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Picking the Best Coffee to Complement Your Dessert

Whether it’s a jolt of caffeine and a sweet treat to cap off a fine dinner or a flaky pastry with an afternoon brew at your favorite shop, coffee and desserts are a match made in culinary heaven.

As the coffee industry continues to grow and consumer tastes become more sophisticated, the culinary world is focusing more attention on how to more effectively select desserts that complement the complex flavors of different high-quality coffees.

A solid starting point for pairing coffee with sweet foods is the richer the dessert the darker the coffee. Nathan Smith, a coffee expert and blogger at CoffeeNate.com, leans toward bolder brews when enjoying them with sweet foods. “Good coffee goes well with anything,” Smith says. “I usually prefer lighter roasts, but I don't mind a dark roast when paired with a sweet dessert.”

However, the science and art of pairing foods with coffees can go well beyond this simple guideline.

Spencer Turer, director of coffee operations at Coffee Analysts in Vermont, argues that restaurants and cafes should consider offering more coffee options to diners with their dessert courses. He says consumers are more knowledgeable about coffee than ever before, and pairing the right coffee with desserts or other food items can enhance the dining experience.

The goal when pairing, Turer says, is to find flavors that are pleasing together — known as harmony — even if they are contradictory tastes like sweet and bitter. Conversely, pairings should avoid combining flavors that conflict with each other in an unpleasant way or overpower the palate and change the characters of either item. The only way to figure out what works is to taste as many things as possible, Turer says.

“You should be tasting coffee, tasting desserts, tasting savory foods,” he says. “If you really want to do this well, you should always be tasting food and beverage products and developing your palate.”

Turer is quick to point out that there is no universality when determining which coffees complement different desserts because food preferences are inherently subjective. But the researcher has prepared intricate menus of coffees and desserts for representatives of the coffee industry in the recent years and developed combinations that work well.

Turer says the richness of deep chocolate flavors in a dessert like a devil's food cake pair well with a complementary coffee of similar character. He has also combined the complex flavors and heavy sweetness of a Kentucky bourbon pecan pie with a sweet, clean coffee with low acidity, dark chocolate and molasses characters. The coffee and dessert had similar profiles but offered enough contradictory flavors to keep each item separate on the diner’s palate.

For pairings, Turer suggests steering clear of high-acid foods with strong bitter or sour flavors because they can overwhelm the palate when combined with coffee.

“If the flavor of one product contradicts the flavor of another product because it’s saturated your palate to the point that you can’t taste through it, then you know those food products shouldn’t be paired together,” he says.

Whatever combinations you develop, remember that pairing coffee with desserts should be an enjoyable experience. Here are some of our favorite Community® coffee flavor combinations for different types of desserts to get your started.

Chocolate Desserts

Sample desserts: Brownies, chocolate cake, chocolate cream pie.

Recommended coffees: Café Special, Signature Blend Dark Roast, Coffee & Chicory, French Roast, Brazil Santos Bourbon, Evangeline Blend.

Creamy & Tart Desserts

Sample desserts: Bananas Foster, cheesecake, crème brûlée, tiramisu, vanilla ice cream, lemon pie, cream pie.

Recommended coffees: Breakfast Blend, Café Special, Colombia Toledo-Labateca, House Blend, 100% Colombia Altura

Complex Multi-Flavored Desserts

Sample desserts: Peanut butter and chocolate pie, chocolate truffle cake, peanut butter and chocolate cake.

Recommended coffees: Café Special, Coffee & Chicory, Signature Blend Dark Roast, French Roast, Founder's Blend.

Fruit Pastries, Rich Cakes & Pies

Sample desserts: Crème crûlée with berries, carrot cake, seasonal mixed berries, fruit pie, cobbler.

Recommended coffees: 100% Colombia Altura, Breakfast Blend Café Special, Amber Sunrise, Blend House Blend.

Breads & Dense Cakes

Sample desserts: Angel food cake, bread pudding, crumb cake, pound cake.

Recommended coffees: Breakfast Blend, Café Special, House Blend.