Have you ever put a mint in your mouth and taken a sip of water or coffee? If so, you’ll know that the mint (and the drinks) taste very different solo and once paired. The same is true for our beloved brew. Each coffee has a myriad of base and upper notes that change as they mingle with the flavors in your mouth. The result of this mingling can be enhancement, a complement to either the food / or coffee, or a very pleasing (or distastefully sour) flavor of contrasts. While there is no fail-proof method for pairing coffee with food, this blog outlines some of The Queen Bean’s best pairing practices.
Coffee, like food, is very complex drink with a myriad of flavor combinations, textures, and acidity levels. Before considering a match, it is wise to carefully evaluate the dominant characteristics of food and coffee you wish to pair.
- What are the dominant flavors in the food / coffee?
- Is the food / coffee acidic?
- What is the texture of the food / coffee?
- How dark is the food / coffee?
- Is the food / coffee sweet, spicy, savory, or something else?
- Is the food / coffee delicate or robust?
Breaking down your food or coffee in this manner may seem excessive but it is essential to get to a harmonious pairing. Once you’ve identified the dominant characteristics, the next step is to determine how you want your coffee to interact with your food. Are there flavors you would like to enhance? Is there a saltiness in the food you are looking to minimize? Understanding your elements and knowing how you want to balance your food and coffee are crucial to a harmonious pairing. One final, critical element is personal taste. Our palates and preferences are wonderfully unique and while we at The Queen Bean have found that our suggestions generally work, we encourage you to read on with a sense of adventure, understanding that some of our suggestions may just be tools you reshape to develop your own, marvelous combinations. Now, let’s begin!
Light roast coffees tend to be more acidic (often referred to as “bright”), caffeine-rich, on the sweeter side, and almost overflowing with an array of natural flavors. Light roasts also tend to have a lighter mouthfeel than full-city and dark roasts. Looking for similar characteristics in food, we would naturally recall fruits, some vegetables, and light, fluffy pastries.
Mirror pairings: Almost any breakfast dish (pancakes, waffles, cereals, yogurt, etc.), sugar cookies, puff pastry, and fruit-based desserts. Pairing a light roast with foods that fall into the above categories allows the flavor notes in coffee to enhance or mirror similar qualities in the foods you are eating. You may even find something new in the coffee as a result in your pairing – such as a vanilla base note or sweet strawberry close.
Contrast pairings: Rich, creamy foods with a vegetable or fruit base, butter-based dishes and desserts, and salty foods. The higher acidity in light roasts balances out the texture of creamy fruit and vegetable-based foods, such as avocado or hummus, without overpowering the taste. The same holds true for butter-based dishes. Pairing a light roast with a shortbread or lemon cake allows the coffee to support the food’s texture while the food helps enhance the coffee’s natural sweetness. Pairing a light roast with a salty dish helps balance out the coffee’s acidity without impacting the brew’s natural flavors.
Cheese: Over the years, we’ve noticed more and more coffee and cheese pairings, so we are throwing our two cents in! Generally, when pairing coffee and food, we look at a combination of flavor notes, roast, and texture. With coffee and cheese pairings, we let texture and mouthfeel drive our pairing. Light roast coffees, as afore mentioned, often have a lighter mouthfeel and texture than medium and dark roasts. For this reason, we recommend pairing light roasts with mild cheeses such as a Brie, Ricotta, or goat cheese.
Pairing by origin: South American or Jamaican. Beans from these locations tend to have a lovely mouthfeel and brightness with very gentle, natural tones. The bright, light characteristics in these beans often mean they pair nicely with lighter, fruiter or citrus-based foods. Thus, we generally pair coffees from these locations as we would pair light roast coffee.
Note: African coffees may also pair well with foods in this category if the dominant flavor note is not overly winey.
Medium roasts are moderate to highly acidic with a moderate to heavy mouthfeel, depending on where they fall on the “medium roast range”. That said, medium roast coffees should never be dense or creamy. In terms of flavor, medium roasts preserve the bean’s natural dominant flavors though base notes may dominate those on the far end of the medium roast scale. It is important to note that lighter medium roasts (e.g., Breakfast Blend) will likely pair well with foods we’ve recommend for light roasts and dark medium roasts (e.g., Sumatra Orangutan) will likely pair well with some foods we typically match with dark roasts.
