Cognac and Coffee, the after-dinner essentials of the suave and sophisticated, have become a staple for palates all across the world. Yet as we indulge in our eaux-de-vie or sip on our aromatic espresso, do we really comprehend the time, skill, science or passion that goes into creating these everyday luxuries?
The creation of coffee and Cognac requires both cultural understanding and scientific precision. These centuries-old crafts are steeped in tradition and honor the cultures, people, and passion that have been fundamental to them becoming worldwide delicacies. The rich and varied aromas and flavors that can be found in a perfect coffee brew or a glass of exquisite eau-de-vie, represents the blend of skill, knowledge, and dedication that is poured into producing two of the world’s favorite beverages.
La Marzocco, a company that’s roots go back to Florence, Italy in 1927, understands the heritage, artistry, and shared passion that goes into creating the perfect cup of coffee better than most. Founded by Giuseppe and Bruno Bambi, it was the first company to develop and patent a coffee machine with a horizontal boiler, which is now the industry standard. This development was the first in a series of groundbreaking innovations that have led to La Marzocco being recognized as a world leader in creating beautiful, superbly crafted espresso machines with exquisite attention to detail.
At Cognac Expert we hold great admiration for brands that demonstrate a devotion to their skill, who show respect for those who have paved the way before them, and who strive to positively impact their industry’s future. This is no truer than with La Marzocco, a company that continues to inspire and be instrumental to the craft of coffee production. Through a seamless combination of both legacy and vision, the brand not only produces espresso machines that could be deemed works of art, but it also gives back to its industry by supporting cultural and educational development and research that aims to build a sustainable future for espresso coffee.
Just as espresso is a natural companion of Cognac, a partnership between La Marzocco and Cognac Expert felt instinctive. La Marzocco is a brand built on curiosity and passion, two guiding principles that have produced, and continue to produce, first-class works of art in the world of coffee. Today, La Marzocco remains an artisan company, one that offers ground-breaking advancements in equipment technology. As a platform that prides itself on working with innovative artisans in the Cognac industry, it felt only right that as Cognac Expert introduced its audience to the joys of coffee with Cognac, it did so hand in hand with the company that does espresso best.
Now allow us to take you on a journey from coffee bean to cafe latte, from Ugni Blanc grape to eaux-de-vie, as we ask; how do these two popular digestifs come to be, and do they have more in common than one might first assume?
Where does the humble coffee bean begin its journey? This curious little bean is not only what we roast and grind up to produce coffee, but is also a seed that if not processed can be planted to grow back into a coffee tree. Cognac, on the other hand, is produced from grapes; although planting a grape will unfortunately not lead to a vineyard. Instead, young grapevines are planted which eventually flourish into established vineyards ready to cultivate the grapes.
Both coffee trees and Cognac vineyards require a relatively temperate climate and one which provides a consistent source of water, without the risk of overhydration. Coffee trees prefer slightly more tropical temperatures of between 18°C and 21°C, such as in Africa and South America; whereas the average annual temperature in Cognac is a pleasant 13°C. Both plants must have temperatures high enough so that the grapes and coffee cherries can reach full maturity, but not too high that they will burn, and neither plant appreciates frost.
When it comes to the amount of water required for each plant, coffee trees guzzle up a considerable amount and need between 60 to 80 inches of annual rainfall, they are planted in the wet season so that they can receive the majority of this in their infancy. Cognac vineyards are much less greedy and can prosper on between 25 to 35 inches of rainfall per year.
Coffee grows best when planted in moist, fertile and well-drained soil, located under a shaded canopy that will receive a healthy dose of sunshine, without being in direct bright sunlight. Soil which contains a mixture of disintegrated volcanic rock and decomposed mold is often extremely advantageous for coffee trees, although they do also thrive in clay-based or alluvial soils. These optimal conditions are often found at high altitudes and within the equatorial zone which covers areas of North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, with Brazil producing the most coffee in the world.
As you are no doubt aware, Cognac can only be produced within the designated Cognac region in southwestern France. The soil here is characterized by having a high chalk content, but there are in fact five major soil types across the region that differ according to how much and what type of chalk is found in it. Each of these soil types has an impact on the characteristics of the grapes grown from it. The vineyard begins its life as bare root vine seedlings that are planted in the springtime and attentively cared for; being watered, weeded, and protected from rodents. It takes approximately four years before the grapevines are ready to successfully bear fruit, which is the same amount of time that it takes for a coffee seed to reach fruit-bearing age.
