Coffee Pairings

Coffee is one of the world's most popular beverages, and many Americans consume it every day. When paired correctly, coffee and food can create a harmonious balance that brings out the best in each item. With so many new coffee trends popping up, coffee food pairings have grown to encompass a variety of different flavors and foods. Whether you're just starting a coffee shop or are looking to improve your restaurant's coffee service, understanding what food pairs well with your coffee beverages is a great way to boost sales and increase your bottom line.

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Coffee Pairing Considerations

A glass mug filled with iced coffee.

There are several factors you should consider when trying to find the perfect pairing for your coffee products. Depending on the roast of coffee and the brewing method, different foods will pair better than others. As you're trying to find the best foods to pair coffee with, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Flavor - Coffee and food items that have matching flavors will often pair nicely together. For example, a rich chocolate latte would go well with something like a chocolate brownie.
  • Texture - A food's texture can determine how compatible it is with a type of coffee. Foods that are hard and dunkable would work best with hot coffees, while an iced coffee would be better paired with foods with softer textures.
  • Temperature - The temperature of a food item is important, as you want contrasting temperatures. An iced coffee or cold brew would pair well with a warm cookie or brownie, while hot coffee works well with food items that are room temperature or cold.
  • Complexity - You'll want to take the complexity and strength of different coffee drinks into consideration when looking for pairings. Roasts that are span and bold should be paired with lighter food options, while lighter roasts pair best with foods that are rich and full of flavor.

Complementary vs. Contrasting Flavors

When deciding on a food pairing for coffee, it's critical to determine whether you want to complement or contrast flavors. Complementary flavors help the coffee stand out more, creating a natural pairing. However, the juxtaposition of a contrasting flavor can also mesh well and highlight certain aspects of both food and coffee.

Coffee Flavor Wheel

The Coffee Flavor Wheel was first introduced in 1995 and has been the principal resource in identifying coffee flavor, helping you find the perfect food pairing. Respected organizations, such as the non-profit World Coffee Research, developed and periodically update the Coffee Flavor Wheel. Recognizing the flavors of certain types of coffee can be difficult, but you can effortlessly identify coffee flavors with the Coffee Flavor Wheel to make food pairing much easier.

A coffee flavor wheel showing different flavors and tastes on a bed of coffee beans.
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How to Use the Coffee Flavor Wheel

To use the Coffee Flavor Wheel, taste your coffee and find the descriptor in the center of the wheel that best describes your coffee's flavor. After that, move outward, matching the descriptors that correspond with your coffee's flavor. For example, if you identify your coffee as having a fruity flavor, you will need to follow the wheel to determine what type of fruit flavor best describes your coffee. You will move along the wheel until you get to the outermost layer.

The closeness of each type of flavor on the wheel is also important when reading the resource. Flavors that are right next to each other are closely related, meaning they have similar tastes and will complement each other. On the other hand, flavors that have small gaps between them are slightly less related. For example, the flavors molasses and maple syrup are closely related due to the absence of a gap on the chart, but the gap between dark chocolate and molasses on the chart indicates that the flavors are slightly less related.

What Goes Well With Coffee?

A variety of foods provide flavors that pair well with different types of coffee. There is no singular food that goes with every type of coffee, but there are a few common pairings that you should come to expect. Here are some of the most coffee pairing options:

Coffee and Chocolate

A cup of coffee and different kinds of chocolates.
  • Dark Chocolate - Dark chocolate is known for being bitter, a complement to the bitterness of some coffee roasts. Alternatively, the bitterness of dark chocolate can be a nice contrast to lighter roasts.
  • Milk Chocolate - Milk chocolate is a versatile pairing that works well with nearly all types of coffee.
  • White Chocolate - Lighter roasts are a great pairing with white chocolate, allowing the food's sweetness to shine.

Coffee and Fruit

  • Berries - Berries work well to highlight the light fruit flavors in certain types of coffee. Typically berries are paired with different types of coffee from Africa.
  • Citrus - The tart flavors from most citrus fruits accentuate the flavors of dark roasts, making them a great pairing.
  • Apple - The fruitiness of apples and light roasts creates a great combination of flavors, making the two a great match.

Coffee and Baked Goods

A cup of coffee from overhead and cookies next to the cup.
  • Biscotti - A classic coffee pairing option. The hard texture of biscotti makes them dunkable and a perfect match for a variety of hot coffees.
  • Donuts - Another iconic pairing with coffee, as the sweetness from a donut can offset bitter varieties of coffee.
  • Muffins - Much like donuts, the sweetness of muffins pairs best with dark roasts but can work with any coffee pairing.
  • Croissants- Bitter dark roasts do a great job of highlighting the buttery sweetness of freshly baked croissants.
  • Scones - Items like blueberry scones pair well with light fruit coffees, while a chocolate scone goes in tandem with bitter dark roasts.

Coffee and Desserts

  • Cake - Chocolate cakes are best served with full-bodied coffees, while lighter options like carrot cake pair well with a medium roast.
  • Cheesecake - Berry cheesecakes complement coffees with fruity flavors. Alternatively, nutty coffees are a great option to create a juxtaposition of flavors.
  • Brownies - The chocolate and nut flavors of brownies are a great match with span and bold roasts.
  • Ice Cream - Ice cream allows you to match different flavors with different roasts, being extremely versatile. The classic Italian affogato masters the coffee ice cream pairing by pouring a shot of hot, span espresso over a scoop of cool, creamy vanilla ice cream.

Coffee and Savory Foods

A cup of coffee and sandwich.
  • Cheese - A unique coffee pairing, as only some types of cheese pair well with coffee. Creamy cheeses like ricotta are best paired with light roasts, while span cheeses work well with medium roasts.
  • Meat - Pork, beef, and lamb can pair well with dark roasted coffees because the salty flavors from meat pair well with roasts that are span in flavor.
  • Eggs - Coffee and eggs are a very common breakfast pairing in America. The flavor and texture of eggs are best paired with a medium roast.

Identifying coffee flavors and understanding what foods pair well with the coffee your establishment serves is a vital part of maximizing customer satisfaction. You can create a more well-rounded menu and offer the best possible dining experience with this knowledge, leading to a successful business.

Posted in: Coffee & Tea|Menu Tips|By Kevin Singhel
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