Pairing Coffee and Chocolate Through Intrigue

How chocolate truffles interact with your taste buds is pure magic.  Why that reaction happens is pure science.  In the name of research, I spent an afternoon at Intrigue Chocolate Co. with Aaron Barthel, owner and chocolatier.  Our mission was to find out why coffee and chocolate go so well together; we suffered through sample after sample of melt-in-your mouth truffles while sipping on fresh coffee.

Intrigue is a specialty chocolate shop in the heart of Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, Pioneer Square.  Aaron is a chocolatier, not a chocolate maker.  The latter constitutes someone who harvests cocoa beans, ferments, dries and roasts them into a bitter mass.   A chocolatier is a craftsman who takes this raw chocolate and blends it with cream, butter and sugar to create a multi-dimensional ganache, basically a flavor bomb compared to its original state.  If raw chocolate is black and white television, truffle ganache is technicolor.  

Why A Pairing?

As we sipped on hot coffee while a cacao nib gently melted onto our palates, we questioned why coffee and chocolate pair well together?  Aaron surmises that just through observation, they have several things in common. He say’s, “Both coffee and chocolate are grown at similar latitudes and climates around the globe and both are fermented and roasted.  Furthermore, they have similar chemical characteristics with reference to caffeine, acidity, sweetness and fatty oil content.”

Moreover, when we taste chocolate and coffee, our brains makes sense of what’s in our mouths through the five flavors of the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.  If you raised an eyebrow at that last one, you’re not alone.  Umami is commonly confused with savory; while savory is more synonymous with an experience and not a taste, umami is more like a three dimensional flavor.  It’s the x-factor of the taste buds and brings out other flavors.  You can taste it solo in kelp, fish sauce, shiitake mushrooms or aged parmigiano cheese but it’s designed to mingle and enhance other flavors.  Umami is a voluminous topic of its own.  We pair things like coffee and chocolate because they can enhance each other’s flavors, just like what umami does to succulent dishes.    

Aaron discussed how pairings can take several forms.  Either compare and contrast two similar things or two different things.  Whichever you decide, what makes a pairing interesting is discovering the differences between two things, noting what elements deviate from what is expected.  If you key into things like texture, temperature, and acidity for example, your body notices contrast when your brain is surprised.    

Pairing contrasting things can result in delicious harmony, but if they’re too far apart they’re awful.  Aaron adds, “Some things on their own are not that great.  Skunk musk for example is offensive but when diluted and combined with other elements for perfume, it can be desireable.”     

Chocolate and Truffle Making

The world’s first truffles were the result of an experiment, like most delicious things we eat today.  As the story goes, truffle making originated in France when melted chocolate ‘accidentally’ mixed with cream.  The gooey dollops were rolled in crushed nuts and took a shape resembling a mushroom which gave them their fungi inspired name.  Aaron discovered his passion for food experiments when his mother was worried that he wasn’t using his botany degree, and bought him a subscription to a horticulture magazine.  One of the issues had a recipe for orange mint truffles.  Since Aaron didn’t have fresh oranges or mint, he used what he had available at the time – hot chillies.  Like any good inventor ahead of his time, he naturally changed everything about the recipe and invented a new one.  Aaron dried the habaneros and rehydrated them by steeping them in dark rum.  Then he strained them out of the rum and mixed the now spicy rum with cream to make his version of a Mexican hot-chocolate truffle.  Aaron’s innate curiosity is what drives the innovation of Intrigue; and we get to reap the benefits.        

One thing I noticed is that his chocolate smelled like a bag of roasted beans.  That’s because Aaron steeps the ground coffee beans in the cream, the cream pulls all the fat and flavor soluble compounds out for a full flavor profile.  Just like the cream absorbed the volatile oily compounds of the habaneros for his spicy Mexican chocolate, it absorbs the oils and fatty acids from fresh roasted coffee, thus giving off those lovely aromatics.  

The Marriage

Marrying two flavors is a bit like your thanksgiving dinner plate.  Is the rosemary-infused cranberry sauce mixing with the sour dough and thyme stuffing?  Is the honey-glazed turkey topped with garlic and chive mashed potatoes soaking in duck fat?  If you enjoy all these flavors together and purposefully arrange them in order on your fork from salty to sweet then you are dabbling in the same alchemy that Aaron uses to create new truffles.  The ingredients are important but what’s more important is quality.    

Intrigue receives their single origin chocolate in the form of 70% cacao chips coded E740, each about the size of a quarter.  Ground coffee is steeped in cream, which is strained and mixed with melted chocolate.  Intrigue partners with local roaster, Conduit Coffee Co. for the coffee component of the chocolates.  For the pairing, Aaron brewed Conduit’s Westlake Blend of award winning Brazil and El Salvador coffee beans, which he also uses in multiple truffles because of its consistent balance and delicate notes of chocolate and macadamia nut.  Its smooth, well balanced, and creamy character make it ideal for pairing with chocolate.  

Exploration and Discovery  

The focus of a pairing is centered on exploration and discovery.  It should be fun and enlightening.  Aaron adds, “If you have an idea of a method, take two variables and see what happens.  As long as you know the language and pay attention to what might reveal itself, then you can on your own put two things together that you may not know a whole lot about, and come out knowing a whole lot more.”  