The fruit of a coffee tree is referred to as a coffee cherry, probably due to the bright, deep red shade it turns when it is ripe and ready for harvesting. As coffee is grown in many different regions, the time for harvesting varies, but just as with Cognac vineyards, there is typically only one harvest per year. The Cognac harvest however always takes place around the same time, generally mid-September, and lasts for one month as opposed to the coffee harvest which can take two to three months.
As we previously mentioned, due to the optimal conditions, coffee farms are often located at high altitudes which makes the use of harvesting machinery impossible for many growers. Because of this, most coffee harvesting is done by hand, either through strip picking or selective picking. Strip picking is less time-consuming as the harvester takes all of the cherries from the branch whether they are ripe or not, however this can lead to lower quality coffee if the unripe cherries are not properly filtered out before processing.
Selective picking on the other hand is an incredibly labor-intensive process, requiring the harvester to only pick the cherries that are ripe and ready and to then revisit the trees multiple times over several weeks as the other cherries ripen. Although this is a time-consuming and expensive process, it usually results in a better crop. Brazil benefits from having relatively flat land and vast coffee plantations and so here the harvesting process has been mechanized, which is another reason why it is the leading coffee producer globally.
Unlike with coffee, the vast majority of growers in the Cognac region benefit from using mechanical harvesters. These machines are perfectly suited to the terrain, the volume being harvested, and the quality requirements of the region’s growers. However, there are still a few growers in Cognac who have strived to maintain the traditional practices of production and continue to harvest by hand but it is a much more laborious process.
Pressing vs Processing
The next stage after harvesting is when both fruits become the basis for the delicious end products. In coffee’s case, the cherries go through processing in order to extract the coffee bean and in the case of Cognac, this is when the grapes are pressed into grape must. In both cases, this step must be taken as quickly as possible after the harvest to ensure that the fruits do not spoil.
There are a number of different approaches to processing the coffee cherries, and each method will affect the final flavor of the coffee in a different way. Whichever method is used, the end goal of processing is to separate the fruit flesh of the cherry from the coffee bean without causing any defects to it.
Pressing the grapes can be performed either using a traditional, horizontal basket press or the more modern, pneumatic press. As is the case with the coffee cherries, this process must be monitored carefully to ensure that excessive deposits are not produced and released into the must as this will result in a higher alcohol content and reduce the value of the end product. Once the grapes have been pressed the juice is left to naturally ferment for several weeks, turning it into wine. It is this wine that goes through the fascinating process of double-distillation that transforms it into eau-de-vie.
The processed coffee beans still have a few more steps to complete before the real magic of roasting happens. After processing, the beans must be hulled to remove the papery substance, called parchment, that surrounds the bean. Once this is done the beans are sorted and graded according to their size, weight, and color. This process can be performed by a machine, using large sieves with various sized holes, or by hand. The beans are also checked for any deformities at this stage and those of an unacceptable size or color, over-fermented beans, or insect-damaged beans are removed, ensuring only the finest quality coffee beans remain.
So we have reached the point in our coffee and Cognac journey where we have processed beans and fermented grape juice. You’re probably thinking that the important work has been done. You’d be thinking wrong. At this stage, neither of these products would be enjoyable at all!
The coffee beans are still green at this point and are kept this way in storage as they do not lose their quality or taste, however they also do not possess any of the qualities that you would want to drink; they are soft, spongy and have a grassy aroma.
You may also be surprised to know that the wine that has been produced is actually quite lousy to drink. The reason for this sub-par vino is that in order to be used to make Cognac, it must be low in alcohol, high in acidity and not too intense in aroma or flavor – all of which does not make for a bottle of wine you’d really want to drink.
So how do we get from a green, spongy bean to a rich and aromatic cup of coffee, and from a mediocre wine to Cognac?
Roasting vs Distillation & Aging
The roasting and distillation processes are when the coffee bean and wine are transformed into the aromatic delicacies which are the foundations of their respective beverage, and both practices require an exceptional level of skill.
In fact, it takes years of training and experience before someone can fulfill the role of either expert roaster in coffee production or maître de chai for Cognac. Both roasting and distillation are meticulous sciences, but also impossible without an artistic flair, and without the proper care and attention, a batch of coffee or eau-de-vie can be easily ruined.
Coffee roasting involves carefully but rapidly applying heat to the soft, green bean, causing a chemical reaction that changes it into the dark and fragrant bean we know and love. Green coffee beans are made up of more than a thousand substances, such as chlorogenic acids, proteins, lipids, and caffeine, however less than fifty of these are needed for our cup of coffee. The purpose of heating up the green coffee bean is to dispose of the unwanted substances, including the majority of acids and proteins, while concentrating and intensifying the desired ones of lipids and caffeine, and stimulating the aromas and flavors locked within.
