Pairing coffee and food is hardly a new idea. A cup of filter coffee with breakfast to kick-start the day, or an espresso after dinner to kick-start the digestion, are common enough in homes and restaurants around the world. These are very general pairings, though: They don’t really change in relation to what you’re eating because they’re based around the idea that coffee tastes like only one thing.
This was more or less true for hundreds of years. Lacking detailed quality control or a nuanced understanding of how to develop coffee’s flavor by roasting or brewing it well, the vast majority of coffee up until the latter few decades of the 20th Century just tasted like coffee: at its best, nutty, chocolatey and sweet; at its worst, rancid, burnt and acrid. It isn’t true anymore. Coffee farmers have gotten better at growing, sorting and processing coffee; roasters have gotten better at storing and roasting it; and baristas (and folks at home) have gotten better at brewing it. It’s now easy to find an enormous variety of delicious coffees from different producers and roasters and to brew them in a dizzying variety of ways to express incredible — and incredibly distinctive — flavors.
This variety means that we can now pair coffee with food in much the same way we might pair wine or beer. Just like wine or beer pairing, this can seem daunting at first, but by thinking about how coffee relates to what you’re eating in three simple ways, you can make the whole process much easier than it looks.
First, pay attention to the season. This will narrow down which coffees you have to choose from. Like any agricultural product, coffee has seasons and is generally better closer to when it was harvested. Between their respective harvest seasons and the long and frequently arduous process of shipping them halfway around the world, coffees from Central America, Ethiopia and Kenya are usually best from spring through early fall, while coffees from South America, the rest of Africa, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are usually best from late fall through the end of winter. Combined with the time of day, the season can also tell you whether you’ll want your coffee hot or iced — nobody wants to chase a light lunch on a hot summer afternoon with a piping hot drink.
Next, think about what you’re eating and what kinds of flavors might go with it. Heavier, more intense foods will need similarly intense coffees to counteract their richness — big, bright Kenyan or heavy, molasses-y Rwandan or Burundian coffees might work well here, as might intensely savory coffees from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. Likewise, lighter foods will play better alongside more delicate, nuanced coffees — try a clean and balanced coffee from Central or South America or a delicate and intensely floral coffee from Ethiopia. Keep in mind, though, that countries or regions aren’t perfect catch-alls. The best way to find the right coffee for a given meal will always be to taste a few different options and decide for yourself which you like best.
Finally, think about when in the meal you’ll be drinking the coffee. Early, with breakfast, consider a drink that will contribute to the meal, like a macchiato or a cappuccino. During lunch or dinner, look for something light to sip on over time — hot or iced filter coffee work wonderfully. At the end of a meal, think of coffee as a digestif: Look for something light and stimulating but intense enough to cut through the weight of the meal behind it, like a small filter coffee or an espresso.
With these as starting points, the next step is easy: Drink a bunch of different coffees and decide which ones best suit your tastes! When you do, make sure to note where the coffee came from and who roasted it. Get specific about farm names and parts of countries, if you can, as coffees from different places in the same country can often taste dramatically different. Finally, if you’re ever at a loss for where to begin, ask the barista at your local cafe; she or he should have no trouble at all pointing you in the right direction.