When it comes to pairing beverages with a fine cigar, the cigar enthusiast has a plethora of choices—beer, cola, coffee, tea, water, wine, and whiskey. But there is one beverage that will enhance the flavors of finely-aged tobaccos without overpowering them. That beverage is espresso. With its primary notes of chocolate, flowers, fruits, and toasted bread—along with just a touch of acidity and bitterness—an espresso complements and enhances the traditional flavors and aromas of practically every type of cigar. Even the smoker of milder cigars has no need to shy away from this stimulating pairing, since—contrary to popular belief—lightly roasted coffee blends may be used to prepare an espresso to match the subtleness of a Connecticut vitola. Traditional “espresso roast” coffees can be used to pull a bolder shot to complement a cigar blend composed with a Mexican San Andres wrapper. The possibilities are endless.

SEE ALSO: Cigar & Drink Pairings Made Easy

As with most beverage and cigar pairings, the most common “rule of thumb” is to match the color of the two. While this rule can be applied to cigars and espresso, there are some caveats. Strength, flavor, and the body of the beverage all play a role and the three are nearly identical to the main descriptors for premium cigars. The overall strength and body of the espresso should not compete with the cigar and, assuming you are looking for a nice complement to your smoking experience (and not the other way around), the beverage should be of the same intensity as the vitola’s blend. For example, a full-bodied cigar warrants a full-bodied espresso.

Fullbodied cigar = fullbodied espresso

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In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the combination of caffeine and nicotine, the smoker should decide in advance whether the cigar or the espresso will occupy the dominant indulgence. Caffeine strength is not necessarily determined by the roast of the bean, although it does play a part. A myriad of other factors are also involved, including the origin of the coffee and the grind. Oftentimes, you can rely on the roaster’s published strength level, but it is best to experiment to determine your personal definition of “strong.” However, the strict extraction method used in preparing a shot of espresso will produce a beverage with only around ten milligrams of caffeine variance in the cup, regardless of the selection of coffee and the type of roast.

As an entry-level pairing guide, you can begin with the following:

Connecticut-wrapped cigars and espresso recommendations:

  • Cafe Bustelo
  • Starbucks Italian Roast
  • Brazilian Single Origin
Habano-wrapped cigars and espresso recommendations:

  • Illy
  • Starbucks Espresso Roast
  • Indonesian Single Origin
Maduro-wrapped cigars and espresso recommendations:

  • Lavazza
  • Peet’s Major Dickinson Blend
  • Nicaraguan Blend

The above pairings are more than enough to jumpstart your introduction to an often overlooked combination that is one of the most complex in the world of premium cigars. And now that your interest in cigars and espresso has been successfully piqued, let us delve deeper into the legendary craft of espresso coffee.

History of Espresso

History of espresso coffee

One hundred and thirty-three years ago, Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy was granted a patent for “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.” His contraption consisted of a large, vertical boiler heated to a pressure of 1.5 bars (a bar is equivalent to the amount of pressure exerted by the atmosphere of the earth), which then pushed water through a bed of ground coffee. In the late nineteenth century, coffee culture was rapidly expanding throughout all of the European countries, increasing the demand for the caffeine-laced libation. Nevertheless, the brewing of coffee was a slow process, requiring the habitué to wait for up to ten minutes for their beverage. Moriondo’s invention was designed to decrease the brewing time and quickly deliver a cup of coffee to the customer. However, for a variety of reasons, his machine never went into production.

Twenty-two years later, Desiderio Pavoni made several improvements to Moriondo’s patent—including the portafilter (a group handle which contained tampered, ground coffee), multiple brewheads, and a pressure release valve—and introduced the “Ideale” machine to the public at the 1906 World’s Fair in Milano. For the first time, lovers of the bean could partake in a cup of coffee made expressly for them. Pavoni called the beverage that was produced in his machine espresso since it was made on “the spur of the moment.” While the Ideale could produce one-thousand cups of coffee every hour, its reliance upon steam and its nominal two bars of pressure resulted in a drink that had a burnt and bitter taste. Further design improvements became a necessity.

For the first time, lovers of the bean could partake in a cup of coffee made expressly for them

The first major breakthrough in the preparation of espresso came shortly after World War II, when Achille Gaggia, a Milanese cafe owner, invented the lever-driven machine. While continuing to utilize a vertical boiler, Gaggia’s improvements included a cylinder containing a piston, which was then coupled to a long lever. The steam pressure from the boiler forced one ounce of hot water into the cylinder. By slowing pulling down on the lever, the operator was able to force eight to ten bars of pressure onto the portafilter holding the ground coffee. Creative baristas called this action “pulling a shot of espresso.” The use of very high-pressured water flowing through the coffee grounds produced a layer of foam that floated on top of the beverage. Early customers were initially hesitant about the “coffee scum” present in their cup. Ever the marketer, Achille Gaggia calls it crema and uses it as a selling point—advocating that his coffee is of such superior quality that it composes its own cream.

