Tasting Coffee: The Best Coffee and Pastry Pairings

coffee mug surrounded by beans on a table

Coffee mug surrounded by beans | Source: iStock

People who really love coffee take their obsession to extremes. While many people who like a cup of java might try tasting coffee at a few shops to find one they enjoy, the fanatics will spend hours scouring review websites and researching different varieties to find the ultimate cup. Once they find coffee nirvana, choosing an accompanying breakfast pastry becomes an afterthought. This could be a mistake because, like with wine, food plays a huge role in how your beverages tastes.

Though trial and error is an effective way to find out what works, you could end up drinking and eating your way through a lot of bad flavor combinations in the process. To make things much easier, not to mention more delicious, we caught up with Jeff Taylor, co-founder, CEO and director of coffee operations for PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. in Topeka, Kansas. Taylor’s been in the business since 1993, meaning he was one of the first to start roasting as well as working directly with farmers. Basically, he knows coffee better than anyone.

Before we get to pairings, let’s learn a little more about coffee itself. The region where it’s grown, bean variety, level of roast, and brewing process all play a huge role in determining what the finished product tastes like. So what flavors can you expect to encounter? Citrus, berries, chocolate, caramel, vanilla, jasmine, lavender, and that’s just getting started. “It covers the whole spectrum, quite honestly,” Taylor said.

coffee beans on map pointing Ethiopia

Coffee beans from Ethiopia | Source: iStock

While many people typically think of light, medium, and dark roasts when tasting coffee, Taylor explained the beans really matter more. In fact, he warned against choosing a dark roast because you’re very often getting an inferior product. “What happens when you roast coffee darker is you cover up a lot of the defects in the coffee,” he said. Doing the same process with top-notch beans is really a waste because you won’t end up tasting any of the nuances. “You want to roast those coffees light in order to get those flavor notes,” he explained.

To simplify things, it’s helpful to think about coffee in terms of the elevation at which it was grown. Many of the brews connoisseurs consider the best are grown around 6,000 feet above sea level, which is standard for Ethiopian coffee. “The higher the elevation, the more acidity you’re going to get in the coffee, and that’s truly what makes a great specialty coffee,” Taylor explained. He also said these beans tend to have more sweetness and fruit-forward flavors. That’s not to say coffee grown closer to sea level isn’t good, it’s just different. “To get a coffee that produces good body, traditionally, those are somewhat lower-grown coffees,” Taylor said. Beans from Brazil and Sumatra fit this category.

When it comes to finding food to complement your coffee, savory flavors are usually the safest route. Though it’s standard for people to have a brew with dessert, Taylor said the sweet flavors in a treat make it difficult to pair with coffee. “The high acidity and sweetness in a coffee will actually compete with a raspberry tart,” he said. “And then neither one of them will taste good.”

Croissant and coffee on wooden background

Buttery croissant served with black coffee | Source: iStock

Now for some more specific pairings to match your favorite breakfast pastry. With these suggestions, tomorrow’s morning meal will be a coffee lover’s dream come true.

Plain croissant

If you like the simplicity of a buttery croissant, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Taylor said you might as well go for one of those high-grown coffees with a lot of nuanced flavors. One of his favorites is Gesha, which has a lot of acidity plus some floral and stone fruit notes. “The sky’s the limit,” he said. “This is where you really want to focus on the coffee.”

Blueberry muffin

The sweet, juicy flavors in this baked good need a brew that has a bit more heft. “Something that’s full-bodied with a little bit of sweetness and not too much acid would go really nice with a blueberry muffin,” Taylor said. Try a Bourbon variety from Guatemala or Rwanda.

Whole-wheat bagel

Like with the croissant, this breakfast staple offers a lot more options. Taylor said to go for “something sweet and juicy.” In this case, a Caturra would be a great choice.

Raspberry danish

Maybe the most finicky pastry in the bunch, this treat has lots of sweetness and tartness that will really clash with an acidic coffee. Taylor suggested reaching for a Bourbon from Guatemala, which will have milk chocolate, vanilla, and caramel flavors. The biggest takeaway here, though, is cost. “It shouldn’t be too high priced, honestly,” he said.

Ham and cheese scone

The only real difficulty here is finding something that doesn’t get overwhelmed by the saltiness of the ham. Taylor said a Kenya AA has enough backbone to do it.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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