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A Brief Guide to Food and Coffee Pairing

Yet more proof that coffee is the new wine.

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You don't have to be a sommelier to know that a glass of red wine goes well with a steak. But when it comes to pairing foods with coffees, most foodies don't have a clue — except perhaps that a cup goes down awfully well with your morning pastry.

Even then, said Frieda Hoffman of Berkeley's Local 123 (2049 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley), most people are thinking about the coffee as a caffeine-delivery vehicle or a way to keep the food from being too dry. "It's usually to soak up the coffee, that's traditionally what people are thinking," Hoffman explained. "Not because the taste experience will be enhanced."

Hoffman and her partner Katy Wafle are stretching that mindset by working with their cafe's director of food to create a semi-regular series of food and coffee pairing events. The first of these tastings was held on Sunday, October 24. For $10, participants had the opportunity to sample a flight of three coffees currently featured at the cafe, each one paired with a house-made pastry or other food item.

Given the tendency of today's micro-roasters to focus on the flavor profiles of individual coffees, and their penchant for roasting their beans lightly to showcase the nuances of each varietal, it makes sense that coffee connoisseurs would put more thought into how food might complement those coffees. And as perhaps the most serious of the Bay Area's serious new coffeehouses, Local 123 is the logical place for this to happen.

Neither Hoffman nor Wafle had ever before attended any formal food and coffee pairings, though it's something they've always been interested in. If a really good wine pairing can bring out all the subtleties in a plate of food, why can't coffee do the same? "Scientists will even argue that coffee's a more complex product," Hoffman said. "It has more volatiles, so aromatically you're experiencing even more than wine, arguably."

Wafle said there is no real equivalent, in the coffee world, to that classic pairing of red meat and red wine, (although the folks who coined the brand name Dunkin' Donuts would no doubt argue about that). If you do a cursory search online, you'll find just a handful of sites that make those kinds of blanket statements: Such and such coffee is good to drink with toast or pancakes or a bag of potato chips.

For Hoffman and Wafle, though, pairing coffee with food is subtler and more individualized. Some pairings are obvious: If you're eating a chocolate dessert, then a straight espresso — or something equally intense — would match the intensity of the dessert and to serve as a foil to its sweetness. Then again, Hoffman said, coffee and chocolate taste so good together that she avoided using chocolatey items at the tasting event — it's too obvious.

Hoffman follows some basic principles. If she's eating something fatty, maybe she'll pair it with an acidic coffee that could cut into the fat. Or, conversely, she might want a coffee that's heavy on the tongue and has a sort of butteriness — something that would bring out the richness of the food even more.

Other times, it's about bringing out and making use of certain flavor notes in a coffee. If she had an Ethiopian coffee with blueberry undertones to it, she'd pair it with some kind of blueberry pastry: "I would want for customers to have the experience of tasting real blueberry and tasting the coffee, to understand ... when we say it tastes like blueberries up on the board, what does that really mean?"

Some of the most successful matches are unexpected — like pairing coffee with meat. At a preview for the first pairing event, Hoffman cupped a Guatemalan Xeucalvitz that she described as having the fruitiness and the "chewiness" of a really bold Zinfandel with a corn chorizo muffin slathered with spicy-sweet jalapeno jam from Berkeley-based INNA Jam.

The Xeucalvitz, by itself, was complex and bold, with intense berry notes. Taken in combination with the muffin, though, it was transcendent — the coffee soothing the heat from the chorizo and the jam, but somehow playing off the sweetness of the jam, too. It was impossibly smooth going down.

And, just like that, the coffee itself became the star of the show, the end rather than the means, so that it isn't just about making the food taste better. Well-matched food, as it turns out, actually makes the coffee taste better.

"People always want coffee in the morning, right?" Hoffman asks. "So what do you want to eat with your coffee? Because you know you're going to have coffee."

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