Few things in modern life have changed so completely and quickly as a cup of coffee. Who drinks it, where the bean originates from, how it’s prepared, what’s added to it, and how much a cup of coffee costs have changed dramatically over the last decade. Fueled by the “Starbucks Phenomenon,” consumers are now willing to pay five dollars for a cup of coffee at neighborhood cafes, and upwards of twenty dollars for a shot of Jamaican Blue Mountain espresso at some high-end restaurants. While not much about the product itself has changed, the atmosphere around it is completely different than when a “hot cup of Joe” was all you could drink for a dime.
What started out as a fad in the northwestern U.S. is now the burgeoning Specialty Coffee market with its own major, national trade association – the Specialty Coffee Association of America. High quality blends, precise serving temperatures, exact grind specifications, and skilled preparation are all part of the new expectations of coffee drinkers. These expectations are no longer limited to high-end coffee retail outlets or European cafes. Consumers’ tastes have now raised the bar; high quality coffee service is now expected wherever coffee is served, and anything less reflects negatively on the establishment as a whole.
Many comparisons have been drawn between coffee and its kindred spirit, wine. It wasn’t too long ago that wine was ordered by the jug, with only two options – “red or white.” Consumers have become more educated to differences in wines, palates have become more sophisticated, wineries have become more commercial, and restaurants now pair wines from specific vineyards (produced in specific years) with certain dishes. From casual dining to the most expensive five star restaurants, one can always find a selection of wines from which to choose. The dramatic rise in consumption of wine in the U.S. has been closely followed by the rise in consumption of coffee, with one major difference – coffee is consumed over ten times more than wine!
As we all know, at restaurants, coffee has traditionally been served discretely from the rest of the dining menu. We have been trained to consume our coffee at the end of the meal, with or after our dessert. “Would you like coffee or dessert” we’re always asked after completing our main course. How many of you are guilty of ordering a cup of coffee, merely to wake up for the drive home? These rituals and attitudes have been so ingrained within us, and our tastes have been so firmly programmed to drown our coffee with cream and sugar that we have been effectively suppressed from enjoying the essence of the drink.
But things are about to change. There is a new buzz in the fine dining world. A trend that is about to take the gastronomic universe by storm; pairing single origin coffees and espressos (coffees originating from specific regions of the world) with desserts!
Coffees are as varied in their flavor profiles as wines, and their descriptions are just as elaborate. Coffee can have high acidity with wine-like characteristics or taste sweeter and smoother. It is evaluated on how much body it has, how balanced it is, or how long its finish on the palate lasts. It is described with such terms as “nutty, clean, floral, complex, velvety” or any number of other ornamental descriptions. Because of its varied flavor and aromatic characteristics, coffees from different regions throughout the world offer unique experiences to the palate. And like a good wine that helps accentuate the tastes of a gourmet meal, so too can coffee transform a good dessert into a great one.
A few pioneering establishments have already started recommending single origin coffees to complement the sweet concoctions of their pastry chefs. At these restaurants, desserts with fruits or berries are paired with acidic, sweet, lighter roasted coffees such as Jamaican Blue Mountain or Guatemalan Antigua. Desserts with notable textures such as carrot cake or tiramisu are paired with evenly balanced roasts with acidity and good body such as Ethiopian Sidamo or Kenyan AA. Richer, more decadent desserts like chocolate mousse or ice cream are paired with full-bodied Italian roasts from Sumatra. For those who wish to spare the calories, separate specialty coffee menus with offerings as varied as any wine, cognac, or cigar menu outline a tantalizing selection of single origin coffees, roasted to varying degrees to fit any individual’s particular tastes.
The skeptical restaurateur or chef may rightfully ask, “Why would I want to brew a whole pot of Hawaiian Kona coffee to serve just one cup?” This is a valid question from anyone who understands the underlying economics of food preparation, as well as the fact that coffee, once brewed, is good for no more than 7 minutes. More importantly, to produce a consistent, quality cup of espresso or coffee, beans must be ground to precise levels, and in the case of espresso, dosed and tamped to such specific measurements that the production of the beverage can prove daunting. This is where technological developments within the coffee industry come into play. The invention of the pod system now allows the restaurant the ability to brew one cup at a time, without the hassle involved in traditional espresso preparation.
A pod consists of a pre-measured single portion of roasted, ground, and pressed coffee that is sealed between two layers of filter paper, and individually vacuum packed in a nitrogen flushed foil pouch to preserve freshness. Pods can either be used in a traditional espresso machine fitted with a special extraction chamber or specialized pod machine. A pod system alleviates the waste, preparation time, and consistency factors, while affording the restaurateur the added perks of no messy clean-up, elimination of grinding and tamping, and most importantly, virtually limitless variety. A restaurant can now offer its customers a wide range of single origin espressos and coffees at the push of a button.
While nothing can replicate 100% the freshness and quality achieved by grinding newly-roasted beans, pods come very close, particularly if you are not a trained cupper (the coffee equivalent of a sommelier). With all the benefits of pods, any restaurateur contemplating upgrading a restaurant’s coffee program should look no further. Specialty coffees and espressos will continue to increase in popularity, and those that fail to adjust to this reality will be left behind. For fine dining establishments that use only the best ingredients, are meticulous about food preparation, and serve the best wines and spirits, to not offer the best coffees in the world is borderline blasphemy. After all, coffee is the last thing your customers will remember, isn’t it?
Steve Agular is President of Soltazza, a pioneering company within the pod industry, and supplier of single origin espresso pods. He can be reached at 1-888-694-7631.
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