In 1961, Ernesto Valente introduces the Faema E61, a sleek, polished, stainless steel machine with a horizontal boiler and two portafilter heads. Instead of the manually operated lever on the Gaggia—which, depending on the enthusiasm of the barista, sometimes produced a cup of espresso that was either over extracted (very bitter) or under extracted (very weak)—the Faema used a motorized pump, ensuring that an exact nine bars of pressure would flow through the coffee grounds. Nine years later, the Italian company La Marzocco builds the first machine with dual, independent boilers—one for the making of espresso and one for the production of steam for the frothing of milk. Utilizing a continuous brewing system with the group head welded directly to the boiler, the La Marzocco GS could heat water to a specific temperature, which was then delivered directly to the bed of coffee. The technology improvements in both the La Marzocco GS and the Faema E61 laid the foundation for all future espresso machines.

The Italian Espresso National Institute, an organization that safeguards and promotes the original espresso, defines the beverage as having:

“A hazel-brown to dark-brown foam—characterized by tawny reflexes—with a very fine texture (absence of large mesh and larger or smaller bubbles). The nose reveals an intense scent with notes of flowers, fruits, toasted bread, and chocolate. All of these sensations are felt also after swallowing the coffee in the long lasting aroma that remains for several seconds, sometimes even for minutes. Its taste is round, substantial, and velvet-like. Sour and bitter tastes are well-balanced and neither one prevails over the other. There is no, or a barely perceptible, astringent taste.”

Furthermore, the Institute also outlines the strict technical parameters for the production of a “certified” shot of espresso:

Portion of ground coffee 7 +/- 0.5 grams
Exit temperature of water from machine 190 +/- 4 degrees F
Temperature in cup 153 +/- 3 degrees F
Entry water pressure 9 +/- 1 bar
Percolation time 25 +/- 5 seconds
Volume in cup (including crema) 0.85 +/- 0.08 ounces

There are four factors which affect the quality of the final beverage and they are known among trained baristas as the “Four M’s”Macchina, Miscela, Macinazione, and Mano

However, the creation of the perfect shot of espresso involves both art and science. There are four factors which affect the quality of the final beverage and they are known among trained baristas as the “Four M’s”—Macchina, the espresso machine; Miscela, the roasted coffee beans; Macinazione, the grind of the coffee beans; and Mano, the barista or operator of the machine. When the “Four M’s” meld together in perfect harmony, they produce a beverage that is the perfect accompaniment to a finely-aged cigar.

Espresso at Home

While there is nothing quite like a shot of espresso pulled by two-time United States Barista Champion Michael Phillips at Intelligentsia Coffee in Los Angeles, a very good cup of the beverage can be made at home. All it takes is strict adherence to the “Four M’s.”


Macchina: four categories of espresso machines

There are four main categories of machines available to the home barista—the stove top espresso machine, the manual espresso machine, the capsule espresso machine, and the automatic espresso machine. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but all are capable of producing an enjoyable shot of espresso to pair with a favorite cigar.

Stovetop Machines — In 1933, Alfonso Bialetti introduced to the market a macchinetta (translation “small machine”) invented by Luigi De Ponti under the name Moka Express. Made from aluminum with Bakelite handles, the Bialetti Moka Express prepared espresso in a similar manner to Angelo Moriondo’s original patent—steam with approximately two bars of pressure, forcing water through a bed of coffee grounds and into a holding container. With its inexpensive price and multiple sizes (from two ounces to twenty-four ounces), the Moka Express eventually made its way into nine out of ten Italian kitchens. Over the resulting years, other companies have produced variations of the original Moka Express, with Alessi manufacturing luxury versions in polished chrome and stainless steel. Since the stovetop machines can only generate around two bars of pressure, the resulting beverage—while bold and strong—usually does not contain the desirable and elusive crema.

Manual Machines — The majority of contemporary, manually-operated espresso machines utilize the design and mechanics found in the Faema E61 and the La Marzocco GS—a portafilter with brewing baskets of various sizes, a pump producing up to fifteen bars of pressure, a heat exchanger or thermoblock for consistent control of water temperature, and a steam wand for the frothing of milk. With a little bit of practice, these machines are capable of producing a beverage that is at least the equivalent of those served in most speciality coffee shops. While pump-driven, manually-operated units can be found for under two-hundred dollars, my personal preference is the Breville “the Infuser” which has a suggested retail selling price of $499.95. This relatively affordable machine incorporates a number of unique features, allowing the home barista to easily extract a near-perfect shot of espresso with a micro-foam layer of crema. The Holy Grail of machines in this category is, of course, the La Marzocco GS/3. However, its $7,500.00 price tag puts it out of reach for the majority of customers.

