Coffee Chronicles: Pairing Coffee With Food

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The croissant, the timeless coffee pairing food. [Photographs: Allison Hemler]

Imagine a plate of heaping pasta from Otto, slathered with tomato sauce, eggplant, and melty ricotta salata. What would you prefer as your beverage accompaniment?

A) Water
B) Wine
C) Beer
D) Coffee

Like most of you, I'd go for the wine—and not just because I'm in an Italian restaurant. We have a column at Serious Eats pretty much devoted to wine's friendliness with food. It's well known that people drink wine to socialize and enjoy themselves, but also to enhance and wash down complimentary food flavors.

I want the same thing with coffee. Let's think about this a moment: you already pair coffee with food, you just don't realize it. What do you drink in the morning with your bowl of yogurt, granola, and bananas? Croissant. Doughnut. Bagel with cream cheese. Coffee is an automatic accompaniment to all things carbs and sweets. There's even a dessert that utilizes coffee to its best potential—he creamy, cold, and yet warm, strong, and sweet affogato. You can use coffee to its fullest potential by pairing up similar flavors in your beans with the ingredients on your plate. It just takes a little bit of research and some effort. And how else to figure out your pairings, than cupping some coffees and investigating those flavors.

This weekend, Erin and I cupped four samples from our friends Barrington Coffee Roasting Company: Ethiopian Sidamo, Brazil Daterra Reserve, Sumatra, and Costa Rican, four drastically different coffees which conjured up varying images of my dream foods. When cupping, you smell first, both before and after water is added, and then you sip. The best flavor associations arise from sniffing those fresh grinds at the bottom of the cup. No doubt you also experience the exact same reaction when you enter a bean haven like Porto Rico Importing Company, or even if you just walk by.

Which beans pair with which foods, after the jump.

Ethiopian Sidamo: Blueberries. This coffee screams nothing but blueberries. Which would make it a great accompaniment to any quick bread, preferably banana.

Brazil Daterra Reserve: Nuts and chocolate. An overflowing plate of candied pecans or flourless chocolate cake. This coffee will fare well with rich flavorful foods because it will be balanced across every bite. Barrington recommends this pulled as an espresso, but I've never been able to get espresso at home that tastes like anything but burnt sludge. Maybe you would fare better.

Sumatra: You either love it or you hate it; I enjoy this coffee at the cupping table and stay away from its brewed form. However, I think can be successfully paired with savory food—try it with a pungent semi-soft goat cheese or maybe even a Thai dish with peanut sauce.

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A homemade omelette would go perfectly with a balanced Costa Rican.

Costa Rican: The quintessential balanced breakfast coffee which should be on every brunch menu in the city. Or, perhaps, your local Greek diner. Cravings include granola or oatmeal with apples and bananas, or eggs with toast and potatoes.

Coffee pairing is very different from wine pairing, since you have control over all the variables when you brew. With wine, you just pop it open and let it breathe a bit, then pour and simply drink from your glass. Not much preparation necessary. You have to be aware of your brew methods if you want any of the flavors to shine, so I recommend the French press or another favorite method that provides for somewhat longer extraction to develop the flavors.

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Granola from Frankies 457, which can be paired with a complex Stumptown espresso drink.

Of course, when you go out to a restaurant, you don't have much of a choice. And most likely, if you're getting an espresso, it's a blend of beans from all the aforementioned regions and roasted darker. In this case, I would steer towards a latte, especially at brunch. The nature of brunch begs for coffee no matter the food. You could try Fort Defiance for some Counter Culture ground to order with some spiced pecans on the side, L'asso for a Stumptown Americano with a prosciutto pizza, or even Locanda Verde for an Illy espresso with lemon ricotta pancakes.

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