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June 19, 2011

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Wake up your senses

TODAY, coffee is seen to be a common beverage. With a Starbucks on every corner and instant coffee in every supermarket, it is hard to imagine that it was once considered the beverage of the rich and the important in 18th-century Europe.

Following commercialization and mass distribution by numerous coffee makers, coffee has become a daily staple in many people's lives. Yet in recent years it has become much more than simply the drink synonymous with a morning hit of caffeine - it is increasingly seen as a sensory experience unlike no other; an artistic drink involving the five senses; a science requiring knowledge and experience to fully decipher. As a result, the coffee sommelier has emerged, dispensing professional advice on the best combinations of coffee with food and other beverages.

Recently in Shanghai for the launch of his new book "Coffee Codex," which explains the art of tasting coffee and its harmonization, professional sommelier Giuseppe Vaccarini explains that with the changing beverage scene and increased appreciation for coffee, there is more attention being paid to the pairings of coffee. This change in perceptions, as Vaccarini explains, has been brought about by the realization that as the last beverage that many restaurants offer, coffee is the one item on the menu that will create a long-lasting effect on patrons. This explains the importance of coffee (and any other beverage served after a meal) for restaurants as it gives the curtain call to a meal.

The science of coffee requires importance paid to fine details. For instance, how the most aromatic coffee should be brewed at a temperature of 83 to 89 degrees Celsius, and how intense and structured coffee can only be obtained by grinding it into small particle sizes, while a coarser particle size results in a lighter and more refreshing drink.

"Good coffee should exude bitterness and acidity. But this is a pleasant taste, one that is an enjoyable sensory experience," Vaccarini says.

Despite sounding like a contradiction in itself, this gives us the gist of what coffee is about - the five senses. It begins with the visual perception, then the teasing whispers of its aroma hinting its country of origin and variety, the warmth of the cup you're holding up to your lips, the bitter smoothness of the coffee sliding down your throat, and the light clinking of the cup as you place it back onto the saucer.

Vaccarini embarked on his search for the best flavor combinations with coffee six years ago. A sommelier since 1972, the youngest winner of the Best Sommelier in the World competition and former president of the Association of Italian Sommeliers, he has the expertise and knowledge to be a voice of authority on the art of pairing. His research reveals that by harmonizing coffee with basics such as water or simply something sweet (yes, the chocolate and coffee pair is a classic one too!), the pairings add a different level to the complexity of tastes provided by the vigorous explosion of flavors in the mouth.

The expert's advice? For a strong coffee, savor its uniqueness with sparkling water, distilled water, Amaro Fernet or 70 percent Java dark chocolate. For varying intensities of coffee, different flavor combinations are required. Try distilled water for the first pairing no matter the type of coffee but be reminded that the higher the level of pureness of the coffee, the starker the contest of tastes brought about by the increased sweetness of water.

"Link the taste to the situation," advises Vaccarini, that is the science of hitting the right harmonic note. Remember though, that "the country of origin means differing intensities of your coffee." For the hesitant beginner to the world of coffee, start with a light coffee and slowly begin to try others at your own pace. You may be surprised by what you taste.


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