Coffee is delicious on its own, but it can often taste even better when paired with the right food. A good pairing can bring out aspects of the coffee that otherwise are understated, and it’ll also highlight desirable flavors in the food. The result is a richer combination of flavors that results in greater enjoyment.
If you aren’t confident in pairing coffee with food, here’s how to go about finding successful pairings and several suggestions to get you started. Hopefully, both the common and the less conventional pairings mentioned below will open up another world of coffee for you.
In This Guide:
- Understanding Coffee Flavor Profiles for Pairing
- How to Pair Coffee With Food
- What Fruit Goes Well With Coffee?
- How To Pair Coffee and Chocolate
- What Desserts Go Well With Coffee?
- Savory Coffee Pairings
Understanding Coffee Flavor Profiles for Pairing
If you’re trying to think of foods that might go well with certain coffees, it’s helpful to first have a paradigm for conceiving of the aromas and flavors that are found in coffee itself. There are ultimately innumerable different potential flavors, for coffee itself contains more than 1,000 unique compounds, but many flavors frequently recur and can be categorized effectively.
Using the SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel as a Guide
For beginning to categorize different coffee flavors, the SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is immensely helpful. While it’s not the only flavor categorization method that baristas turn to, the Specialty Coffee of America’s wheel is well-developed and widely used. It’s been in place for more than 20 years, and the wheel was updated in 2016 in a collaborative effort between the SCAA and World Coffee Research.
The SCAA’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel consists of three concentric circles. The inner circle is the broadest flavor category, and it breaks down into more specific categories in the middle and then the outer circle. As an example, consider the wheel’s inner “nutty/cocoa” section. This separates out into “nutty” and “cocoa,” with further subcategories of “peanuts,” “hazelnut,” “almond,” “chocolate,” and “dark chocolate.” Other sections follow a similar pattern.
For reference, the innermost circle and middle subcategories of the SCAA’s wheel are as follows:
- Floral (Floral, Black tea)
- Fruity (Berry, Dried fruit, Citrus fruit, Other fruit)
- Sweet (Brown sugar, Vanilla, Vanillin, Sweet aromatics, Overall sweet)
- Nutty/Cocoa (Nutty, Cocoa)
- Spices (Brown spice, pepper, pungent)
- Roasted (Cereal, Burnt, Tobacco, Pipe tobacco)
(Some categories that focus on identifying undesirable traits have been omitted.)
While the SCAA’s wheel is designed to assist professional coffee tasters as they identify various notes, aromas and flavors in coffee, keeping these basic categories in mind as you taste coffees can help you think about what foods might go well with a particular coffee.
Considering Different Regions’ Common Flavors
Coffee growing regions can serve as an even more general guide, for many broad regions usually yield similar flavors. While the exact terroir (growing conditions) of a micro climate can yield exceptions, there are certain flavors you’ll frequently encounter in coffees from a certain region.
At the most basic level, you can think of three main growing regions in the world that frequently produce coffees with the following flavors:
- Central/South America: Sweet, Nutty, Cocoa and Roasted
- Africa: Fruity, Floral and Sweet
- Pacific/Asia: Cocoa, Spices and Roasted
Again, these should only be taken as a guideline of what’s common. When you’re encountering a new coffee or want to find a pairing before you taste the coffee, though, the common flavors are a good place to start.
Drinking Flavored Coffees
Of course, flavor is easy to identify with coffees that are artificially or naturally flavored. A hazelnut coffee will taste like hazelnut, for instance. Whatever flavoring is used will likely override most of the coffee’s natural flavors and be the predominant taste.
How to Pair Coffee With Food
The purpose of identifying flavors in a coffee is to help you determine what foods might go well with that coffee. While there’s a method and a general principle to follow, know that there isn’t any one right way to pair coffee and food. There are numerous good possibilities, and any pairing that you or someone else enjoys is a pairing worth making.
The Two Guidelines of Pairing Coffee With Food
The process of pairing coffee with food is simple from a certain perspective, and it’s certainly less complex than some brewing methods. If you keep a couple of simple steps in mind, though, you’ll find more successful pairings and improve your ability to find good ones.