Capsule Machines — In 1976, Eric Favre—an employee at the Nestlé company—invented an espresso machine where finely-ground coffee was contained in a hermetically sealed capsule made out of aluminum foil. The top of this pod was pierced during its insertion into the machine, allowing a whopping nineteen bars of pressurized hot water to flow through the grounds. Nestlé named Favre’s invention the Nespresso machine and it produced a shot of espresso with dense and rich flavor characteristics, topped by a quarter inch of velvety crema. Improvements to the original Nespresso design were made in almost annual increments and Nespresso now offers a variety of machines to the espresso-loving customer. The base machine in the line is the Inissia and it has a suggested retail selling price of $149.00. This machine contains a quick-heating element and will extract a beverage in two sizes—an espresso (1.35 ounces) and a lungo (3.72 ounces). Nespresso offers a wide variety of espresso capsules for the Inissia to meet the consumers specific taste demands, including capsules to produce a ristretto shot (0.85 ounces). The price per unit ranges from $0.70 to $0.80. Additionally, Davidoff now offers three varieties of Nespresso capsules—Elegance, Prestige, and Style—to produce a beverage accompaniment to their vast selection of cigars. A few other companies manufacture capsule machines, but Nespresso controls the lion’s share of the market.

Automatic Machines — Combining the precision of a manually-operated machine with the convenience of a capsule unit, automatic espresso machines will grind whole bean coffee, properly tamp it into the brewing basket, and extract a very serviceable shot of espresso—all via a touch screen. However, the cost of entry into this category of machines is rather steep, with prices starting near the one-thousand dollar mark. The DeLonghi Magnifica ECAM 23210B ($999.95 MSRP) is perhaps the most compact automatic machine currently on the market. With its adjustable burr grinder, the DeLonghi can produce either an espresso or a twelve-ounce cup of coffee. On the downside, the machine has a manually-operated steam wand, requiring the home barista to develop the skill set necessary to produce the hot (but not scalding) milk and velvet foam used in the construction of a cappuccino or a latte. For fully automatic operation in the preparation of an espresso, a cappuccino, a latte, and other espresso/milk beverages, the major player in the market is JURA. While offering a nice selections of machines with a starting price point of $799.00, the GIGA 5 ($5,599.00 MSRP) is the company’s most fully-featured model for the home. With two grinders and two thermoblock heating systems, the JURA GIGA 5 can produce two different espresso-based drinks simultaneously. Also, the machine is pre-programmed to make seventeen individual beverages, including an Irish Coffee.

Miscela and Macinazione

Miscela and Macinazione: espresso grounds

When it comes to extracting a great shot of espresso, the coffee and the grind are of equal importance. While any whole bean coffee can be used in the preparation of the beverage, a dark roasted coffee will usually produce a better result due to the oils remaining on the beans. Speciality coffee roasters use somewhat different nomenclature in describing their dark roasts for espresso, with Espresso Roast, Italian Roast, and French Roast being the most common. Regardless of the roast, the beans must then be ground into a very fine, almost powdery condition. Since an inexpensive blade grinder is incapable of producing the fine and consistent level of grind needed to withstand the high pressure generated by an espresso machine, a burr grinder must be used. A burr grinder is manufactured with two, revolving, abrasive surfaces (the burrs), which grind a few coffee beans at a time between the adjustable space between their surfaces. The majority of automatic espresso machines contain a built-in burr grinder. For home baristas using a manual machine, a burr grinder must be purchased as an accessory. The popular Breville “Smart Grinder Pro” ($199.99 MSPR) is programmable and has sixty separate grind settings. Conversely, pre-ground and vacuum-sealed espresso coffee is also available for manually-operated machines. My personal favorites are Cafe Bustelo, Illy, and Lavazza. Since they each have different flavor profiles, I keep a can of all three in the cupboard to match my mood and my choice of cigar.


Mano: espresso barista

Capsule and automatic espresso machines have pretty much eliminated the need for the final of the “Four M’s”—the man. With their ease of operation and consistent extraction of the beverage, the home barista utilizing one these machines is only required to do a little bit of routine maintenance. However, the production of a shot of espresso that meets the “certified” guidelines of the Italian Espresso National Institute can only be achieved with a manual machine. And the proper operation of a manual machine requires education and lots practice. If you decide on purchasing a manual machine for the preparation of espresso at home, Espresso Vivace (my favorite coffee shop in Seattle) has very helpful articles and tutorials on their website.

A shot of espresso is one of the most perfect beverages to enjoy with a cigar—enhancing the smoking experience with complementary and contrasting notes of chocolate, flowers, fruits, and toasted bread, along with a touch of acidity and bitterness. As novelist Mark Helprin wrote, “The voodoo priest and all his powders were as nothing compared to espresso…stronger than all the religions of the world combined, and perhaps stronger than the human soul itself.”

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