Cognac distillation also involves the use of heat, albeit applied over a much longer period of time than it is for roasting coffee. As with roasting, the purpose of this heat application is to cause a chemical reaction that separates substances, although with distillation it is to isolate the alcohol from the water in the wine. The final distillate is a clear liquid that contains all the potent aromas and flavors which influence the end Cognac product.
There are two commonly used methods by which coffee beans can be roasted, either using a drum or a hot air roaster. Drum roasting is the most economical method and is favored by most roasters thanks to its simple design and capacity range of 500 grams up to 5,000 pounds in one batch. A drum roaster consists of a rotating cylindrical drum that has heat applied either directly underneath it or through the center via a conduit.
During drum roasting, the heat is transferred primarily through convection but also using conduction. Temperature gauges monitor the heat being applied and also the ambient bean temperature inside the drum, it is essential that this is closely controlled as if the heat is too high or the drum spins too quickly then the beans may become unevenly roasted.
Despite being faster, cleaner, and easier to duplicate batches continuously, air-roasted coffee has remained the less popular choice due to its limited capacity batch size. Coffee drinkers who have a preference for air-roasted coffee insist however that it delivers a smoother and less bitter flavor.
Air-roasted coffee refers to coffee that has been roasted on a fluid bed of hot air. The beans are placed into a roasting chamber within which they levitate on a bed of very hot air which is pushed through the chamber continuously. As the beans roast, they pop and crack until the outer husk is blown off into a collection chamber, this process allows all of the husks to be removed and separated from the beans.
The removal of the husk during roasting means that many claim it produces a purer and less acidic coffee bean, and the process also delivers a much more consistent flavored batch than drum roasting. As there is no method for separating the husk through drum roasting, the debris remains in the barrel where it sometimes burns and often smokes, impacting the flavor – particularly with dark roasted coffee.
Coffee beans can be roasted to four different levels: light, medium, medium-dark and dark roast, the roasting level is determined by how long the bean has been exposed to high temperatures for and therefore what color the bean turns. As well as being comparable to the distillation process, coffee roasting is also similar to the aging of eau-de-vie in that the time spent roasting and aging has a significant impact on the flavor of the end product.
The Cognac aging process takes place in oak barrels over many years, and the impact of aging can be detected in the alcohol content, color, aromas, and flavor of the eau-de-vie. Alcohol is a natural solvent and so as the eau-de-vie sits patiently in its oak cask, it extracts the wood components. These components include vanilla, a key flavor in Cognac, and tannins which give Cognac its earthy, nutty, or even buttery notes; the tannins are also what blesses the previously clear eau-de-vie with its brilliant amber hue. The longer the Cognac spends aging in the barrels, the more the color, aromas, and flavors develop, ranging from floral and fruity notes to spicier and earthier tones.
Light roast & VS
Light roast coffee means the bean has not been heated after the first crack which is when the internal temperature has reached 205°C and carbon dioxide alongside water vapor is released, resulting in expansion. The taste is one of toasted grain and there is a high concentration of acidic flavors, light roasted beans contain a greater amount of caffeine and do not produce an oily substance.
A VS or Very Special Cognac means the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend will have been aged for between two and four years. The shorter aging process produces a light straw color Cognac which will have a fresh, youthful kick to it and present lovely fruit aromas.
Medium roast & VSOP
Medium roasted beans have an internal temperature of between 210 and 220°C, meaning they have been heated to the end of the first crack but not quite to the second crack. The body of a medium roasted bean is larger and a slightly darker shade of brown compared to the light roasts. The aroma, flavor, and acidity of a medium roast is more balanced and this level of roast will still not produce oil, although the caffeine content will be slightly lower.
VSOP or Very Superior Old Pale refers to a Cognac in which the youngest eau-de-vie will have been aged for between four and ten years, although the average age can be much older. A VSOP Cognac will be smoother than its younger counterpart and clear notes of oaks and spices will have begun to develop.
Medium-dark roast & XO
At this stage, the roasting process requires a high level of care and attention as only a few seconds could ruin the roast. The medium-dark roast is carefully heated from the second crack at 225°C up to about 230°C. Oil will begin to develop on the surface at the medium-dark level and the bean will be heavier than light and medium roasts. The flavors and aromas produced from roasting become more pronounced and there is a noticeable bitter-sweet aftertaste.
XO stands for Extra Old Cognac, meaning the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend has been aged for a minimum of 10 years, although the average age is normally between 15 and 20 years. The flavors of an XO, thanks to the considerable time spent aging, are rich and luxurious with delicious notes of toffee, chocolate, nuts and dried fruit.
