There’s hardly a cigar that isn’t described as having roasted notes or bitter qualities. Coffee, too, is characterized by these flavors. But in contrast to hand-rolled cigars, which in even the most modern fabricas are rolled using a neararchaic technique, the coffee world has gone through several (r)evolutions. The so-called “third wave” led to an international blossoming of barista-focused shops devoted to nuanced roasting levels and single-origin beans. We’ve now fluently transitioned into the “fifth wave” of coffee. One of its stars is cold brew: instead of attempting to extract aromas from ground beans in a short time by using pressure and hot water, brewing is approached the other way around. Coarse coffee grounds steep in cold water for up to 24 hours, much as you would make iced tea in the summer, which slowly draws flavor from the leaves during an overnight rest in the fridge. But does this type of coffee go with cigars? This was the question that eight connoisseurs sought to answer during a tasting at Vienna’s Palais Hotel. We tasted six different single-origin coffees, selecting those that best demonstrated an aromatic breadth of range. We also favored readily available beans so that our readers would be able to try our top coffees at home. We avoided coffee blends and coffees that are not internationally available. Specialty retail shops or good grocery stores should carry these single origin coffees or be able to source them, so that you can repeat the jury’s pairings with your own cigars. We tested three different types of prepared cold coffee. In addition to pasteurized, bottled cold brews like J. Hornig (from a traditional coffee roaster in Graz, Austria) and Kaffeetschi (from Vienna barista Amar Cavic), we also tasted two nitro cold brews. This relatively new style charges coffee with nitrogen to create a draught infusion that resembles Stout beer in appearance. We had great fun with the stable foam of the two samples of this type, the Kirinyaga Kamwangi from Kenya and the Mandheling from Indonesia. But more on those later. The remaining coffees had been prepared with cold water the previous day, using a method similar to the Mizudashi cold brew tea process.
NO BITTER ENDINGS
As usual, three cigar formats were chosen, representing three different styles. The anniversary cigar 1888 from Swiss cigar maker Villiger was the lightest cigar and our entrée to the tasting. It was followed by a relatively new Lancero from LUJ Cigars and the powerful Oval, a Toro from the A.J. Fernandez brand San Lotano. All three cigars were tasted with all six coffees and the resulting 18 pairs were scored individually. The highest individual score of nine could result in a possible maximum score of 72 points for the best combination. We can reveal this much: the eight tasters came very close to awarding this top score to their favorite cold brew and cigar pairing. “Tobacco and coffee are like a harmonious family. But siblings can and do fight on occasion,” said Ercan Hazar, summing up the tasters’ impressions. Hazar’s point gets to the heart of what happened when we tested cold brew as an accompaniment to cigars. Indeed, there were very few pairings that were ruled out as totally impossible – a rare case in the Cigar Journal tasting panel history. But opinions could vary, as pairings involving the robust San Lotano showed. While the cigar achieved some of the panel’s highest scores when matched with the Viennese Kaffeetschi brew, which is based on an Indian coffee, the combination’s bitter chocolate notes proved too much for other tasters. But it was duly noted that hardly a pairing of cold coffee and hot smoke scored less than five out of nine points.
MORE BERRIES, LESS ROAST
The original skepticism as to whether the trendy cold brews, sometimes disdainfully referred to as “hipster coffee”, could go head-to-head with cigars found its first hint of doubt with the Alma Negra. The Costa Rican coffee from Viennese roaster Alt Wien undergoes what is known as black honey processing, meaning that it is dried under shade with part of the cherry fruit remaining. This process increases the sugar content of the coffee and accentuates its fruity aromas. Notes of blackcurrant, marzipan, cranberry and a subtle sweetness distinguished this rare coffee that had seemingly very little to do with the bitter, roasted drink in the espresso cup. Paired with the subtly herbal Villiger 1888, the coffee’s berry bonanza was almost too much of a good thing. The general suitability of cold brew as cigar companion showed itself in comparison with the conventional accompaniment of espresso. The tasting panel’s resident roasting expert, Oliver Goetz, explained the difference in processing. “Extraction with hot water releases more caffeine, acidity and bitter components from the coffee.” Coffee that is slowly extracted – at Goetz’ Alt Wien roastery the grounds are steeped for over 20 hours – is by contrast “rounder; one could even say: tea-like.” In addition, three of the coffees were only very briefly roasted (the so-called “omniroast”). The Costa Rican Alma Negra was in the roasting drum for a mere eight minutes, while espresso beans are typically roasted for 20.
A BREW FOR EVERY CIGAR
The Mandheling from Sumatra was a fine example of the benefits of an extremely short roasting time; its chocolate-nut flavor turned out to be nearly universally agreeable, at least from the cigar lover’s point of view. It wasn’t just that the single varietal Arabica (organic and fairtrade certified, to boot) from Kokowagayo cooperative achieved an average score of 8.0 per taster. It also made it into the top ten paired with all three cigars. Outstanding with the Morpheus Maduro Lancero, it also achieved top scores when matched with the Villiger 1888 Corona. Only when paired with the most intense cigar of the tasting, the San Lotano, did the coffee reach its the aromatic limits. “Both products are good, but they’re not quite in balance,” said Philipp M. Ernst. It was the salty note that appeared in this combination that polarized the tasters. Comparisons with peanuts abounded, but not every taster liked it. However, no other coffee was better able to position itself as an all-rounder with various smoke strengths. It was almost completely the opposite with the two pasteurized cold brews, the Brazilian coffee of J. Hornig and the Kaffeetschi, a typical Indian coffee. They both achieved their highest ratings with the Oval Toro. David Penker, our host at the Hotel Kempinski, found the latter combination “perfectly balanced, with a lovely bitter-chocolate note.” His colleague Philipp M. Ernst described cold brew in general as a “feel-good drink that we serve in my bar, Josef, in tumblers.” The tasters discussed at length how best to drink this new style of cold coffee. “Is it a quick refresher, or do I enjoy it in the backyard?” asked Johann Gallée of Dios Cigars.
The two nitro cold brews rode high on their heads of foam. The “great mouthfeel” that Cigar Journal editor in chief Katja Gnann noticed in the Kenyan coffee raised these types above the others. We found, too, that temperature played a big role in the coffee’s suitability as a cigar partner; the coffee should not be too chilled, as the Colombian Cauca La Laja showed. In all three courses, it arrived coldest in the cups. A bitter-chocolate note dominated, only giving way to fruity aromas when the coffee warmed up. Bartenders Philipp M. Ernst and David Penker, and roaster Oliver Goetz, agreed that cold brew should be served in larger portions. The tasting also revealed that ice cubes are unnecessary, as the subtle tastes of the coffee can react strongly with the cigars. We also determined that a larger format is a great accompaniment to a bottle or a can of cold coffee. In contrast to other drinks, there’s neither alcohol, sweetness or acidity to become tiresome on the palate. In fact, in each of the three pairings, new aspects were consistently revealed throughout the relatively long sipping time. The Morpheus Lancero from LUJ Cigars brought red grapes and nutmeg aromas out of the Colombian coffee; paired with the San Lontano Toro, the coffee revealed an echo of chili. The Brazilian Yellow Icatu from quality fanatic Ismael Andrade shone with this robust cigar, but lost “a certain heat” when paired with the Morpheus, as Johann Gallée noticed. What could be better than to be able to tease out new aromas from a favorite cigar you thought you knew so well? As our tasters discovered, cold coffee is hot!
Images: Isabella Petricek