Selja Tiilikainen

It's All About the Taste: Pairing Coffee with Food

How to pair coffee with food? What is the Flavour Wheel? The barista is the sommelier of the coffee world whose most important tool is the sense of taste. Utilising the sense of taste helps create coffee and food flavour pairings you can recommend for an even more pleasant customer experience. 

A mug of hot chocolate from a thermos flask after a winter tobogganing session or your first ever cup of coffee served by your grandma with plenty of cream and sugar – the way things taste can take you back to memorable moments years and even decades ago.

The space between flavour memories and the customer is where the flavour professionals come to play. While at restaurants the sommelier matches the chef's creation with that of a winemaker, the barista can bring out the best in a coffee by pairing it with just the right flavour. 

"The sommelier's role at a restaurant is about maximising the customer's pleasure," says Samuil Angelov, chair of the Finnish Sommelier Association.

But it is impossible to help the customer if you do not know the flavour palette of your products. Tasting should also be practised.

"Tasting starts with smelling. The nose is the entrance hall to tasting," Angelov points out. Paulig Kulma roaster and barista Tomi Nieminen agrees:

"The aroma gives you the initial stimulus. Tasting then provides a new framework for experiencing the aroma," he describes.

Start with the basics of tasting and become a superb match-maker!

1.  Whenever you taste, make sure you taste mindfully

The same rules apply to tasting wine and tasting coffee: the aroma helps you gain a general impression, and the things to scan for in taste are acidity, sweetness, saltiness and bitterness and the balance between them. In both coffee and wine, the mouthfeel, structure and colour of the drink also tell you something. In practice, it is about focusing on the taste and the product:

"You're flicking through flavour memories when tasting," Paulig Kulma's Tomi Nieminen simplifies the process. The basic thing about learning tasting is that, whatever you put in your mouth, you make sure you taste it mindfully.

The SCA Flavour Wheel is a good tool to use when learning tasting. In use for 20 years, the Flavour Wheel was updated in 2016 in collaboration with World Coffee Research (WRC), involving examining flavours down to the chemical level. In 2017, Paulig created a simplified Finnish version of the Flavour Wheel for its customers. The most common flavours found in coffee were selected for the wheel. 

Paulig Flavor Wheel

2. Practise tasting all the time

Neither of the professional tasters was born with a Flavour Wheel in their hand. Nieminen was supposed to become a clergyman, but a coffee cupping session swept him into the world of coffee instead. Angelov has always loved good food and drink, but learning how to taste has required constant effort. Practice makes perfect and perfect needs practice – all the time, says the perfect product of practice himself.

"My coursemates from sommelier training in Turku and I got barred entry to the local grocery store because we'd go round there every breaktime to smell fruit and vegetables," Angelov says.

Although there are lots of similarities between wine and coffee tasting, they are not totally identical. While wine is decanted to allow oxygen to affect the aromas and flavours, the flavour of coffee will not improve if you let it sit. According to Nieminen, aromatic factors are lost from coffee all the time.

"When tasting wine, you're looking for primary, secondary and tertiary flavours that tell you about the grape, production and storage. What I look for when tasting is whether the flavour expresses the origin, the producer's style and the maturation of the wine. If a wine is atypical, I try to find out how the producer has wanted to vary the familiar style," Angelov describes.

According to Nieminen, with coffee we are still in the initial stages of the taste revolution: "The world of wine is more traditional than the world of coffee. In coffee, on the other hand, the current practice is still to avoid off-tastes and look for clean flavours. A large majority of coffee farms are yet to profile themselves in the same way as wine producers, but the trend does seem to be heading that way."

3. Pair flavours by emphasising similarities or creating contracts

A thing that is common between wine and coffee tasting is that there are no right or wrong answers. Both of the gurus agree that pairing flavours starts with tasting the components separately. After that, you can start to think which flavours would support and emphasise each other and which would not. 

A traditional way of affecting the flavour of coffee is to add milk, but milk can, for example, cut the acidity of a coffee. Milk enhances the chocolatey aspects of coffee, which can be emphasised by, perhaps, pairing a white coffee with milk chocolate. Opposites also support each other: a good flavour pairing could be created by serving a coffee with bright acidity and notes of berries – such as an African one – with a lavish dessert such as chocolate cake. Nieminen's tip is for example that a medium-bodied coffee with berry notes, fresh acidity and a nuanced aroma (e.g. traditional Finnish ground coffee Paulig Juhla Mokka) is emphasised with a cinnamon bun but may be drowned if paired with something too rich.

Angelov sets a brave challenge as regards pairing opposites: "Enjoyability is the key to it all. Although delicately flavoured fish is commonly served with a white wine, in Norway mild cod is often served with a red. Rules are meant for those who are uncertain."

Angelov points out that professionals who sell flavour pairings to customers also taste the products themselves. 

"On the other hand, what happens with many coffee professionals is that when you start looking for a more acidic coffee one cup after another, most coffees start tasting too roasted to your liking, which means your personal flavour preferences affect the end result," Tomi Nieminen, a roaster, confesses.

4. Pay attention to the world around the flavour

When tasting, you should also aim at being objective. The best flavour pairings are created in a dialogue with the customer. 

"Everyone tastes things differently. You need to make an effort when pairing flavours and you have to try them out again and again. Don't be put off if you fail, but be happy when you succeed," says Angelov, encouraging you to have a go.

Although a successful pairing takes the components of food and drink to a totally new level, a flavour experience is not just about sensory perception.

"Pleasure is a comprehensive experience. I can still remember my first cup of coffee that I had black: I made it over an open fire with lakewater and I'd never tasted coffee flavours that clean before," says Nieminen.

Coffee and Food Pairing Barista Sommelier

Read more roaster and barista Tomi's insights from his blog.