The caffeine revolution that is changing not only the way we drink but the way we eat as well.
IT’S a cold Monday night in July and there’s a stream of well-dressed people filing into the Little Press Club. Their mission is to eat on the culinary edge — to take part in the latest hottest gourmet trend: coffee and food pairing.
Coffee is the “new wine” and Australia is at the forefront of this growing global trend, matching specialty coffee with fine cuisine.
Over in South Melbourne, at pioneering cafe St Ali, they are busy planning a gourmet night early next month when beans from four expensive, award-winning Cup of Excellence coffees, which were bought at auction, will be brewed at a dinner created by chef Ben Cooper.
And at restaurant Vue de Monde, Shannon Bennett’s kangaroo with coffee and chocolate crumble is proving popular with diners.
On a simpler scale, the new kid on the block, funky coffee-roasting cafe Monk Bodhi Dharma in Balaclava, is serving three-course vegetarian breakfasts with choice of siphoned or pour-over single-origin coffees.
Growing interest in single-origin coffees means that coffee cognoscenti want to draw attention to its many flavours, and what better way to explore those tastes than with food.
We have been teaming coffee with food for decades — mostly with cakes and desserts. Or using it in recipes — tiramisu, coffee cake or coffee and almond slice. Now ground-breaking chefs are trying out bold recipes such as Joe Grbac’s king fish marinated in coffee at the Press Club or Ben Cooper’s striking country-of-origin dinners where coffee is matched with dishes from the same region.
Crucial to this development is the arrival of new methods of making coffee, such as the siphon, which allows a more subtle version of the beverage to be drunk at lower temperatures without milk or sugar. This delicate coffee can be teamed with food successfully. Nothing can beat a food and wine match, of course, and food pairings with beer and tea have been around a while.
A coffee degustation dinner is certainly different but is it really a gourmet experience with emphasis on enjoying the taste of the coffee bean or a fad or a marketing ploy?
One of the first to serve coffee with food was Salvatore Malatesta, of St Ali in South Melbourne. “We treat coffee with the same respect that winemakers treat varietals,” he says.
“If you’re drinking coffee from a siphon, letting it cool for three minutes . . . the myriad flavour profiles are 800-plus and therefore you can match it with food.”
Originally a daytime cafe, St Ali now opens for dinner and chef Ben Cooper is in charge. He enjoys the challenge of the country-of-origin dinners. Cooper, who has worked at Ezard, Longrain and London’s Nahm had a eureka moment when he discovered that Balinese coffee went well with Balinese food, hence country-of-origin dinners.
“You’re forging new ground every time you do one of these dinners,” Cooper says. “There’s no reference to a set of guidelines. You’re completely open to challenge whichever boundaries you want and that excites me.”
Curiosity drew people to the first St Ali specialty dinner but they enjoyed it, Cooper says.
“Some of these coffees sit in the same price range as some of the great wines of the world.”
“When you make good champagne nearly everyone gets it, but when you roast a special coffee to the right profile not as many people get it.”
Cooper explains that a citrus characteristic in a coffee would complement a dish with almonds.
“We have a few dishes on the menu where it’s easy for the customer to understand the pairing and then we throw in a few dishes that push the boundaries of flavour pairing and force the diner to sit and think about it.”
St Ali organises coffee degustations four or five times a year and bookings are taken for nightly coffee pairings. Staff can also recommend coffees to complement a dish on the night.
In July, BeanScene magazine editor Steve Agi teamed up with old friend George Calombaris and head chef Joe Grbac to organise an inaugural cafe and cuisine dinner at the Little Press Club. Seven complex courses were matched to coffees by Jack and the Bean, Crivelli, Genovese, Australian Independent Roasters, Gridlock, Vittoria and a final Greek coffee brewed by Calombaris. This was the first time competing coffee companies had co-operated for such an event. Adding to the excitement was the fact that a new machine, Bunn-O-Matic’s Trifecta single-cup filter brewer, made its debut on the night.
Grbac designed the menu with dishes such as tortellini of mushroom and coffee veloute; kingfish cured with coffee; and an almond and coffee soil sprinkled over a roast leg of lamb with smoked yoghurt and baby winter vegetables. Then the wines were chosen and, finally, the coffees.
“As humans we’re always looking for something different,” says Grbac. “Like food ingredients, coffee has seasonal changes. It’s akin to food and it can change when you pick it and how you pick it.”
Agi says that coffee is much more than a morning or dessert beverage.
“The whole event was pushing boundaries and that’s how you make inroads into a new dining experience. It’s akin to going to the Fat Duck where Heston Blumenthal creates a whole ambient environment.”
