Pairing Coffee and Cigars: Science or Serendipity?

Drew Estate

Coffee and CigarsI’m often asked by acquaintances about pairing cigars and coffee. I suppose that stands to reason since I happen to be a cigar enthusiast who makes his living tasting and roasting coffee. The first few times I was asked this I basically drew a blank. While coffee has certainly been my beverage of choice while enjoying a cigar I hadn’t given a lot of conscious thought to my pairings. The repetitive question eventually forced me to sit down and give this idea some serious skull work. Over a series of coffee and cigars naturally!

On reflection, I realized that I had indeed been making definitive choices when deciding what combination I would indulge in. The realization began when I noticed that my most frequent pairing was a Quai d’ Orsay Coronas cigar accompanied by a couple of large mugs of Ethiopian Harrar coffee. Each a treat alone but a little slice of heaven together. Later, I’ll get into more of why that particular pairing works for me.

Coffee and cigars, like scotch, wine and many other of life’s little pleasures are, of course, very subjective. One man’s delight may taste like a week old sweat sock to another. In light of that I think it would be presumptuous of me to say definitively that cigar A goes with coffee B. For the purposes of this little treatise I will share with you the separate and finally intersecting paths that led me to the pairings that I make. I then invite you to pick, choose and use what works for you as you make your own journey. After all, the destination is important but enjoying the journey is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Let’s talk about coffee first, because, well, it’s what came first for me. Like many folks these days I was weaned on the likes of Folgers, Maxwell House, Hills Brothers and such. At the time I though they were good and couldn’t imagine beginning the day without them. It’s what I grew up on. Pre-ground, canned, very light roasted, highly acidic, often low quality blends of Arabica beans with some Robusta thrown in for filler and a killer caffeine boost. Then came the fateful day in the mid-eighties when someone gave me a grinder and some flavored coffee beans as a present. Although I quickly discovered that flavored beans weren’t my gig, an obsession was born as I began to buy whole bean coffee from an ever-changing list of roasters. A few years later an even more momentous time came when the Green Mermaid hit the scene. Dark, dark roasted everything. I thought I had finally arrived and like much of America I stayed there for a long time. I gravitated to French type roasts and came to believe that’s the way coffee should be done. Naturally I wasn’t roasting coffee myself yet and when that finally happened I found that the journey I thought had ended had really only just gotten underway. At first I tried to duplicate the ‘west coast roast’ that Starbucks made famous and succeeded in burning a lot of coffee. Finally, and purely by accident, I stopped a batch of one of my favorite coffees ‘too soon’. I feared that I had ruined the batch but decided to drink it anyway and was delighted to learn that it was many times better than the dark roasting I’d become accustomed to. Certainly not news to veteran roasters but a revelation to me. After that I experimented with various coffees at different roast levels and found that indeed different coffees benefit from different treatment. Rather than the strong, dark, in-your-face nature that I had thought all coffee should have I found myself looking for variation, depth, character and complexity. Sound familiar to anyone?

I came much later to the game with cigars. That started about the same time I found out about grinding whole bean coffee just before brewing. The similarities in evolution are striking though. I have no idea what ailed me to go to the local drugstore and purchase a 5-pack of some unremembered cigars, but that’s what I did. And I enjoyed the heck out them. My M.O. became to buy a pack of Grenadiers and toss them in the jelly cupboard with no thought of humidification and pull one out two or three times a year. For the longest time that’s what I thought a good cigar was. Looking back I can see the clear correlation between my habit of canned coffee to the machine made (I’m assuming), dry, cellophaned, boxed and re-cellophaned sticks I’d become accustomed to. I’d known nothing different. Somewhere along the way someone, probably at a party, gave me a higher quality hand rolled cigar and a light went on over my head just as it did when I got that coffee grinder. I traipsed down to the local cigar shop and browsed around. Somehow I’d gotten the belief that a cigar should be a dark, strong, intimidating club of a maduro and that’s all there was to it. I stocked up on every bold, heavy cigar I could find and for quite some time that’s just what I liked. Then a situation in my family caused me to set aside my normal social life for an extended period of time and I found myself spending much of my free time on the Internet. You guessed it. I found the cigar forums. Just as roasting opened my eyes to a whole new world of coffee, the forums showed me that I had so much to learn about cigars. Prior to that I didn’t know my Candela from my Cameroon or my Dominican filler from my Nicaraguan…and what the heck was a puro? It was fascinating and once again my tastes began to change. Much like coffee I have discovered that for me, milder layers of complexity and nuance bring me more enjoyment than strong, spicy notes.

Looking back at what I’ve written I can see that I may be misinterpreted as some coffee/cigar snob who thinks that anyone who likes dark roasted coffee and strong cigars must be some heathen with an uneducated palate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a strong advocate of smoke (drink) what you like and like what you smoke (drink). I still enjoy a dark roast from time to time and most definitely a knockyersocks off cigar. I can only relate my own experience and how it’s brought me to the point where I’m able to choose complimentary cigars and coffee that work for me.

And now that you’ve followed me through my rambling discourse of coffee and cigars as separate experiences you may well be asking yourself, “What the heck does all this have to do with pairing the two”. Indeed. Back to the Quai d’ Orsay and Ethiopian, for me they boil down to an almost perfect pair. I find them both to be deeply complex, medium profiled and full of surprise nuance with neither overpowering the other but rather bringing out the best qualities of each. And that I think is the key. To compliment and not overpower. If you are partial to a stronger cigar then a dark roasted coffee would make a fine accompaniment. Sumatra and Java come to mind for their earthy boldness and ability to stand up to and benefit from a dark roast. Many Centrals handle a dark roast as well. For a milder cigar, I’d suggest one of the island coffees such as Jamaica Blue Mountain or Hawaiian Kona at a lighter roast and again possibly a Central such a Panama. Medium range cigars give you a wide variety of coffees to choose from. Again, one of the versatile Centrals may make a good fit for you and you can even get into the more exotic and sweet coffees from Yemen and Ethiopia.

Aside from these generalities, you have to be the final judge. We’re blessed with choices in cigars that are nearly limitless and coffees that change from crop to crop and seem to be evolving to ever-higher levels of quality as awareness of specialty coffee grows. I’m left with only one thought and the recommendation I alluded to earlier.

Enjoy the journey!

Brian Bircher is the owner of The Black Dog Coffee Company, an artisan roaster based in Summit Point WV. His passion for fine coffee and cigars spans many years and he was introduced to coffee roasting by a fellow cigar enthusiast. He views his hobby-turned-vocation as an opportunity to educate people about coffee and to increase their expectations and enjoyment of the brew. Learn more about Brian, his coffee and his company at BlackDogCoffee.net.