First, taste both the coffee and the food separately. Pairing coffee with food is a process of bringing two distinct taste experiences together, and the only way to fully appreciate how they interact with one another is to first taste each on its own. Although you might be able to sense that a Kenyan coffee goes well with chocolate-covered oranges, the only way to understand how each impacts the other is to know what each one was like before the pairing.
Second, consider both foods that taste similar and ones that taste different. Similar-tasting foods will emphasize those flavors in a coffee, and they’re the more obvious pairings to make. Contrasting flavors in foods can also bring out certain aspects of a coffee, though, as the juxtaposition of the experiences changes the palette against which each is experienced.
If you’re unsure of what contrasting flavors might go well together, consider contrasting flavors that are often paired together in recipes. Chocolate-covered berries are a romantic treat, and the acidity of a berry-flavored East African coffee will play nicely off the dense sweetness of chocolate cake. Another juxtaposition might be found by putting honey in a floral, jasmine coffee.
Pairing Suggestions for Coffee and Food
Below are some suggested coffee and food pairings to get started with if you’re new to this aspect of coffee. Don’t follow these as strict rules, for the whole concept of pairing coffee and food is to open up new possibilities and allow you to personally enjoy coffee even more. Instead, concierge these suggestions to be guide markers on your path toward the possibilities that come with coffee pairing.
What Fruit Goes Well With Coffee?
Many African and some Central/South American coffees have fruity notes, and these selections will almost always go well with similarly flavored fruit. Use the SCAA’s wheel or your own experience to identify what the predominant fruit flavors in a coffee are, and then simply pair the coffee with those fruits. Some categories of fruit to consider are:
- Stonefruit (e.g. apricot, peach, plum, cherry)
- Berry (e.g. strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry)
- Citrus (e.g. lemon, lime, orange, tangerine)
Whatever fruit you decide to pair with a coffee, keep in mind that there are many ways to eat the fruit alongside your cup o’ joe. Fresh berries are the easiest pairing to make, but berry pies, tarts, muffins and scones all also can work well. While a bit unorthodox, even apple cider (hard or sweet) might go nicely with a Central American coffee that has apple-like acidity.
Barista’s Tip: Blueberry isn’t a common flavor in coffee, but some Jamaican and Middle Eastern coffees feature this flavor. Should you ever encounter such a coffee, pairing it with blueberries will create a truly singular experience.
How To Pair Coffee and Chocolate
Coffee and chocolate is perhaps the most classic coffee pairing. One needs only to look at cafe menus to see the pairing prominently offered as a mocha (espresso, milk and chocolate). Besides the mocha, there are many other ways to make this match.
A simple chocolate bar is the most basic way to start with a coffee and chocolate pairing, but don’t be afraid to go with something fancier when you’re entertaining. Brownies, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and chocolate mousse are all excellent choices here. As long as there’s coffee and chocolate, you won’t go wrong.
Moreover, don’t think that pairing coffee and chocolate should be limited to any one type of chocolate. Dark, milk and white chocolate all go well with coffee. In fact, white chocolate can be especially good alongside a mild, nutty Central/South American coffee if you’re looking for a sweet contrast.
Barista’s Tip: Chocolate-covered fruit offers a dual pairing for many African Coffees that feature both chocolate and fruit flavors. Even if the fruit isn’t a perfect match with the coffee, the trio almost always works well together.
What Desserts Go Well With Coffee?
Desserts are perhaps the easiest category to pair with coffee, as the sweetness, richness and textures of these treats naturally go well with the beverage. Most desserts will enhance most coffees even if the flavors aren’t a perfect match, and the combination can be nearly magical when you do find the perfect pairing of flavors. Moreover, there’s an almost unending number of combinations that you can try.
As you brainstorm different desserts to pair with coffee, the classics are certainly a good place to start. Coffee cake (the most obvious), tiramisu (another obvious choice), cakes, sweetbreads, brownies and creme brulee all go well with coffee, and you can often even have a few of these desserts together with an after-dinner decaf.