At Vue de Monde, the kangaroo with coffee and chocolate crumble has been a great success, according to head chef Cory Campbell.
“Coffee has to almost play the part of nostalgia in food, a sense of warmth on those cold days or the last trip to Italy,” he says.
“Imagine a beautiful root vegetable dish with some cinnamon and spice notes paired with a specialty pour-over coffee.”
He likes the idea of pairing coffee with food.
“We can create a wonderful dish to be paired with a specialty coffee. To find that right balance for both to complement each other and to fit into the structure of a menu is what we are all about as chefs, sommeliers and baristas.”
Even big companies such as Nestle are getting in on the act with Nespresso machines and pre-measured ground coffee capsules.
At a lunch in August, in South Yarra, Nespresso served its coffees to accompany venison fillet with a rich coffee-and-red-wine sauce followed by a more traditional dish of vanilla honey panna cotta with a coffee caramel sauce.
Chef Paul Wilson of the Middle Park Hotel believes matching food and coffee is more difficult than food and wine.
“You really have to be in love with coffee and the whole culture,” he says. “I found that Indonesian blue batak coffee prepared with a siphon coffee maker produced a wonderful clean, low-acid, incense-flavoured coffee, which went really well with fragrant truffles and sweet creamy chestnuts in a soup with some smoked duck. It was a real hit at a recent dinner.”
Those who worry about caffeine levels late at night might be more interested in Kate Shaw’s degustation breakfast at Monk Bodhi Dharma. The three courses, including dishes such as lime soup and strawberry salad, king oyster mushroom and avocado “carpaccio”, and deconstructed cashew and vanilla bean “cheesecake” are offered with a choice of coffees.
Shaw is planning to hold the breakfasts weekly and offer a different single-origin filtered coffee for each course.
“Siphon coffee is a clean and pure form of coffee that is easier to appreciate with food,” Shaw says. “It’s like a wine, you don’t want to be adding milk and sugar to it.”
While such coffee events are exciting, often with a multitude of coffee cups and wine glasses in front of each diner, the caffeine consumed should be almost as carefully monitored as the wine. Malatesta admits that some people probably didn’t sleep for a few nights after his first degustation.
“That was a bit of trial and error for us and we needed to control the level of caffeine and doses,” he says.
“Now, by the end of an evening, you are drinking the equivalent of three cups of coffee. So if you are caffeine sensitive you are not going to have a great night’s sleep. I’ve often thought of holding country-of-origin lunches.”
Steve Agi will also do some fine-tuning for his next dinner in January or February at Fenix.
He says of the Press Club degustation: “There was a little too much coffee, food and wine.
“We didn’t necessarily need a wine and coffee for each course. The balance worked but, at times, a little bit too much was going on.”
WITH all the talk of single-origin coffee, coffee degustations and coffee cuppings or tastings, many are trumpeting coffee as the new wine.
Unlikely to happen, says Lindsay Corby, who runs a coffee palate training course at William Angliss Institute’s Coffee Academy. “Coffee is not going to replace wine at the dinner table,” he says.
A master of wine and wine appreciation at La Trobe University and a winemaker at Bianchet Winery in the Yarra Valley, Corby turned his tasting skills to coffee about three years ago, and uses wine glasses for some coffee tasting because they are better at concentrating aromas.
Corby sees parallels between the wine and coffee stories. Our knowledge of wine varietals and regions has grown enormously in the past three decades whereas our interest in coffee regions is just developing.
In some ways, Corby believes, coffee tasting is a simpler skill, and he spends one day teaching it, while his wine course is three days.
He can taste 120 to 150 wines in a six-hour session but recently discovered he couldn’t taste more than 16 coffees in a 3�-hour period.
He was bouncing off the walls after 10 coffees and could not focus despite spitting out the coffee after each tasting.
David Clarke, head sommelier at restaurant Vue de Monde has a different take on coffee.
“Maybe it’s the new tea! People generally understand that origin and variety of tea is important and they are now realising that the same is true for coffee,” Clarke says. “Wine is more seasonal. You can open 20 vintages of the same wine from the same vineyard and compare; you can’t do that with coffee or tea.”
“There are parallels with the journey that wine has gone through,” says Fleur Studd of Market Lane Coffee.
“A few decades ago, people would order a bottle of French wine that was a blend and have no idea which vineyard it came from.”
Studd says the same revolution is happening with coffee as people discover single origins, provenance, and roasting and brewing differences.
Her colleague Jason Scheltus says coffee will never replace wine because wine goes better with food and works better in social situations.
“I see coffee degustations as a good tool to enhance people’s understanding of coffee as a culinary object,” he says.