Pairing Coffee with Food

Pairing Coffee with Food

Scott McMartin

A PERFECT MATCH: Coffee, like wine, tastes better when it's paired correctly with food.


Today there's a growing trend of pairing coffee with complementary food items. Most people are familiar with the concept of pairing wine and food (white with fish, red with everything else, although these rules are now loosening). Now, coffee experts are saying there's no reason we shouldn't take the same approach with coffee.

With a great pairing, the coffee tastes better and the food tastes better. The foodservice industry is starting to embrace the benefits by offering customers the palate experience of perfectly paired coffee. Benefits can include increased customer satisfaction, more return visits, higher check averages and a more positive brand perception.

According to experts, pairing coffee requires a deeper understanding of coffee, which comes in more than simply a dark or a light roast. Other factors to consider include aroma, acidity, body and flavor, as well as roast profile and even the geographic origin of the coffee.

  • Aroma gives the first hint of how the coffee will taste. In fact, most of the sense of taste comes from the sense of smell. Acidity doesn't mean sour or bitter; rather, it refers to a lively, tangy, palate-cleansing property.
  • Body is the weight or thickness of the coffee in your mouth.
  • Flavor is the all-important melding of aroma, acidity and body that creates an overall impression.
  • Roast profile: Roasting is a true artistic expressing of coffee purveyors. Different coffee companies have different roast styles, from light to medium to dark to midnight on a moonless night. Most offer various levels of roast profile to meet varied customer tastes. Roast affects all aspects of a coffee's flavor, including aroma, acidity and body, and should be taken into account when pairing coffee with food.

Dark roasts will pair better with richer, more indulgent foods like chocolate, nuts and meats. Lighter roasts tend to be crisp and bright, and they pair well with breakfast items.

Before coffee can be roasted, it has to be grown. According to coffee-tasting experts, where a coffee comes from also affects how it tastes and what foods it best complements. Coffee roasters such as Starbucks divide coffeeproducing areas into three main geographic regions¯Latin America, Asia/Pacific and Africa/Arabia.

Latin American coffees are generally light-to medium-bodied with clean, lively flavors. Asia/Pacific coffees are on the opposite end of the taste spectrum, typically full-bodied, smooth and earthy, with very low acidity and some herbal flavor notes. Coffees from East Africa and Arabia often combine crisp, clean acidity with intense floral aroma and enticing fruit or wine flavors.

Pairing these flavors of geography with food simply takes familiarity with the way regional flavors work with food.

  • Latin American coffees, with their crisp brightness and great balance, best complement sweet and tangy flavors.
  • The earthy and full-bodied Asia/Pacific coffees tend to go best with salty and savory foods.
  • The crisp acidity and fruitywiney flavors of African coffees make them exciting to match with food, often resulting in exotic flavor combinations.

While bitter flavors are generally unpleasant with coffee, Latin American coffees stand up best to them.

Scott McMartin is director of coffee & tea education for Starbucks Coffee Company and recently ran a coffee-pairing seminar at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, sponsored this year by Starbucks.