Coffee Tasting 101: Chocolate Pairing

Coffee Tasting 101: Chocolate Pairing

Coffee and chocolate are best buddies when it comes to delighting our taste-buds. We want to help you learn tips on how to taste great coffee and create winning food pairings today.

Coffee tasting can be a tricky business, just ask any professional grading judge or expert who devote their lives to harnessing their skills. We want to leave the complexities to the experts and focus on the fun side of tasting great coffee. In this series of coffee tasting tips, we’ll look at the mechanics of tasting to help you train your senses. The best way is to play with food pairings and exercises to help improve our enjoyment outside of the cupping lab. After all, pleasure is what it’s really all about!

We call it ‘Cupping’ which is a lot like any wine tasting or any other tasting experience you may have enjoyed in the past. The art and purpose behind cupping in a professional sense is to determine quality and identify faults. As a coffee lover, we believe it's a great exercise for you to get used to trying lots and lots of different coffees as much as you can using the same techniques, because there’s no better way to find out which flavours you love most.

When we cup, we look for a good balance of acidity, bitterness, sweetness and mouthfeel, making notes in the process - like our feline friend below. We also look to identify standout flavours and aromas that give certain coffees their unique character and quality. Again, regular wine or gin tasters will no doubt already be accustomed to this.

We’ll go into this in more detail later in our series. What we want to share with you today is an exercise we regularly go through with our own production team, cupping and food flavour pairing.

There is a saying in wine and food, “What grows together, goes together.” It’s no surprise that Brazil, the world’s biggest coffee grower is also one of the world’s most productive growers of high quality cocoa. The same goes for countries like Peru, Honduras and Costa Rica which all have a heritage in both coffee and chocolate. We thought what better way to celebrate these best of flavour buddies than to put some of the world’s best chocolates to the test with some truly amazing coffees.

Flavour pairing works on two basic principles. Flavours can complement one another to enhance great flavour characteristics, or contrast to create a pleasant balance between two distinct characters. Good examples of pleasant complementary combinations are hazelnuts and ice cream or lemon and lime because the best feature of one is enhanced by a similar feature in the other. A good example of a pleasant contrast is vinegar with french fries because the acidity of the vinegar cuts through the fat and savoury carb flavours.

Chocolate and coffee can do all of these things to form a perfect harmony. So let's take that one step further and determine specific coffee flavours to suit a selection of premium chocolates. To do this, we chose a selection of our own Modern Standard speciality coffees and high-quality organic chocolate from an artisan organic chocolate producer called Raw Halo. Let's get brewing...

Milk and vanilla chocolate + Brazil Santa Lucia filter coffee = Milky heaven

Cheese tasters tell us to start with the mildest tasting cheese and work up to the strongest, so as not to overwhelm our pallets early on. With that in mind, we started with the only milk chocolate on the cupping table. Instinctively, we thought the Brazil Santa Lucia single origin filter coffee to partner this sweet and creamy chocolate bar.

Our Brazilian filter is light roasted and offers a delicate balance of milk chocolate notes, creamy mouthfeel and a little orange zest. The milk chocolate complimented all of those flavours in the coffee with just the right amount of sweetness, and the little zesty acidity from the coffee worked in maintaining the balance.

Interestingly, the milk chocolate didn’t really work with any of the other coffees on the table (it will become clear why later) and the Brazil filter was a little too light to stand up to the darkest chocolates on the table.

Lemon and Himalayan salt was a perfect coffee companion

They must have had a lot of fun creating this chocolate bar because it was a party to taste. The Himalayan salt works wonders adding much needed sweetness to the bitter dark chocolate and the lemon added mouth-watering acidity. A great example of contrast!

The hardest part for our team wasn’t in finding a coffee partner but in choosing which was our favourite. The Colombia Aromas Del Sur filter had the citrus acidity to complement the lemon in the chocolate, on its own the coffee tasted almost identical to the chocolate. Another popular choice was the Ethiopian Biftu Gudina with its richer fruity flavours being enhanced by the salt in the chocolate and offering another dimension in juicy sweetness. It was a tough choice but the Ethiopian probably edged it as a perfect partner.

There’s a lot of love for Guat and goji berries

The dark chocolate with vanilla and goji berries was a match made in heaven on its own. We were pretty confident in guessing which of the coffees would make a winning combo here, the Ethiopian again.

Ethiopian coffees are renowned for their juicy red-fruit flavours and floral notes, which would complement the sweetness in the chocolate.

We tried it with a selection of Ethiopian naturals and it worked wonders with all of them - it turns out they all harbour some natural goji berry-ness within! Despite that, the star pairing most popular with our team was the Guatemala Finca La Providencia. The key factor here may have been the better balance. The Ethiopians were made to taste all the sweeter by the chocolate but there was a little citrus acidity in the Guat that kept us going back for more… and more… and more.

Pairing with pecan and ginger was a tough nut to crack

Some flavours are so intense that they can be tough to pair with, ginger being one of them especially when it has been candied like in this chocolate. Such intense sweetness and spice left our lightest roasts in the shadows. We needed a coffee that had the strength and character to match the rich flavour of this deliciously heavyweight chocolate bar.

Thankfully, we’ve been working on a special espresso blend comprised of Brazilian speciality and high scoring Rwandan beans. Our prototype was lightly roasted for an espresso to protect the mouth-watering fruitiness of the Rwandan coffee, while enhancing the nutty notes of the brazil. This was enough to stand up to ginger and pecan combo and achieve an indulgent but balanced coffee experience. Based on this experience, our espresso experiment may need to become a reality!

Final thoughts... Why not give coffee and chocolate pairing a go next time you’re in your favourite cafe or confectionary? Remember to look out for flavours that either complement each other or offer the right contrast. There’s a lot of fun to be had in trying again when it comes to coffee and chocolate.

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