The Magic of Coffee and Food Pairings: Part One

Scientific research is getting down to the core of finding the best ways to pair food with coffee.


Cover photo courtesy of Alex Padurariu for Unsplash

A couple of years ago, a food critic enjoyed a delicious meal, which was paired perfectly with fine wine in one of the best restaurants in Europe. When it was time for dessert however, the coffee became a huge disappointment. The options were simply black coffee or coffee with milk—and the coffee quality was mediocre.

After reading this story in a Danish newspaper, Christina Birke Rune, a researcher from Southern Denmark University, wanted to find scientific grounds to devise the best match between coffee and food.

Many aspects of coffee, like experimental processing methods and roasting profiles, have developed significantly over the past few decades. However, very little has changed regarding coffee and food pairings. But scientific research in the field hasn’t been abundant either.

Christina worked with Morten Münchow and Federico Pérez-Cueto to make a systematic review of the methods used for food pairing with coffee, tea, wine, and beer. Surprisingly, very few studies have addressed this topic for coffee. After this finding, the team started to broaden its scope.

Much research about pairing food and wine is actually based in belief, not scientific evidence. Photo by Chelsea Pridham for Unsplash.

Alcohol Isn’t the Answer

We are familiar with the longstanding tradition of pairing foods with alcoholic beverages like wine and beer. But science doesn’t actually explain most of the widespread rules and beliefs about pairing these beverages and food.

Sure, research has provided plenty of guidelines for pairing food and wine. But after digging deeper, Christina found that most existing evidence relies heavily on experts’ opinions more than the underlying nature of consumer preference. So, although pairing food and wine has achieved some maturity in the fine restaurant segment, there is still a lot of room for evidence-based development and innovation.

To some extent, this surprising finding makes it more interesting for coffee researchers, especially with the launch of the latest version of the Specialty Coffee Association Sensory and Cupping Handbook.

Looking for a Healthier & Pleasant Relationship

Traditionally, coffee drinking has been related to unhealthy habits like smoking and eating sweets. It would be a huge understatement to say that these two habits are bad company. This is particularly true considering both have strong links with chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes. Therefore, with the opportunity to explore new pairings, we find the ability to pair coffees with healthy ingredients and flavors.

Moreover, matching fine foods with top-quality coffee offers new and exciting opportunities. Especially now, after decades of development of experimental coffee processing methods and discovering new aromatic profiles, we’ve widened the potential scope of pairings.

Although coffee drinking is still largely based on tradition, innovative tasting experiences have been on the rise. For instance, some producers offer single-origin chocolate and coffee tastings that they grow and prepare in their estates. 

Cup Tasters competitor Dulce Barrera agrees to some extent with current research findings. Dulce has been the Guatemalan Coffee Tasters Champion three times and achieved fourth place at the World Cup Tasters Championship in 2019. According to Dulce, more than assigning arbitrary principles for coffee and food pairings, it’s necessary to perform specific analyses to decide the best match.

In this regard, before making any decision about pairing food and coffee, Dulce claims it’s crucial to learn about the type of food and its characteristics, too.

Despite the advances we’ve made in roasting and processing, we have yet to advance in coffee and food pairings. Photo by Redd for Unsplash.

The Future of Research in Coffee and Food Pairings

After discovering the surprisingly low amount of scientific research on coffee and pairing, Christina started to look for interesting questions to answer. Soon she will publish her findings on the relationship between basic taste and aroma.

With so many aspects to consider, it’s hard to know what will come next. However, opportunities for the HoReCa (hospitality) industry are interesting, particularly for businesses meeting the customer demand for innovative and premium coffee experiences.

Tomorrow, we chat with restaurant experts on elevating the coffee experience within the dining scene.


Yker Valerio (he/him) is a freelance content creator. After more than 10 years of working as a management consultant, he started his blog Bon Vivant Caffè to share his passion for specialty coffee.

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