Coffee cupping competitionMore and more, we hear that coffee is the new wine.

If you doubt this, simply attend a cupping (or coffee tasting) session. Dozens of cups are lined up on a table, each containing small amounts of freshly brewed coffee. Participants work their way through the samples in silence, displaying the focus and seriousness of sommeliers at a competition. The entries are judged on aroma and flavor, and rated on a 100-point scale. Events such as the Cup of Excellence, which names the best coffee produced in a country each year, play a major role in determining both the auction and market price.

The world’s most expensive coffee is reputed to be Kopi Luwak from Indonesia, which costs about $300 per pound. The production method is controversial. In delicate terms, let’s say that the beans are predigested by Asian palm civets, which supposedly accounts for the brew’s mellow taste. I promise I’m not making this up, and guarantee that I wouldn’t drink a cup of this stuff if someone paid me $300.

Fortunately, the rest of the world’s great coffees cost a fraction of the price of Kowi Luwak, and you can digest them yourself. The most expensive coffee I’ve actually tried is the Hacienda La Esmerelda Geisha (about $100 per pound), which was served to me in a restaurant in Panama City. It had an extraordinarily silky texture, like a great wine, with floral notes, spice and overtones of vanilla.

Starbucks is dipping into the high end of the market with its patented Clover brewing system, which combines French press technology with vacuum brewing. It’s available in 60 stores around the country; the coffees chosen for this process range from $18-50 per pound. For the everyday connoisseur, there’s Hawaiian Kona ($30) and Jamaican Blue Mountain ($45). Both are readily available, but make sure to spend a few minutes verifying their origin before purchase.

The art of pairing coffee with food is beginning to emerge, but the results are still sketchy. The epicenter of the trend seems to be South Australia, particularly Melbourne. At the St. Ali Café, Chef Ben Cooper is staging country of origin dinners (for example, pairing Balinese coffee with Balinese food). Shannon Bennett serves kangaroo with coffee and chocolate at the Vue du Monde restaurant, and Chef Joe Grbac is serving kingfish marinated in coffee at the Press Club. While there are many parallels between wine and coffee, most consumers aren’t prepared for the caffeine levels that a coffee degustation dinner might cause. If you’re skeptical, stick to muffins or cookies as a fail-safe pairing, preferably in the morning.



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