Don’t limit yourself to only the classics that you see in cafes and coffee shops, though. Less conventional pairings, such as flans, puddings, ice creams, s’mores and even fruity Jello, can bring a similar-tasting coffee to life.
Barista’s Tip: Don’t forget about dessert coffees, either. Adult coffee cocktails and non-alcoholic lattes are both great evening treats, especially when you’re dining outside on a slightly chilly spring or autumn evening.
Other Baked Goods That Go Well With Coffee
In addition to the many baked desserts that go nicely with coffee, plenty of other baked goods also are good pairings. Doughnuts, muffins, scones, croissants, cinnamon buns and other breakfast pastries offer plenty of ways to combine coffee with fruity, nutty or chocolaty sweets.
Barista’s Tip: Try sipping coffee alongside a baked good both when the coffee is hot and once it’s cooled off. The pastry’s like flavors will highlight nuanced notes in the coffee that are only present at higher temperatures. As the coffee cools, a general sweetness that goes well with baked goods will wet in.
Savory Coffee Pairings
Sweet coffee pairings with fruit, chocolate, desserts and other baked goods are the most common ways to combine coffee and food, but pairings don’t have to be limited to only sugary foods. Savory foods can also go well with coffee when chosen carefully, and some savory combinations will yield surprisingly delightful results.
You’ll find that most savory foods go best with medium or dark roasts. The heavier roasts tend to have flavor profiles that are more suited to savory foods, and they have stronger flavors that can better stand up to the strong flavors of these foods.
To begin experimenting with different savory coffee pairings, try the following combinations:
- Eggs: Eggs don’t naturally go well with coffee, but they aren’t bad with coffee either (unless you’re trying coffee eggs from 1769). Have a hearty dark roast — ideally, something dark from Latin America or the Pacific — and its rich, full- bodied profile should complement an omelet, quiche or fried egg. The pairing won’t be the best you’ve ever had, but it’ll make for a good breakfast meal.
- Cheese: Cheese is paired with wine to be a palette cleanser, and it can serve the same role when paired with coffee. Some cheeses also have nutty or fruity notes that are also found in coffees. Have a cheese with a similar-tasting coffee, or serve a spread of different cheeses during a tasting of different coffee selections.
- Red Meat: Dark and smoky flavors tend to go best with red meat, and you’ll find these in the dark roasts of Latin America, South America and Asia. For something even more exotic, have a dark-roasted African coffee with floral (not fruity) notes with your herb-crusted stead.
- White Meat: Chicken and duck taste much better with bright, citrusy flavors (e.g. orange chicken and lemon pepper chicken). You’ll find bright, acidic and citrus profiles in South American and African coffees. Some South American coffees also have apple notes, which will go well with pork, the other white meat.
- Ham: The saltiness of ham makes it difficult to pair well with coffee, but there’s one way to potentially pull off the odd combination. Cook a pineapple ham recipe, and brew a fruity African coffee. If successfully pulled off, everyone will be impressed with your knowledge and skill.
- Pizza: Pizza is as versatile as it is pervasive, coming with a variety of toppings that might go well with certain coffee. Forgo the spicy pepperoni in favor or a mushroom, Hawaiian or other pizza that has flavors found in coffee, and put the two together. As long as there’s not garlic in the crust or sauce, you’ll have quite the American combination.
Barista’s Tip: Avoid onion and garlic flavors when looking for savory foods to eat with coffee. Although there are many different savory flavors that do go well with coffee, onion and garlic almost never do. They’re too powerful for a cup of coffee, and they’ll contrast sharply with almost any brew.
Experiment With Coffee and Food
Ultimately, there are innumerable ways to match coffees and foods together. Experiment with various pairings, and see if the world of each doesn’t open up even more to you. You’ll find delightful combinations that make the whole experience better than if you enjoyed each part separately. Coffee and food were simply made to go together
Scott M. Brodie has over 20 years of professional experience working in coffee shops and writing about coffee (including selling superautomatic machines). When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work.