The Age wrote a rather unfavorable opinion of coffee pairing in one Melbourne restaurantToday’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) published a less-than-convinced article on the experimental fad of pairing coffees with a meal: Claire’s roast: Coffee matching leaves bitter taste. And Melbourne is a town that famously knows its coffee.

For me, the lingering question had been whether the concept of matching food to coffee would work…and based on my experience last week, I think the answer to that question is no. [The coffee] … didn’t bring out the best in what we were eating. Nor did the food bring out the best in the coffee.
–Claire Winton Burn in The Age, 19-Oct-2010

Individual efforts can fall short where others might succeed. But as a general rule, we’ve long thought that this coffee pairing concept made about as much sense as pairing cigars with a meal. (Though we always ask for coffee after dessert anyway.) It’s yet another shoehorned manifestation of the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee.

Of wine blending & varieties

For all the folly of marketing coffee like wine — instead of like, well, coffee — there are times we wish coffee professionals would treat coffee more like wine. For example, single vineyard wines are often very expressive and interesting. But there’s nothing wrong with a rich, traditional Bordeaux — or what a négociant does for a Burgundy wine. On the more modern side, the same is true for a good GSM Rhône blend.

Not available in pinot noir flavorBut unlike wine, blending remains a very bad word in quality coffee these days — what we’ve referred to as Death by Single Origin. Blends are treated as if no sane person of any reputable taste in coffee would ever ask for them. That blends only exist as a crutch to create consistent tastes from crop to crop — and not to offer a broader, more complex flavor profile. You may as well ask your barista for vanilla hazelnut flavored coffee.

Then take coffee roasting levels. Insisting exclusively on a specific lighter/medium roast level (aka, Medium Röaster Cult) — and those origin greens best expressed at those roast levels — is akin to only offering pinot noir on a restaurant wine list. Pinot noir is easily my favorite wine varietal, but what if I wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon? A Riesling? Even a Barbera? It’s as if many microroasters were wine stewards telling us, “Sorry, all we got is pinot noir, because it’s the best.”

Coffee’s quality trajectory plateau

Public coffee standards experienced a significant leap in quality over the past decade because there was a lot that needed improvement. This gave the impression that the sky was the limit — that new doors of quality could be opened at any turn — thus even innovation-obsessed magazines such as Wired started writing about coffee as if it were on some space-bound quality trajectory. Gadget hounds, and a gadget-obsessed media, followed suit.

On the other hand, wine hasn’t improved much at all over the same period. Wine has already experienced centuries of improvement and refinement, so winemakers have instead focused on tailoring it to public tastes at specific price points. Wine has plenty of gadget advocates, but you will never find a Wired article on making Bordeaux, for example.

Lacking the centuries of obsessive quality practices that wine has experienced, coffee still has room to improve. However, that space-bound quality trajectory? Let’s face it: there’s been a major leap on some dysfunctional foundational basics to reach a new quality plateau — basics like quality bean sourcing, freshly roasted coffee, and trained baristas — but the rest has been incremental at best. Some supposed improvements, like machine pressure profiling, have materialized as more lateral moves than any quality advancement per se.

Unlike trajectories, plateaus lack any of the hype and exhilaration to keep an audience fully engaged. But there should still be plenty of interesting, rational things to write about without proclaiming the arrival of fourth- and fifth-wave coffee. Winemakers may not have to face the naïve and presumptuous question of “What is the future of wine?” with every interview — as if modern man might not recognize what we call wine in the year 2020 — but there’s still plenty to say.