Dark roast & XXO
The final stage of roasting involves heating the beans to an internal temperature of above 240 but never beyond 250°C and this is when a considerable layer of oil develops which is evident when you drink a cup of dark roast coffee. The color of a dark roast bean is similar to chocolate and can sometimes appear almost black. The beans at this stage have almost lost the original coffee flavor and instead have a considerable bitter, smoky or even burnt taste. This level of roast also contains a much lower level of caffeine than lighter roasts.
The oldest age category is that of XXO, standing for Extra Extra Old, in which the youngest eau-de-vie is at least 14 years old. XXO Cognacs present similar flavors to that of an XO, although they will be more pronounced. This age category is also usually when rancio begins to appear, giving the Cognac earthy, mushroom, and spicy tones such as curry, ginger, and saffron.
Coffee Blending vs Cognac Blending
We bet you hadn’t anticipated quite so much time and effort going into the preparation of your daily coffee and evening Cognac, but the work of the skilled expert roaster and cellar master does not stop there.
At this point in the process, the expert roaster will have produced a batch of single-origin roasted beans, meaning all of the coffee beans are from the same harvest and have been roasted to the same level. So if you purchase a single-origin coffee, it would mean you are enjoying the pure aromas and flavors of one distinct type of coffee bean. A single-origin coffee can be compared to a Vintage Cognac, as a Vintage Cognac refers to a single eau-de-vie, distilled from one type of grape, from one harvest in one vineyard, in one year, and left to age before being immediately bottled. A Vintage Cognac is not blended with any other eaux-de-vie, so that the Cognac will present the authentic flavors of that particular harvest.
An expert roaster may also make the decision to create a coffee blend using the roasted beans. A coffee blend combines beans from several different origins, although normally no more than five, that will provide a variety of flavors that when (successfully) combined together, should create a harmonious and complex cup of coffee. Blending coffee is far more than just throwing together any old beans and brewing the combination, expert roasters go through extensive training and years of refining their skill in order to master the art of creating the perfect blend and will often spend weeks or months honing a blend before they deem it worthy of being enjoyed by coffee drinkers.
The golden rule when it comes to creating a coffee blend is that the combination of the beans must deliver a more dynamic flavor than is possible from the single-origin coffee. Sometimes a single-origin coffee can have dominant characteristics that can be too overpowering when brewed alone, and so if a roaster has an understanding of how to skillfully blend beans of different origins together, they can produce a balanced and well-rounded coffee.
Cognac blending involves combining two or more eaux-de-vie together, however the higher the quality of Cognac, the more eaux-de-vie it usually contains, with some XOs being composed of around 150. As you can imagine, the vast selection of eaux-de-vie that could be used in a blend requires a cellar master with an encyclopedic knowledge of his craft and what aromas and flavors can be found in his casks.
Some cellar masters choose to blend within a single cru, for example, they may combine multiple eaux-de-vie that have been produced within Grande Champagne in order to preserve the characteristics of that particular terroir. Other cellar masters prefer mixing eaux-de-vie from across the whole Cognac region. The more diverse the combination of eaux-de-vie, the subtler the flavors become, which usually results in a Cognac that is easier and ‘smoother’ to drink. Vintages or single-cru Cognacs are more sophisticated and distinctive, with bolder characteristics, presenting an equal challenge to the nose and palate. Just as is the case with coffee, the question here is not whether a vintage or blend is better, but which you personally prefer.
Coffee grinds vs Cognac Age
So now we have our coffee beans which are somewhere between a light and dark roast and you may have a single-origin selection of beans or a blend. However, the variations don’t stop there, as the choice of what size coffee grind must now be made, and this all depends on the style of brew the beans are being used for. This decision is much like how a Cognac will be selected based on age, depending on how it will be consumed.
The reason the size of the coffee grind matters is because it affects the surface area of the coffee itself. As you grind the coffee beans you increase the surface level of the coffee for the water to come into contact with. Both the surface level of the coffee, or the grind level, and the time spent in contact with the water have an impact on the flavor of the final brew.
A coarser grind will be best suited to a brewing method that takes longer, such as french press, and aero press, whereas a brew using pour-over coffee only has a short time to come into contact with the water and therefore requires a finer grind. Espresso has the finest grind in order to make it compact in the portafilter and allow the pressure to push through the water. The more appropriate the grind to the brewing method, the better the transferral of coffee compounds into the water will be. If the coffee grind is too large for the brew type then the coffee will be too weak, or if it is too fine it may be too strong and overpowering.
