Yes, the beans come from a different plant, but they serve quite a similar purpose: coffee and cacao should stimulate. We talk about those alkaloids, caffeine for coffee and theobromine for cacao. Cocoa was a ceremonial drink of Mayan and Aztek gods, then preferred by European royalty and much later became available to the general public.
So both beans contain significant amounts of antioxidants – cacao more than coffee. Theobromine only occurs in cacao and tea, thus it stimulates mildly and less effectively as caffeine. (FYI A 70% dark chocolate bar can have as much as 810 mg of theobromine!) Also, those two play a role in keeping our brain and cognition sharp as we age. Dietary flavanoids found in cacao have been proved to protect against neuroinflammation and promote learning and memory. Our cup of Joe or caffeine has been shown to promote learning and memory with just a cup a day!
The processes of fermentation, drying and roasting has many parallels. Let’s look into those. As both fruits ripen at various times, manual picking from small farmers is required. Both Theobroma cacao and Coffea Arabica needs about 5 years before producing berries or cherries. So after harvesting, cacao pods are opened, beans are removed and piled into large wooden containers for fermentation (covered with banana leaves) for 2-7 or sometimes even 10 days, depending on variety. Beans are turned in order to ferment evenly. During fermentation, a number of chemical reactions occur which help develop flavor.
As for coffee, many options for processing: dry, wet, honey, anaerobic and so on. Either process removes the pulp from the beans while developing varying degrees of aroma, body, acidity that compose the bean’s flavor. Both beans are then dried in the sun to reduce moisture levels.
Coffee beans then undergo milling, hulling, cleaning, grading, and polishing the green coffee beans. The post-harvest process is crucial for both beans alike as to ensure properly developed flavors and quality. So here comes the roasting part. Both cocoa and coffee beans are roasted to draw out the unique flavors of the bean’s origin. This requires technique on the part of chocolate makers and coffee roasters, who work to find the right balance in the roasting.
Pairing the two? Who would mind it?
As we now know the many similarities between the two and how complex both beans are, it can come handy when planning a pairing. Roasting process actually brings about many comparable flavors, thanks to Maillard reaction. Let’s say a dark roast coffee and dark-roasted cacao will have slightly bitter and strong chocolaty flavors that will complement each other with some sweetness from the chocolate. Lighter roasts will maintain acidic and fruity notes, which gives a sparkle to a pairing. It’s a mutual thing, either coffee will enhance the flavors of chocolate, or vice versa, but pairing them together should really create delicious and unexpected combinations.
So when starting to think about the pairing, keep in mind the basics: flavor, acidity, complexity. Bitterness can be balanced out by sweet or salty flavors and tart/acidic can balance spicy and sweetness. There are no exact rules what goes with what, it’s more of an experiment and what you think that are the best combinations. But for a start, you can try matching espresso with dark chocolate – 70% with cinnamon or caramel and those creamy chocolate notes in your espresso will mimic the chocolate itself. Have a dark chocolate with chili flavor notes and don’t know what to do with it? Then pair it with a Brazilian coffee! Classic, medium roasts are a good match to milk chocolate and try contrasting bold, dark roast with white chocolate with strawberries. It’s the same logic in all of these – either mirroring the flavors of chocolate or contrasting them.
Remember: freshly brewed coffee and cooled a little, chocolate at room temperature, notebook and a pen to track the flavors and impressions.