More and more people now understand the huge variance of potential flavour existent within coffee due to its origin, processing and brew method (Espresso/Filter, Black, with milk, double/single shot etc) – in fact, coffee is possibly the one beverage we all have an opinion on in terms of how we like it best! One area that is rarely discussed or touched upon though is how we can work to pair our brews with food to really enhance and maximise a specific characteristic.

Most consumers now understand the variables to take into account when choosing a particular wine to pair with a meal. This principle of partnering food and drink has long been a part of our culture thanks to the complimentary nature of the two that can really enhance our sensory experiences of eating and drinking. Coffee is no different and can be cleverly teamed up with food to enhance its own character or bring out something different and unexpected.

Whilst it is best known for accompanying cakes and sweet desserts, the scientific approach to selecting and roasting beans ensures that coffee is by no means limited to these well loved foods and can be perfect served alongside savoury meals and snacks.

Here at North Star Coffee, we’re obsessed with how to enhance the experience of drinking coffee and want to ensure our customers understand how to get the most out of it. We managed to grab 5 minutes with Sarah Lemanski, founder and creator for the award winning Noisette Bakehouse and collaborator for our very own North Star Coffee Shop, to discuss how she goes about partnering food with coffee.

For anyone inspired by the ideas and insights from Sarah, make sure to check out Noisette Bakehouse’s website, or follow them on Instagram.

A Brief History of Coffee Flavour

Perhaps the best place to start when talking about pairing food with coffee, is to understand how our relationship with coffee has changed over time.

To explain the recent interest in coffee pairing, we need to understand the evolution of our coffee consumption – often referred to as first, second and third wave coffee. For a full description of each generation of coffee consumption, check out our detailed guide to what all the coffee terms mean.

First wave coffee was focused on creating a standardised flavour and taste to “coffee.” All coffee was seen as the same, and as a result, we didn’t see different blends and flavour profiles coming through. This first wave generation of coffee tried to remove the unique characteristics of different coffee beans – creating a uniform approach to coffee suited to the mass market.

The second wave of coffee focused on the role of the barista to grow global brands such as Starbucks that relied on darker roasted blends to ensure consistency but that again, hid the full flavour available by removing the identity from specific beans.

The third wave of the coffee industry has focused much more on elevating coffee from being more than just a daily wake up call to being a true sensory experience highlighting the unique characteristics of different origins and putting more of a spotlight on the producer that is integral to the quality of the product.

This third wave of coffee has carved the path for coffee pairing, as roasteries and coffee producers can create coffees with differing flavours, that lend themselves to different palates and preferences. Instead of coffee having one perceived flavour and taste, we are able to appreciate lots of different flavours, and pair certain types of coffees with certain food.

How to Approach Food Pairings with Coffee

When thinking about how to decide what food goes best with coffee, its perhaps best to bring in an expert. So, welcome in Sarah Lemanski from Noisette Bakehouse. Sarah and the team at Noisette Bakehouse are award winning bakers, who are behind some of the tastiest treats and meals in Leeds. They have also partnered with North Star Coffee in the café to deliver incredible food to go alongside our coffees.

We asked Sarah a few questions to learn how she approaches picking what food to go with coffee.

  • What are the key things to think about when pairing flavours/foods together with drinks such as coffee?

“Food and drink pairings may be thought of as a little convoluted and effortful but really it is just an exercise in trying to make both the food and the drink taste better, to create an overall experience that is more enjoyable than if you just had the food or just had the drink separately, on their own. The first thing to do is to analyse the predominant flavours in the food. Which ingredients and flavour notes stand out the most on first impression? A successful pairing should carry these notes forward to develop an experience that is harmonious on the palate.

Secondly, I think about other notable characteristics of the food, what is the temperature, what are the textures contained within it? These two factors play the most important part in how the food will feel in the mouth and therefore how the drink should work with that.

I then think about the time of day or occasion at which the food will be served and the manner in which it will be eaten. This offers cues as to a suitable drink suggestion, and in the case of coffee the brew method that should be used for the drink. For example, a coffee leisurely brewed and sipped, on a slow Sunday morning offers flavour opportunities that are completely different to those found in an espresso grabbed in a desperate hurry to work.

Each of these guiding principals can be used to help design any food and drink pairing whether it be sweet or savoury food to be paired with any drink, whether it be coffee, tea, wine or beer.”

  • What’s the “science” behind flavour combinations and why some work and others don’t?

“The true ‘science’ comes from the fact that food and drink are made from identifiable components and compounds, each with definite characteristics. Foods contain fat, protein and carbohydrates such as sugars, all of which produce mouth feel, texture and aroma compounds.

