Many would have scoffed at the idea of pairing coffee with food that isn’t breakfast, chocolate, or a pastry. After all, this widely consumed beverage generally has a tried-and-tested formula for maximum appreciation. Not so for Josh Boutwood. As his latest collaboration proves, pairing coffee with savory food or non-traditional matches can also be a uniquely rewarding experience. 

Not unlike the longstanding art of wine pairing wine, matching coffee with food comes down to several important considerations: flavor, texture, temperature, and complexity. Each element has its own distinct purpose to bring about an overwhelmingly positive experience for the consumer. And like wine, mouthfeel, body, and origin equally draw on a pairing’s promise. 

Then there’s the idea of playing with complementary and contrasting flavors. “Complementary flavors help the coffee stand out more, creating a natural pairing,” notes Kevin Singhel on foodservice resource blog Webstaurantstore, palatably referencing ideas from the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, which is a tool “meant to be intuitive, enjoyable to use, and a benefit to those who seek to analyze and describe coffees.”

“The current practice is still to avoid off-tastes and look for clean flavors,” says Paulig Kulma roaster and barista Tomi Nieminen. “A large majority of coffee farms are yet to profile themselves in the same way as wine producers, but the trend does seem to be heading that way.”

Though still relatively far from wine’s age-old position as the perennial poison for food pairings, coffee is gracefully breaking out of common stereotypes.

“The current practice is still to avoid off-tastes and look for clean flavors,” says Paulig Kulma roaster and barista Tomi Nieminen. “A large majority of coffee farms are yet to profile themselves in the same way as wine producers, but the trend does seem to be heading that way.”

That said, pairing flavors is a subjective and personal matter, too. “Everyone tastes things differently. You need to make an effort when pairing flavors and you have to try them out again and again,” says Samuil Angelov of the Finnish Sommelier Association.

Chilean Sea Bass, Celeriac, Kombu, and Hazelnut
Chilean Sea Bass, Celeriac, Kombu, and Hazelnut

And as it turns out, Boutwood’s collaboration dinner at his 10-seat restaurant Helm was a revelation. There was plenty of evidence in the electric six-course menu that strong savory flavors are just as successfully enhanced as their sweeter counterparts by robust and bold coffee flavors.

Opening with the acidic Tuna, Avocado, Cilantro plate and the textured frenzy of his Adlai, Purple Yam, Octopus bowl, Boutwood played off the fruity notes of Papua New Guinea’s Arabica coffee profile with a silky Chilean sea bass on a thick paste of cloud of celeriac, kombu, and hazelnut.

“The first thing that I enjoyed when I tried it is that there are these beautiful aromas of honey and lovely bright tones in the coffee. I immediately knew that I needed to pair it with something that was a little bit more earthy, grounded, and almost floral in order for those particular coffee taste profiles to be exemplified slightly,” shares Boutwood. 

Short Rib, Cacao, and Cauliflower
Short Rib, Cacao, and Cauliflower

The fourth course however is a combustive game of contrasting and complementary flavors. The Short Rib, Cauliflower, Cacao dish serves pure primal pleasure that is fueled even more by a robust coffee made from beans cultivated around the Gayo Mountain of Aceh, Sumatra.

“It has this wonderful woody aroma and so we wanted to pair it with some wonderful roasted flavors,” says Boutwood. “We want it to be a little bit more delicate and bring in some chocolate tones that will linger, and also incorporate an aged process—so the dish features aged meat that is going to carry all those flavors along.”

Flavors will always have a direct emotional impact with consumers. That in itself is a key approach restaurateurs and cafe owners should keep in mind looking to up their customer satisfaction game.

Finishing off the gastronomic menu are low-key palate pleasers of black grapes, strawberry, lemongrass, and coconut that return to familiar pairing territories. 

Coffee pairing experiences like what Boutwood crafted evoke a few things, but one thing stands out louds and clear—flavors will always have a direct emotional impact with consumers. That in itself is a key approach restaurateurs and cafe owners should keep in mind looking to up their customer satisfaction game.

“Pleasure is a comprehensive experience,” says Nieminen. Simple but shockingly true.