Cheese and red wine is about as classic a combination as it gets, but Klaus Thomsen, 2006 World Barista Champion and founder of The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen says that he's never found it to be a pairing that works that well. He's a much bigger fan of pairing coffee and cheese–so much so that he is partnering with Danish dairy Arla to make a special coffee cheese under the dairy's super-premium Unika line.
As a massive dairy conglomerate, Arla sometimes gets a bad rap, but what they are doing with Unika is anything but commodity grade. The project began ten years ago and is heavily aligned with the New Nordic Cuisine movement–the original goal of the project was to provide the best Danish restaurants with locally made alternatives to fine French cheeses. They worked in concert with many of Denmark's top chefs to develop a series of cheeses that blended traditional Danish ingredients and styles with the best possible techniques and milk. For most of the project's history, these cheeses have been exclusively available in the best Danish restaurants, though recently Arla opened an Unika boutique in the Torvehallerne food market, the same complex that houses Coffee Collective's second cafe, opened in 2011.
Thomsen met Mads Østergaard-Clausen, Arla's Innovation Manager and the head of the Unika project, at the Copenhagen Beer Celebration that Mikkeller hosts every year. Thomsen says that Østergaard-Clausen “hadn’t been drinking coffee in something like 15 years, but when he tasted our brews his eyes opened to the world of coffee.” The two have since really hit it off.
Coffee and food pairings are something that have been on Thomsen's mind for quite awhile, and he says that coffee and cheese has always been one of his favorite: “It’s the most classic combination in Denmark, to have rye bread with cheese and a cup of coffee. So there’s definitely something that triggers childhood memories and cozy mornings in that combo.” But Thomsen thinks the appeal goes beyond positive memories. He says that eating a good cheese covers your mouth in a layer of fats, and that when you drink a warm liquid after eating the cheese, those fats dissolved and release one last hit of retronasal aromas.
A few months after meeting at the CBC, Thomsen visited Unika's micro-dairy and R&D lab for a coffee and cheese tasting. He says that Mr. Østergaard-Clausen agreed with his analysis of coffee & cheese's compatibility, and they quickly got down to devising a collaboration. They are still very much in the testing phase so details haven't been finalized, but their first batch is experimenting with using brews of Coffee Collective's Ethiopia Yukro and Guatemala Finca Vista Hermosa. Thomsen says that the hardest part of the process has been the waiting–the types of cheese they are working on take at least 8 months to mature, so it will still be some time before they can really taste the first batch and make their tweaks for production.
Coffee cheese is not necessarily brand new. For just one example, the folks at Beehive Cheese Co in Uintah, Utah have been making a delicious and award-winning coffee-rubbed cheese for years. But the New Nordic perspective that the Coffee Collective and Unika are taking is sure to make for a delicious take on the concept. It will still be a while before the final batches find their way into production, but there is a chance that places like New York City's BoxKite coffee could someday be pairing Coffee Collective brews with Coffee Collective/Unika cheese.
For now, New Yorkers can try some other fine cheeses from the Unika line. They've recently expanded into limited US distribution, rolling out their ultra-premium cheeses to Scandinavian restaurants in NYC like Aska, Luksus, and Aquavit.