Coffee’s Gone Craft
And chefs love it—as a pairing or an ingredient
It’s local. It’s seasonal. It’s brewed to bring out natural flavors.
No, we’re not just talking about craft beer. We’re talking about coffee.
Coffee has gone craft, and not just in Seattle and Portland but across the nation, as local roasters import beans from small farms in South America, Africa, and elsewhere around the globe—and then roast them at home for super-fresh, nuanced brews.
Because these small, global farms can only produce a finite quantity at certain times of the year, the coffee roasters have begun, like chefs working with small local farms, to roast with the seasons. These smaller-batch roasters are also considered artisans, using different roasting and tasting techniques to bring out the various flavors in the beans they source.
“I define craft-coffee roasters the same way as I would define a musician,” says Chris Chacko of Sparrow Coffee in Chicago. “You could simply pick up a violin and play, but if you’re not a musician, you’re just making noises. It takes years to understand and practice how to make beautiful music. Coffee roasting is the same thing. You wouldn’t just use one roasting technique for all different kinds of beans. It takes years to understand how to draw out other flavors and be 100 percent focused on perfecting the craft.”
Chefs are beginning to realize this, as well, and—just as they support sustainable farm food and craft beer—they want to support their local roasters, too. Ultimately, chefs and operators want to offer the best coffee to pair with their food, and in other cases, they’re using this coffee in their dishes and desserts.
“Coffee used to be such an afterthought in restaurants,” says Gerard Craft, chef/owner of the St. Louis–based Niche Food Group. Craft has partnered with Scott Carey of local Sump Coffee to enhance beverage service and coffee for the restaurants, not to mention make a killer coffee gelato. “We’re trying to change the notion that coffee is just this extra thing that all of the staff drink and occasionally a customer drinks,” Craft explains. “We really take coffee service seriously, and have trained our staff to understand why it’s an important part of the dining experience. Scott is roasting for flavor just like we as chefs try to bring out the different flavors of food. Coffee roasting is way more like cooking than I’ve ever seen before.”
Chacko of Sparrow Coffee has devoted his business almost exclusively to working with high-end chefs in the Windy City, helping to bump up their beverage programs and pair coffee with food, just like a sommelier might pair wine with the menu. He’s worked with the likes of Grace, 42 Grams, EL Ideas, Schwa, and other Michelin-starred restaurants to develop special, boutique blends and brewing methods. For instance, at Grace, servers use a pour-over method to brew coffee tableside. And recently, Chacko has begun partnering with the soon-to-open wine bar The Lunatic, The Lover & The Poet.
“Almost 100 percent of our customers look to us to help them pair coffee with their food,” says Chacko, a 28-year coffee-roasting veteran who conducts tastings with the chefs first and then goes back to the roasting room to play around with different flavors. “We can make coffee taste like blueberries, like raspberries, like chocolate, and other things—without adding anything to it,” he explains.
For instance, after sampling dishes at Chef Abraham Conlon’s Macanese-Portuguese restaurant Fat Rice, Chacko felt the coffee served at the end of the meal went flat, flushed out because of the bold spices and flavors in the food. By reverse engineering the coffee, he was able to develop a blend that “exploded with different flavors to enhance the spices and compounds still lingering on the palate.”
At Schwa, Chacko worked with chef/owner Michael Carlson to source two types of green (unroasted) coffee beans for use in a dessert with papaw fruit. “One bean was more chocolaty, and the other was more fruity—so together they paired nicely with the fruit,” he says.
Servers Become Baristas
Training staff members on proper coffee preparation using boutique blends helps them appreciate the process and the quality of the coffee, something they can then communicate to diners. Servers become baristas, essentially.
“Scott [Carey] has come in and taught our staff how to grind the beans and prepare the coffee with the proper weight-to-water ratios, and how to understand the timing of the espresso shots,” Craft notes. “His reputation is on the line, so it’s important that the coffee taste as good in the restaurant as it does in his store. Other companies might do one coffee training and then they are gone, whereas Scott regularly checks in to gauge the customer response.”
Craft’s restaurants use customizable drip brewers that can be reprogrammed every time a new coffee, blend, or seasonal roast is introduced. Beyond the beverage service, the restaurants have also embraced coffee-infused dishes.
For the gelato at Pastaria, a casual Italian-inspired eatery, Craft freezes Sump Coffee’s cold-brewed coffee into a sorbetto that’s so creamy it mimics gelato without the cream added.
Cold-brewed coffee involves steeping beans for at least 18 to 24 hours at room temperature, using natural oxygen rather than high heat to brew the coffee, which gives it a smooth texture and sweeter, often less-bitter, taste.
Craft has used the drip-brewed version, though, for sauces. For instance, a higher-acid coffee blend was used to deglaze the pan when making a Southern-style, red-eye gravy for brunch dishes.
At the recently opened Llama Inn in Brooklyn, New York, chef/owner Erik Ramirez worked with New York City–based Joe Roasting to develop a Peruvian coffee blend that could pair with his many Peruvian-inspired dishes. The coffee company brings in the green—as in unroasted—beans from a sustainable supplier in Piura, a Northern region of Peru, and roasts them locally.
“This coffee is smooth and creamy with the right amount of acidity and some floral, fruity notes,” Chef Ramirez says. “Not only is the flavor important, but so is how the beans are grown.”
For a coffee-decadent dessert, Ramirez starts by sourcing Peruvian chocolate from Fruition Chocolate in Shokan, New York, which he combines with lucuma, a Peruvian fruit resembling a large avocado that has a butterscotch/sweet potato–like flavor. Ramirez makes a mousse out of the fruit and pairs it with a Peruvian chocolate sorbet and warm chocolate sauce made with the brewed Peruvian chocolate (from cocoa beans) and dehydrated cappuccino foam.
At Oceana in New York City, executive pastry chef Colleen Grapes also created a coffee-infused dessert, the Black + White Semifreddo with Brazil Nut Streusel & Coconut Sauce, using Dromadaire Cuvée coffee from the local roaster Nobletree, which sources from sustainable coffee farms in Brazil and roasts out of a space in Brooklyn.
“Brazil nuts were added to provide that delicious nutty flavor, but also to pair with Nobletree’s Brazilian beans,” Chef Grapes says.
Just any Joe no longer cuts it in today’s competitive restaurant climate: Chefs want to serve sustainable, local, and artisan throughout the meal—down to the last drop.