I try not to be a coffee snob, I really do. However, sometimes it isn’t easy. Pairing cigars and coffee has now become a professional endeavor, at least one of them, and something I take rather seriously. For this inaugural column, I browsed through both this forum and its sister site, PipesMagazine.com, to get a feel for what coffee blends were popular with the members who’d weighed in on the subject. I settled on Dunkin Donuts’ Original Blend as a mass-market coffee with good tobacco-world appeal that was apparently America’s favorite, pound for pound (according to the company’s advertising, anyway); certainly many members enjoyed it, as have I when those donut cravings strike. So it was that my editor Avi and I struck out to find suitable cigar accompaniment for this coffee a couple weekends ago. Unfortunately, we’d chosen the Sunday of the NFL championship games for taste testing, a day when most people are drinking beer instead of coffee. We should have done the same.
The DD coffee was…well it was awful, bloody awful, as though it had been simmering for a week in its warming urn, like an angry, geriatric, toothless snake just waiting to bite me, or rather gum me, to death. I tried and tried to find some flavor, but all I could taste were defects—wet cardboard, sour fruit, musty wood. To be fair, I had purchased a pound of the beans to make at home under more controlled conditions; luckily, the coffee wasn’t included in the bag with the rest of my purchases, so I wasn’t forced to dull my palate yet again.
A more than suitable replacement was found with Starbucks Blonde Roast Willow Blend. Interestingly the Blonde roasts—Willow and Veranda—were recently introduced as a direct competitor to companies like Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s that already offer lighter roasts. Many of my coffee world peers reflexively sneer when mentioning the Mermaid, a combination of derision and envy at their unequivocal success with an "inferior" product. It can’t be denied, however, that the legions of elitist baristas owe their very existence to Starbucks’ market penetration ushering in the third wave of coffee. Like everything gustatory, there is no objective non plus ultra; only subjective tastes that some like and some don’t. I’m sure that, given some time and professional therapy, I’ll even come back around to reviewing DD coffee again.
Our experience at Tobacco Plaza in Great Neck was, thankfully, much better. Randy Holman, who toured us through the humidor where I selected several sticks that would hopefully cover my bases, met my somewhat frantic and puzzled request for cigars that were "extremely mild, Connecticut wrapper, probably very tasteless to go with this horrible Dunkin’ coffee" with great equanimity. Sampled again after a week’s rest and with the Willow Blend, the selections proved to be excellent choices. None of them were tasteless or horrible, and actually led me to settle on the format of one coffee with several cigar options for this column.
The lighter roast of Willow’s Latin American and East African beans purports to "…create a breezy, deliciously easy-to-drink cup." Frothy marketing hyperbole notwithstanding, that’s actually pretty much what my home preparation delivered. It comes in full 16-ounce pounds, which I ground and prepared both as espresso and pour-over. The whole beans are indeed visibly lighter and less oily than other Starbucks offerings, showing a dry milk-chocolaty brown with very little shine. The aroma pre- and post-grind was quite mild, with only the very faintest sweet fruit and bready tones highlighting the generally earthy coffee scent. As an espresso, I found it nearly impossible to extract a good crema, but the shot itself was better than it looked. The higher fruity notes were stronger, on the verge of souring, and the flavor degraded rather too quickly, though it was far from unpalatable. In the end, espresso is not the ideal preparation for these beans but was a good exercise to "dial in", or calibrate, the flavor profile.
A pour-over preparation was much more satisfying, and definitely the best way to highlight this coffee’s strengths. The wetting pour didn’t produce much bloom, a sure sign the beans had plenty of time to gas off. I would assume that they were roasted in the York, PA facility, at least four weeks or more prior to grinding—though there is no sure way to ascertain that from the packaging or the company policy on such information. That is the price one pays for mass production, and not unexpected; it would be interesting to taste this fresh out of the roaster when it’s at its best. The nutty pecan flavors were mild, perhaps muted, and in step with the bready sweeter notes and the vaguest hint of caramel. Through several cups, the flavor stayed smooth and consistent, the body was likewise very uniform and middle-of-the-road, and the finish was clean and clear, avoiding the bitter downturn that the espresso displayed. While not a stellar coffee, Willow delivered well on its stated claim to a breezy and easy-to-drink cup, if less so on its crispness and subtle complexity.
The first cigar I’ve paired with the Willow blend is the Fonseca (D.R.) Corona Tubo, from SAG / MATASA, as a similarly mass-market brand. It’s one of the longest-selling bands from the company, and likely to be as readily available as a Starbucks. The corona is a standard 5½ x 42, with a Connecticut shade-grown wrapper, Dominican long leaf binder and Mexican Sumatra filler. The wrapper is very light tan with some prominent veining and a mildly olive-tinged sheen to it, while the filler leaf is only slightly darker. It was easy on the light and draw, and like the coffee had a very middle-of-the-road character. Off the light and through the top of the smoke there was a very faint grassy spice, which developed into a mild bready sweetness midway. After the midpoint, some maltiness came through on the palate, which veered toward creosote or wood glue as it neared the shoulder. Not a challenging smoke in any way, though not a bad one, and the flavor and body mirrored the coffee’s in mildness—a good budget-conscious combination in the sub-$5.00 range for a hand-made.
Stepping up just a bit on the price point is the Cabaiguan Guapo from Tatuaje. Interestingly the Nicaraguan binder and filler are wrapped in a Connecticut shade seed, sun grown in Ecuador. A solid 55⁄8 x 54 Toro, it presents as a bit darker than the average Connecticut wrapper, with the unfortunate caveat of having some construction problems—the two that I’ve smoked have had some slight flaking and unraveling, issues that are not uncommon based on other reviews. After an initial peppery punch on the firing, the wrapper’s light floral notes did shine through, and brought out similar tones in the Willow blend that were missing before. The smoke smoothed out into a creamy, bready body with highlights of spices likes cinnamon and mustard seed, and earthier bass notes of leather and chestnut. The taste remained subtle and consistent through to the nub, where it developed a bit more heat and honey sweetness. Aside from the wrapper problem, it drew well and held its ash, was pleasingly mild and had just enough flavor complexity for sustained interest. This limited edition offering from Pete Johnson is definitely worth seeking out, just above the $10.00 range, and it fit the flavor profile of the Willow blend quite well.
The final pairing may be a bit harder to find, but would be well worth the effort—the Jamaican Macanudo Vintage 1988 in the Lonsdale vitola of 7½ x 49 from General Cigar. The filler of Dominican, Jamaican and Mexican leaf is bound with San Andreas Valley Mexican and finished with a Connecticut shade wrapper. This specimen was pleasing to the eye and the hand, with its tight spiral wrap and trademark round cap, a velvety soft tooth, and barely perceptible veining. Despite being sequestered in a humidor for a couple of decades, it evinced a compelling pre-light aroma of white chocolate tempered with floral and fruity notes in the range of violets and pomegranate. Lighting it revealed an equally impressive velvety smoothness in the smoke, which quickly shed its cedar overtones and delivered flavors of cinnamon and allspice, roasting pistachios, wildflowers and honey, all encased in some of the mellowest, yet richest, tobacco I’ve had. Rather than completely outclassing the coffee, the cigar lifted and nuanced it, granting subtleties that the coffee only hinted at and complementing all the flavors that it did have. At the midpoint, it got even better, taking on a wheaty sweetness that was strongly reminiscent of graham cracker that held through to the nub. This is one cigar that I actually burned my fingers on, enjoying it down to the very end. Obviously in a very limited supply—only 400,000 were made—it’s worth twice the under-$15.00 average price, and this month’s Perfect Pairing with Starbucks Willow Blend.