Just as the best grind level is dependent on the brew, the appropriate age of Cognac is dependent on the concoction. Cognac has become an incredibly popular base for a wide array of cocktails and mixed drinks, however it is often the younger variations that are most suited to mixology. A VS or VSOP Cognac works well in cocktails as these age categories are fresher and livelier with vibrant citrus, floral and sweeter notes that compliment the mixers well. If you are treating yourself to an older Cognac, then it is recommended that you savor the aromas and flavors by enjoying it neat as you can really only appreciate its full complexity when it is undiluted.
How to enjoy your coffee & Cognac
We have taken you on the long and winding journey from coffee cherry and white grape, right through to the final delicacies of coffee and Cognac ready to be consumed. Now the only question remaining is what is the proper way to indulge in these fascinatingly complex beverages?
Well, the answer is not a simple one, and our honest view is that you should enjoy your coffee or Cognac exactly how you want to. However, if you are looking for a little guidance we suggest a few ways to get the most out of your coffee bean and eaux-de-vie:
Neat: If you are someone who likes to abide by the rules of tradition, then there is no other way to enjoy both of these luxuries than after dinner, as a digestif. We would recommend selecting an older Cognac of XO or above quality to slowly savor at room temperature straight from a tulip glass, or brewing an espresso coffee to sip on as you allow whatever delicious meal you’ve just enjoyed to digest.
Mixed: Perhaps you prefer to try out the latest trends and enjoy your delicacies in a multitude of ways. In which case, the possibilities for both coffee and Cognac are endless. Cognac has become a firm favorite of mixologists all over the world and you can find a wide array of mixed drinks and cocktails that contain this eau-de-vie. Simply head to a fashionable bar and nightclub and see what wonderful Cognac creations they have to offer. The same goes for coffee, it seems that new coffee concoctions are constantly being dreamed up, from lattes to macchiatos, to affogatos, we recommend you try them all.
Iced: This seems to be a relatively new venture for both Cognac and coffee lovers. Whereas neat Cognac is traditionally enjoyed at room temperature, enjoying your eaux-de-vie iced is now a possibility, with certain brands releasing bottles intended exactly for that such as the ABK6 Ice Cognac. The same goes for coffee, who can resist an iced latte or a frappe on a hot summer’s day? We love getting our caffeine kick whilst also cooling down.
Together: Now we must admit, we think this is our favorite option as what better way is there to enjoy each of these luxuries, than in combination with the other? The relationship between Cognac and coffee is a symbiotic one that we will not argue with and clearly, we’re not alone.
There are multiple brands that have blended eaux-de-vie with espresso to produce some stunning liqueurs, and you’ll be delighted to know we feature a few of them here on Cognac Expert:
This coffee liqueur from the house of Navarre has an ABV of 43%, making it one of the strongest coffee liqueurs out there. The flavor of real coffee is powerful in both the nose and the palate. Enjoy it neat, with an ice cube, or as part of a dessert.
Couprie Liqueur de Café au Cognac
This liqueur has been aged for a minimum of two years to allow the successful marriage of coffee and Cognac to take place. It is a light and expressive liqueur that can be enjoyed neat with ice, or in a cocktail.
Meukow Xpresso Liquor Cognac
A blend of VS Cognac with natural roasted coffee flavoring gives this liqueur irresistible flavors of smooth espresso, with a spicy, leathery body and bitter orange fruity notes.
Merlet Liqueur C2 Café au Cognac
A meeting of the great minds of Merlet and La Rochell has resulted in this multi-award-winning coffee liqueur. The coffee is Brazillian Arabica which was ground on the day of blending, to give a wonderfully intense aroma. The low levels of sugar in this bottle also allow the natural bitterness of the coffee to shine through.
Grand Brulot VSOP Cafe Liquor Cognac
The first premium Cognac 80 proof coffee spirit, an absolute one-of-a-kind. Cellar Master, Christopher Tardy has harmoniously blended a VSOP Cognac with Ecuadorian 100% Robusta coffee beans, selected for their concentrated richness, to produce this masterpiece.
Renault Avec Cognac
An innovative offering from Renault, this is not a liqueur but in fact a Cognac that has been created with the specific purpose of enjoying alongside coffee. Its enhanced tasting notes of roasted mocha and vanilla, with its smooth and round structure, makes it the perfect partner for coffee. Enjoy it neat, alongside an espresso as a delightful digestive at the end of an indulgent meal.
Pair your coffee with tasty roasted notes and get Renault Avec here.
That, dear connoisseurs, concludes our exploration of the fascinating world of coffee and Cognac in partnership with La Marzocco. We hope that this insight into the skill and dedication required to produce both of these extraordinary beverages will entice you to explore the possibilities of Coffee in partnership with Cognac, and if it’s something you’re already dabbling in then we hope it will make it taste that just bit sweeter.
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