and perceived acidity to some degree. Perceived acidity and the actual chemistry of measurable pH are somewhat separate, yet interrelated, issues, but obviously the actual acidic content of a coffee will affect its taste. Coffees grown in different regions often exhibit different degrees of acidity, owing to their environments. For example, Kenyan coffees are known for their characteristic high, winey mordancy, as are many other wet-processed, high altitude, volcanic soil coffees. Brazilian, Indian and Sumatran coffees, and many of those grown at low altitudes, tend to have a much lower acidity. The roasting process also has a great deal of influence on the final product, with darker roasts yielding decreasing acidity. On average, however, coffee is only mildly acidic, registering a pH of between 4.5 and 6. New varietals are being developed for even lower acidity, in response to market demand. Condiments such as milk will obviously neutralize the actual acidity to an extent as well.
Cigars, on the other hand, are slightly alkaline on the palate, much more so than cigarettes, and even a bit higher on the scale than pipe tobacco. This is a result of both the strains of tobacco grown for cigars and the specific fermentation processes used in readying the cigar leaf for consumption. While the average cigarette measures a rather acidic pH of 5.75, the average cigar reaches an alkalinity of up to 8.5on par with seawater, or an onion. This higher pH conversely makes it more irritating to inhale, and thus less likely to be, while at the same time increasing the rate of nicotine absorption through the mucous membranes of the mouth and sinuses.
The true pleasure of pairing a coffee and cigar is the way these equitable variations on either side of neutral pH effectively balance each other on the palate. Consumed together, they allow for a soothing effect on the tongue, a commingling of flavors, and an enhancement of nuances that otherwise would not be so fully tangible separately. A common time in which to enjoy both is perhaps another aspect that speaks in their favor; for they each make an excellent postprandial digestif, and when taken together make for a much richer experience of each other by far.
The effect on the palate of the combined senses of taste and aroma find much common ground with coffee and tobacco. Both tobacco and coffee are very terroir-influenced crops; that is to say that they express the conditions of their growing environmentthe geography, geology and climatein their flavors. Tobacco- and coffee-growing regions overlap to a great extent, particularly in the Central and South American region including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras and Brazil; also in African countries like Cameroon, Tanzania and Malawi; and in South Asian locales like India and Indonesia. Owing to these overlaps, it is entirely possible to sample the characteristic flavors of a specific country, even a specific growing region, with remarkable clarity in your choice of cigar and coffee paring.
Now is a very fortunate time for coffee drinkers, as the industry is in the midst of its so-called "third wave", a renaissance of artisan craftsmanship on both the growing and roasting ends of the business. Consumers’ choices are no longer limited to factory-scale taste profiles, which favor economy and repeatable consistency to the detriment of the careful processes that can truly elevate the drinking experience of a good cup. With the green mermaid came the beginning of an appreciation for coffee that was more about flavor than fuel, and since then legions of people with a true passion for coffee have taken it to epicurean extremes. In the aftermath of Starbucks’ market penetration, the proliferation of high-quality local and regional roasters and cafes has brought a concurrent increase in general consumer awareness of, and appreciation for, specialty coffee. With the added benefit of living in the digital age, it is literally within anyone’s reach to have connoisseur-quality coffee, anytime. One can order a single bag of a single-lot, single-estate Honduran green coffee directly from the farmers, roast it to one’s liking and brew a cup with any number of implements. Never has it been easier to connect with the growing number of coffee fanatics across the globe, all from the comfort of home.
The cigar industry learned its lessons following the stark decline of the seventies and eighties followed by the boom of the nineties, and has maintained a focus on quality and artisanship as well as allowing room for growth and innovation. This has led to a dazzling array of choices in both flavor and budget, with something for everyone. There are literally thousands of different sticks available, from mass-market standards to boutique exotics, with more entering the market every day. Cigars, too, have benefited from the incredible reach of the Internet, this publication being one example of the ability to create community in a shared interest, ultimately for the betterment of the industry.
When it comes to tasting stogies, no onebe it an average Joe or a cigar aficionadohas the final say. From the classic drug store five-pack to the wallet-busting medal winner, the mantra of "smoke what you like, and like what you smoke" is worth repeating. A similar principle should apply to coffee, whether it’s a cup of mud from the local gas station or an attentively prepared double espresso from your local artisan roaster. That being said, it is with increased knowledge about a subject that we may gain increased enjoyment.