The suggested method for pairing at Intrigue is: sip, sip, taste, sip.  First sip the coffee to clear your palate of whatever you ate or drank most recently.  The second sip sets your palate for coffee aromatics and flavor compounds.  Then break off a small piece of chocolate and put it in your mouth, just a small piece so you’re not chewing it.  Allow the chocolate to melt and mingle with the coffee.  Open your mouth a little and breath in some air to aerate your palate and allow your olfactory nerves to absorb the aromatics.  Finally sip the coffee again and again.  As the chocolate melts, your palate shifts and the flavors progress.  The flavors will further progress as the coffee cools.   

Over the course of an hour we paired a plethora of naturally infused chocolates with two kinds of coffee, hot Westlake and reheated cold brew of the Westlake.  Cold brew, popularly known for low acidity levels, transforms into a calm, round, mellow cup when gently reheated.  Aaron suggests: “Cold brew is ok for pairings if it’s good coffee but hot coffee will cause the flavors to bounce harder on your tongue and accelerates the aromatic.”

Is it Magic?

There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the pairing.  I didn’t know it was possible to mix so many flavors with chocolate.  Aaron offered one after another:  vanilla and bourbon, honey and ginger, loomi and jasmine tea, orange and rum, bellini and peach, raspberry liqueur and grains of paradise!  I can honestly say it was the most unique culinary experience of my life.  

Sip, sip, melt, sip… the most intriguing thing was how some of the flavors changed completely; some were still there but sweeter or more pronounced, while some were muted but still there in the background. The vanilla and bourbon truffle was sweet up front then melted into a coffee and bourbon cocktail with no trace of vanilla.  After a moment it settled on my palate as creamy and boozy, similar to Kahlua.  

The honey and ginger truffle was also black and white.  After the coffee sip it was sweet gooey honey.  After the next sip the flavor shifted to pure ginger sharpness.  Something delightful was happening.  I know acids and fats and complex flavor compounds were dissolving on my tongue in a scientific duel, but I like to think of it as simply… magic.  

Keeping in mind something Aaron said about ‘flavors on their own not being great but when combined they can create something quite nice’, we tried the elderberry and peppercorn truffle.  After the first sip of coffee the elderberry came through a little bitter, but I was not expecting the taste I experienced after the next sip.  Funky feet.  But not in a bad way; feet leaning more towards mushroom-like funk than dirty socks.  Remember umami, the elusive fifth flavor?  Not saying the flavor of umami is funky feet, but it is found in mushrooms and stands out in the elderberry/peppercorn blend.  It’s one of those flavors that keeps your brain gears turning and the reason why we lick clean dessert plates.  This truffle might be an example of black magic, but magic nonetheless.  

Dabbling in Science

If we use analogies to describe things… “this tastes like nuts or leather,” then we can create other analogies that are more complex: this tastes like orange creamsicle, this tastes like bacon wrapped fig, this tastes like balsamic strawberry compote.  These analogies are very useful for describing what we taste because they tell a story of a flavor profile, since our tastebuds are not monochromatic.   

When we mix foods together we experience multiple chemical sensations.  Some chemicals go well together and some completely clash.  Can you think of foods that you wouldn’t normally eat at the same time?  There’s a reason why we don’t put pickles in a birthday cake and why we do put strawberry and rhubarb together in a pie.  The sweet and tart chemicals go well together.  Similarly, most salad dressings pair well with bitter leafy greens but not so much on waffles.  Basically it’s science in your mouth, and Aaron, although a botanist by degree, suggests we shouldn’t get bogged down in the science but just enjoy the exploration and discovery of pairing contrasting things that we like.  

When creating new truffle blends, he doesn’t pull out a cheat sheet of complimentary chemicals or a web of phenyl compounds that play well together, although these aren’t bad ideas to nerd-out over food and there have been several books written on the topic of food science and chemistry.

Aaron’s tantalizing truffle ideas are spawned from his experiences with foods that made an impression on him. He only uses science to find out what else he can do to explore culinary options.  Instead of making a traditional hot chocolate with mint, he thought about what else existed in the mint family, thus the birth of a basil and chocolate beverage.   

In Aaron’s words: “If you want to concentrate on the science, concentrate on the how not the why. It’s more important to know how to pair, not why things taste the way they do.”  

Pairing At Home

When looking to start a pairing, there’s two ways you can begin.  Either start with a chocolate that you really like and see what happens to it when you pair it with coffee, or start with coffee you really like to discover how it reacts to chocolate.  Allow for a constant and a variable.  Either pair one chocolate with several coffees or one coffee with several types of chocolate bars.  Aaron adds, “You don’t have to know anything in depth about either one just as long as the quality is high enough to taste something.”

When choosing a chocolate bar, start with single origin chocolate.  These can be found in most grocery stores, specialty shops, chocolatiers or online labeled as single origin with a cacao rating.  Go for at least 70% as anything less might be too sweet.   When choosing a coffee, grab whatever you usually drink as long as it’s not too light or too dark.  If you need assistance in brewing consult a local roaster or coffee shop.  You can always order Conduit Coffee’s Westlake (which we used in this exploration) online.

Remember the most fun and enlightening way to approach a pairing is through discovery with an open mind.  Having an idea of method and taking two variables and seeing what happens.  

Let go of your expectations and give way to the magic and Intrigue.  


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