Similarly drinks can contain tannins, caffeine, yeasts, sugars and polyphenols, all of which affect how it tastes and feels on the palate. If a combination works it is because the individual characteristics have been identified and ‘matched’ up successfully. This can be done by one of two approaches, by contrasting or by mirroring. Contrasting works to balance out flavours, for example, a simple hazelnut biscotti is the perfect match to an espresso. The lightly toasted hazelnuts and sweetness works with dark chocolate and caramel notes commonly found in espresso, furthermore the hard biscuit texture does much to cleanse the palate after a drink with such full body and intense depth of flavour.

The method of mirroring works on the principle of flavour continuity, to further highlight a key flavour or taste present in a food. For example, it is common practice that a sweet dessert is mirrored by a sweet beverage, such as a dessert wine or liqueur that is sweeter than the dessert itself. With coffee and cake pairings we look to mirror fruit notes in coffees with those same fruit notes in a bake, like a blueberry muffin or a lemon tart.”

  • Unusual flavour combinations that work?

“Mushroom, Ricotta and Lemon Verbena.

Sourdough, well toasted, spread with a thick layer of fresh ricotta, peppered with finely chopped fresh lemon verbena and topped with pan fried wild mushrooms, finished with lemon zest to accompany a cup of lightly roasted coffee is a combination that works from all angles. The toasted notes in the bread, the creamy, milky flavour of fresh ricotta infused with herbal lemon flavour and the umami rich mushrooms will do lots to balance out the body and mouthfeel of a delicate coffee without overpowering it. It would be tempting to add onion, garlic or chives to a dish like this but operating restraint lets the coffee shine.

Rose and Coconut.

Coconut macaroons infused with rose are a great match for coffee. Rose is the ultimate floral flavour, its affinity for sweetness displayed by its place as the popular flavour for tooth-achingly sweet traditional middle eastern desserts. When paired with the creamy nutty notes of toasted coconut you only need add the rich, full bodied nature of coffee to hit all the right notes on the palate.”

  • Your favourite sweet and savoury foods that go with coffee

“To my mind two of the most brilliant pairings of savoury food and coffee also happen to satisfy my love of savoury breakfasts. Avocados have become ubiquitous coffee shop staples, appearing on pretty much every breakfast and brunch menu across the country, a practice that has filtered its way across the globe from Australia, but if you think about it there are some inherent qualities in an avocado that make it the perfect foil for coffee. Its high fat content provides a creamy texture that coats the palate and whilst it may not have a strong flavour on its own, it is the most versatile vehicle for carrying flavour, brought to life by acidic lemon or lime, tart and bright sumac or sansho pepper or the warming heat of black pepper and chilli.

The Egyptian spice blend Dukkah is the best accompaniment to a boiled egg for breakfast, as long as it is well seasoned with sea salt and toasted coriander seed. The salt balances acidity in coffee, whilst the woodsy coriander seed has both floral and citrus notes that easily mirror the clean profile of many washed coffees.

Scones are my favourite sweet accompaniment to coffee, they are so versatile, a blank canvas perfect to flavour with fruit, spices or herbs to compliment the profile of a coffee. A mid morning pick me up of a slightly warm, buttered scone, bursting with jammy figs is a good match for a flask of filter such as the current North Star Guatemalan coffee  from the highlands of Huehue.”

What to Know about Coffee When Pairing it with Food

Much of the above rings true when thinking about the ideal brew to pair with a certain food, characteristics such as body, acidity and mouthfeel all play a role in a pairing and will guarantee the success or failure of the pairing. We personally enjoy putting light and zesty coffees with some of the creamy cheesecakes that are served next door in the Coffee Shop as the fruity notes and delicate nature of the brew tends to cut through the richness of the cheesecake whilst accentuating whatever fruit has been included in the bake.

It is important to understand that coffee can have many different types of fruity characteristics and aromas – some can display citrus notes of sharp lemon or grapefruit whilst others can be closer to stone fruits such as apricot, cherry or peach. We find coffees with these flavour tones tend to go well with foods that have less acidity to them such as chocolate brownie – a delicate filter brew here can be a real palate cleanser whilst accentuating the best bits about the bake.

The most important factor to think about with any pairing is balance, this is a principle that is deeply important when blending coffee and it is the same when partnering coffee with food – the two should complement each other and neither should compete for first place, coffee and food can co-exist in perfect harmony when there is such attention to detail and that is what we have tried to ensure comes through in our collaboration with Noisette Bakehouse in the North Star Coffee Shop & General Store.