Tempting Tastes, Perfect Pairings and Other Culinary Compulsions (or Why We’ve Started Talking About Food)

On thing I set out to do at the beginning of ÜSFG was to encourage geeks like me to celebrate the things that make us unique, to celebrate our differences and celebrate our lives. Reading books, watching movies or TV shows and playing with games and gadgets is something we geeks obviously share and discuss at ÜSFG but one thing we haven’t touched much upon is food and beverages. I’d like to change that. I love to talk about my passions, share my ideas and knowledge with others and learn how others think and feel about things. That especially applies to me for coffee and tea.

You’re probably asking, “What does coffee and tea have to do with being a sci-fi geek?” Well, I have a few different responses that I could offer to that, the first of which is that coffee and tea are the lubricants that keep our geeky minds oiled and running smoothly. I could offer a dozen more equally compelling responses, but rather then preach my Doctrine of Coffee and Tea, I shall just say this: Captain Picard had his Tea, Earl Grey, Hot; Captain Janeway had her black coffee; Harry Potter had his Butterbeer; and Ford Prefect had his Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. From Star Trek to ElfQuest and everything in between, food and beverages have played an important role in sci-fi and fantasy, so why not talk about it in the context of being part of geek culture?

My professional career has always been in the gourmet coffee and tea industry (I don’t refer to myself as ArtistCoffee Master, Geek for nothing). Over the years I’ve tried many brands and varieties of coffees and teas, and I’m always eager to learn about and experience more. My philosophy on food and beverages is that while some things are highly complimentary when paired to enhance natural flavors, most people just automatically cover things up with sauces and seasonings without giving thought to true flavor. They add sugar and cream to coffee and tea without sipping it first. They put catsup and mustard on their burgers and smother their salads with dressing. If you automatically have to cover up the flavor of something you are eating without thinking about it or even trying it first, you don’t really like the food you are eating — you’re just eating. Doing a coffee or tea tasting is an effort to consciously think about what you are consuming. It’s a meditation on food and the pleasure it can bring. The first sip is almost a Zen moment for me.

Drinking coffee and tea is a sensual experience. From the moment you hold the cup in your hands, you feel the warmth of it and begin to anticipate the sensation of it warming you from within. Then you drink it in with your eyes, the colors spanning the calming, earthy rainbow of yellow, ocher, and red, on through to deep dark brown and rich silky black. When you breathe in the aroma, you begin salivating and your other senses peak in anticipation of the first taste. When that first sip reaches your lips, the complex flavors dance across your taste buds, evoking thought and memory, completing the whole body sensory experience and often resulting in an involuntary vocal response such as an “ah” or “mm”. Your body responds this way whether you contemplate the physical reaction and appreciate it, or you just down your daily cup o’ joe.

When I do a coffee or tea tasting, my first drink is always black and unsweetened. Depending on how much time I have to enjoy it, I may prepare a food item or have other ingredients available in order to play with complementary and clashing flavors. I prefer to use a French Press with fresh ground coffee and a glass pot for loose leaf tea. I use water from a kettle heated just off boiling. When I pour the first cup, I look at the color of it. I examine the oils on the surface and then cover the cup with my hand and breathe in the aroma. This is a thought-provoking step. I like to savor it and think of the things it reminds me of. For example, the earthy aroma of fresh-brewed Sumatra coffees typically remind me of walking through a forest in the fall, the smell of wet earth and fallen leaves mingling in the air with the smoke from someone’s leaf burning.

After meditating on the aroma, I slurp the coffee or tea, drawing in lots of air with it to continue to involve my sense of smell with defining the flavor. As I swallow that first taste, I think not on the flavor but where I perceive it on my tongue and how it feels in my mouth. While teas tend to have minimal variations in mouth feel, coffees can vary wildly from thin to syrupy. Lastly, I sip the coffee and let it linger in my mouth a moment before swallowing. Only then do I let myself think about the flavor of it. What does it taste like? What does it remind me of? What would go well with it?

I can’t tell you how many times at this point I’ve watched someone make a face because they just aren’t used to sipping unsweetened or unflavored fresh-brewed coffee or tea. They automatically want to reach for the sugar because that is the dominant flavor they are expecting to taste. Taking the time to think about the flavor profile changes the entire experience. Your first sip of a pressed black coffee or steeped loose leaf tea is like a slap in the face for those who are used to drip coffee makers and boxed tea bags. At your second sip, everything changes. You begin to notice things you never noticed before. Revealed to you are subtle nuances of flavor that are masked by sugar and cream such as nutty, caramely, earthy, or tart. Once you recognize those flavors are there, you can truly begin to appreciate them and decide what will best complement those natural flavors. For example, sun-dried and naturally processed African coffees tend to have a sharp, exotic, wine flavor ranging from berry to citrus that dark chocolate and dried fruits go extremely well with. Something like Kenya AA is downright juicy when paired with a slice of iced lemon pound cake.

Just as some foods enhance the natural flavor of a coffee or tea, others completely ruin them. I’m not a huge fan of Latin American coffees in general (though there are a few exceptions I truly enjoy) but nothing tastes worse to me then pairing that same luscious iced lemon pound cake I mentioned before with Colombian coffee. The sharp chemical flavor that is produced is like licking lemon-scented furniture polish. Take that same cup of Colombian coffee and pair it with a fresh slice of banana nut bread, though, and it produces an incredibly sweet, almost cool sensation in the mouth.

I could go on and on like this, and I will, but not here and now. I just wanted to introduce the idea to you and set the expectation that some of the greatest adventures a geek can go on are culinary. I look forward to sharing a variety of food and beverage impressions with you in the future and hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I like talking about it. If not, however, I completely understand. After all, food and beverage reviews are not everyone’s cup of tea. 😉

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