Mirror pairings: Milk, white, and creamy chocolates, such as a mousse, soufflé, or brownie. Where a dark chocolate may overpower a medium roast coffee, lighter chocolates (i.e., light in both texture and color) will enhance the coffee’s smooth base and allow the brew’s natural tones to either complement or enhance the chocolate in your dessert. Given their slightly heavier mouthfeel, medium roasts also pair nicely with denser pastries such as donuts and beignets.
Note: We do not recommend pairing a medium roast with fruit-based foods, as you will often find both the food and coffee taste sour. A bright coffee with a bright food often results in your mouth becoming a battleground over acidity and flavor notes, leaving both the coffee and food muddled and you suffering through a less than pleasant taste.
Contrast pairings: Tangy, bold foods, particularly those with a milk-based texture and moderately spiced foods. Medium roast’s textured mouthfeel supports the food’s weightier mouthfeel while the brightness of the acidity almost spars with spicy notes, enhancing the tones in both. One of Susan Mills’s favorite pairings is Mills Blend with tuna salad. While this may sound …bizarre, it makes sense when we look at it from a textural (creamy without being heavy) and spice (salt to balance out the blend’s acidity) perspective.
Cheese: Medium strength cheeses such as Cheddar, Gruyere, and Swiss. When paired properly, a medium strength cheese should enhance the coffee’s texture, giving it a slightly heavier, creamier mouthfeel.
Pairing by origin: Africans, Central Americans, Hawaiian. Coffees from these locations tend to have naturally higher acidity contents and strong, bold flavor profiles. At The Queen Bean, we generally roast coffees from this locations to a full-city or medium-dark shade and pair them with food as we would pair a medium roast coffee.
Dark roasts have the lowest acidity level and heaviest mouthfeel of all the roasts. Unlike the light and medium roasts, dark roasts are all about consistency in roast and often mute the beans’ natural flavors. In many ways, this makes dark roasts the easiest to pair of all the roasts.
Mirror pairings: Rich, dark chocolates, crispy dishes, highly spiced dishes, and cream-based foods. With dark roasts, we are primarily mirror pairing by texture and shade. Dense, full foods like dark chocolate cake and truffles and creamier foods like curry or cream-based soup are well-supported by the heavy, sometimes syrup-like textures of the dark roast. Additionally, dark roasts often have a hint of bitterness and spice to them that accentuates the spice in the food, intensifying the flavors in both the coffee and the food. When pairing dark roasts with a spicy dish, it is often best to match spice for spice. If you have a coffee rich in pepper tones, it may taste very sour if paired with dish laced with cinnamon. Similarly, a dark roast with strong vanilla tones may clash with a spicy dish.
Contrast pairings: Bitter, tangy, and pungent foods such as sour cream, yogurts, and cheese (especially cheesecake!) and desserts that have a near-burnt quality, like crème brûlée. The low acidy and heavy mouthfeel of the dark roast wonderfully compliments and almost cuts through the density of these rich foods, allowing you to better taste the nuanced flavors in both.
Cheese: Aged! Dark roast is here to support your strongest cheese such as blue cheese, Roquefort, and Camembert. These cheeses could easily overpower a medium or light roast, making them taste watered-down or bitter but a weighty dark roast provides solid textural support while balancing out the strength and pungency of the aged cheese.
Pairing by origin: Sumatran or any other Indonesian. These lovely coffees are naturally low in acidity and frequently grown amongst chilies and other tasty spices. The beans absorb some of these wonderful flavors through the soil and are generally roasted to a medium-dark or dark roast shade. Thus, we generally pair coffees from these locations as we would pair dark roast coffee.
FLAVORED COFFEES are best with milk and sugar and typically pair wonderfully with foods of a similar flavor profile.
We hope this has shed some light on how to start your coffee and food pairing adventure. If you would like to learn about some of our favorite pairings, please scroll down or visit our Pinterest Board. If you’re ready to go off and start your own pairing, we have a few final takeaways to get you started:
- Match texture for texture
- Match taste for taste
- Match color for color
- Match place of origin with place of origin
- Use your coffee and food to balance a meal’s acidity
We would love to hear about your favorite pairings! Below are some of our favorite combinations:
Breakfast Blend and buttermilk scones.
Dominican Cafe la Cotorra with a meat based breakfast or brunch.
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Kenya AA with angel food cake.
French Roast & French Roast Decaf with rich dark chocolate cake.
Mills 1860 Blend with any breakfast, tuna salad, apple pie and any fruit-based tart.
Organically-grown Colombian Campesina: heartier brunch dishes and chocolate or nut-based pastries.
Organic Italian roast with cheese cake.
Sumatra with peanut butter toast.