That’s it isn’t it? Job done, bases covered, perfection defined.
I’ll get my coat.
Well, no, not quite, in fact not by a long chalk. As the appreciation and understanding of speciality coffee has become an international obsession there has been a growing understanding of the opportunities available to develop our enjoyment of coffee and food by thinking about how we pair them.
It is so ubiquitous with wine that we no longer think about it and now there are even restaurants with water sommeliers. You can attend whisky tastings with all sorts of foods…including whisky and doughnut tastings, I kid you not! So really it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a similar shift has been happening for some time in the coffee world. Actually, it’s more of a surprise that restaurants aren’t employing expert baristas to enhance their customers’ experience.
How does it work though? All joking aside, the vast majority of our experience of speciality coffee and food pairing really is coffee and cake, or coffee and avocado smash with sourdough toast or even that horrific brown sludge so many restaurants serve with chocolates at the end of a meal. The new world of pairing coffee and food is much more nuanced than this, and much more scientific too.
The pairing of coffee and food is perhaps one of the few times in which anybody can use the word “synergy” and actually be using it correctly: bringing the two together thoughtfully and creatively can raise both to new heights.
We’re sure you’ve encountered the coffee flavour-wheel, this appreciation of the infinite subtlety of the flavours to be found in coffee lies at the heart of this new world of combining coffee and food. Having moved on from simply seeing coffee as one taste we now roast coffees to enhance certain flavour notes and create complex flavour profiles. As we drink these coffees we now investigate and savour the subtleties to be found in the cup.
This is no different to a chef bringing out the best of a high-quality product or balancing the foods on a plate to create a complete experience.
The coffee wheel and the flavours we discern as we drink our coffee are the first step to pairing it with food. The first principle lies in matching complementary flavours. Often though, the delight to be found in enjoying contrasting flavours is overlooked and this is a great shame.
We’ve mentioned coffee with cake and chocolate a couple of times already because we love it, and so does a lot of the coffee drinking world (or at least, the parts of it who want to be any friend of ours). This works so well because many coffees have dark chocolatey notes which extend and develop the whole experience of the coffee and of the cake. We have a beautiful coffee, our El Salvador Finca EI Ingenio, which brings with it cocoa and caramel and berries…tell me your mouth isn’t watering already!
However, there are many coffees with light citrussy elements which would work wonderfully with chocolate too. This contrast between the two flavours enhances each, making the flavours of the cake and also of the coffee clearer and more vibrant.
Pastries are a staple of coffee shops serving speciality coffees, the buttery richness of these (and the oh so, on-trend pastel de nata) goes wonderfully with the flavours of a light floral coffee but could be overwhelmed if they were paired with a contrasting flavour.
These are just two examples, but the principles apply across the whole range of foods and coffees and the closer you look, the more you think, and the more you see the intricacies and possibilities.
If you have ever been surprised by the startlingly effective combination of pepper with apples, bananas or strawberries then think how the same combination can be achieved with a coffee with hints of spice. Now add to the mix the temperature of the coffee and imagine a lazy summer day with an iced coffee with hints of spice served with a bowl of mixed summer fruits.
A coffee with hints of fruit is more subtle than this: it might have citrus notes, or red berries or even hints of heavier plummy tastes and it becomes no longer just a matter of matching a “fruity” coffee to a desert but thinking about how a coffee with hints of plum might contrast well with the creaminess of a cheeseboard.
What is important is that we remember how pairing speciality coffee with food is a world of endless possibilities and there is no equivalent to “white wine goes with fish” and instead the only rule is “did it work for you?”.
Having said that, we’ve got some more suggestions for you that we think work well.
So, let’s change speed a little and think first about meat.
What about the heavy dark, tastes of red meats, what might work there? These are powerful flavours which could easily overwhelm anything too subtle and an easy option is to consider the solid power of a dark roast coffee. That’s ok, but hardly subtle…what about the tastes we use to complement these meats when we cook them? If you think about earthy, spicy, slightly chocolatey strength: full bodied and syrupy then our Indonesian Sumatra Mandheling would pair perfectly.
With duck and game, the tastes are even deeper and stronger, and we match with them even fuller flavours such as punchy blackberries, port and orange. To stand up and to flavours like these takes something a bit special and with its own indomitable personality. Step forward our very own Brazil Boa Esperanca. This spectacular coffee brings with it flavours of chocolate and orange which go brilliantly with these flavours.
White meats we often cook with cream, gentle white wine, citrus and subtle spices so what better excuse can you have to drink one of the most beautiful coffees in the world: an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, like our Abeba? With its subtle tastes of rosehip and lemon it makes a beautifully gentle complement to many white meat or fish dishes.
The joy of coffee though, lies in the discovery, simply tasting and seeing what works, discovering what flavours a coffee ignites in your mouth and what your own taste preferences would match a coffee with. Writing this blog has made us think of an outstanding speciality coffee of ours: our Brazil Peaberry / Honduras SHG Inibuca. This stunning combination brings with it raspberry, lemon, nuts and chocolate and now the question is what would we like to try it with? Though apparently every coffee is supposed to go well with biscotti this coffee conjures to mind a certain recipe for cranberry, pistachio and lemon zest biscotti, and on that note, maybe it’s time to try some pairing of your own?