Coffee: when and how to drink it

Coffee: when and how to drink it

by Isaac Parham 1 October 2017

Isaac Parham looks at how coffee can be matched with food, and how roasting brings out different flavours in the beans.

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

In times past, going out for a coffee entailed a trip to your local greasy spoon or pub for a cup of the instant stuff. Back then, coffee was treated as mere rocket fuel — something to get you through the morning or retrieve you from a post-prandial stupor. Modern concerns around roast style, bean origin and flavour simply didn’t exist.

That all seems a long time ago now. Since the 1990s, when a certain aspirational New York sitcom made going out for a cup of Morning Joe the done thing, coffee culture this side of the Atlantic has grown to the point where it now feels imprecise to describe Britain as merely a nation of tea drinkers.

Coffee, more to the point good coffee, is everywhere. Our high-streets are populated by chain cafes offering dozens of different cups, but even these are beginning to be superseded by the hip, artisanal espresso bars springing up in our major cities. At home, too, more and more of us are buying professional espresso machines and taking time to source beans online in order to enjoy the craft coffee experience from the comfort of our own sofas.

The food world may be the last frontier left for coffee to conquer. Yet, with Michelin-starred chefs such as Matt Gillan opening restaurants in coffee houses and more cafes staying open into the evening, this looks to be changing, too. In time, perhaps we will see more cafes matching coffee to specific dishes and providing information on which styles and roasts work with certain flavours and times of the day.

For now, consider this a handy primer.

Finding the right style

We all have our own favourite style of coffee but some work better than others when it comes to complementing food. Let’s start with breakfast. European tradition dictates that a milkier, milder cup fits the bill, a cappuccino with a croissant, for example. But there’s more to it than that.

The general rule is that a breakfast coffee should find the right balance of flavour so as not to overwhelm the palate before it has got started. While frothy lattes and cappuccinos are undeniably popular, with a dense creaminess to underscore the buttery nature of, say, a pastry, the less heavy flat white or closely related cortado are perhaps better suited to enjoying with food. Don’t discount non-milky styles, either. An americano is a good early-morning all-rounder while espressos can be used to counter the soft richness of avocado on toast, for example, providing you use the right roast (more on that later).

Later on in the day, you are probably only going to be drinking coffee with a sweet mid-afternoon snack or as a digestif with or after a dessert. Here, the options are a touch more straightforward: pastries and cakes are generally well served by creamier concoctions, while the rich bitterness of dark chocolate can be accentuated nicely by an espresso.

Light, medium or dark roast?

The ‘roast profile’ of the beans is vitally important when it comes to matching coffee with food — perhaps more so than any other factor. The term relates to the extent that the beans have been roasted, as indicated by their post-roast colouring. Simply put, the longer they have been heated the darker they will be.

This is important because the beans’ level of roast significantly impacts on the final flavour and strength of the coffee, which in turn determines how and when it should be consumed. Coffee connoisseurs have identified a million-and-one different roast profiles — Breakfast Roast, Cinnamon Roast, After Dinner Roast — but for simplicity’s sake we can categorise them into three types:

  • Light roast — This means the beans have been heated to ‘first crack’ — the noise that is made when the temperature reaches 205°C. Levels of caffeine and acidity will be high, though spicy and floral notes may also be detectable. Try pairing with buttery pastries, biscuits and soft cheese.

  • Medium roast — Ideally suited to breakfast-time coffee, medium roast beans are a hazelnut-brown colour and are likely to have been heated to just before the ‘second crack’ — which occurs at around 224°C. They are nuttier and earthier in flavour, so experiment with pairing with toasted cheese sandwiches and salads.

  • Dark roast — Dark roast beans have been taken to temperatures of up to 250°C, well beyond the second crack, so they pair well with foods robust enough to stand up to their smoky character. Chocolate desserts are ideal; the flavours complement each other nicely and the dark roast’s lower caffeine content will help you sleep a little easier.

Bean variety

As with grape varieties in wine, coffee beans vary massively in terms of flavour and character. But once you know the kinds of beans you like and why, you can start thinking about which flavours will work with them and the time of day they are most suited to. There are no hard-and-fast rules for this, but there are a few things to bear in mind.

One is that there are two species of coffee bean in existence: arabica and robusta. Arabica beans are harder to grow but have a deep, complex flavour, whereas robusta beans are hardier but tend to be quite acrid. Though sometimes a mixing of the two can yield great results.

Then there is the region that the beans originate from. Very generally, beans from Central and Latin America tend to be highly acidic yet sweet, complementing breakfast foods and sweet dishes. Those from Africa and the Middle East are typically medium bodied, nutty and mildly bitter with notes of citrus. Beans from Asia and the Pacific Islands may be earthier and heavier in body – give them a go with a nice slab of chocolate.