Everyone loves cheese and wine, but there are many alternate pairings out there, including coffee!
People love coffee and love cheese, but coffee and cheese together? Heaven!
To get an expert's take on the best cheese and coffee pairings, Alice Bergen Phillips, cheese educator and co-owner of the amazing Cheesemonster Studio in Washington, D.C. shares how to pair coffee and cheese and her favorite coffee and cheese duos!
What Pairs With Coffee? (Cheese!)
So how did you get into cheese?
As a cheesemonger and cheese educator, I get this question all the time.
People usually expect some story about culinary school, or working in kitchens or wine bars - you know, cheese adjacent jobs.
But the answer is not one that most people associate with the world of cheese at all.
The answer, my dears, is that it all started with coffee.
It’s true - my first venture into the world of specialty foods was at a small coffee bar in D.C..
That job taught me all about how to detect things like acidity, bitterness, and body.
I learned how to articulate what flavor notes I tasted in different coffees and how they changed from batch to batch. I learned how to divorce my own likes and dislikes from determining the quality of a product.
In short, that job taught me how to taste coffee on a more professional level.
When I eventually moved over to the world of cheese, not only did the same skills that I had learned as a barista apply, but the two products were actually very alike.
Coffee and cheese have similar tasting notes.
They have similar flavor changes from batch-to-batch, balance of taste, body, and texture.
Since there are so many common characteristics held by coffee and cheese, wouldn’t it makes sense that they would pair well together?
As it turns out, they sure do!
While many people think of wine when they think of cheese pairings, there is a whole world of alternate pairings out there, including coffee.
But where to begin?
The world of coffee and the world of cheese are so vast. The idea of sorting through and matching up each individual roast and wheel can seem intensely daunting, especially for the non-professional.
Over the years, I’ve found a couple tips and tricks to make the experience less overwhelming and more manageable.
How To Pair Coffee And Cheese
The most important part of creating a successful pairing comes way before you even begin to match different cheeses and coffees together.
First and foremost, you need to choose a product that you want to work with - either a cheese that you love or a coffee that you find intriguing.
Then you taste it in a way that will help you determine what its underlying tasting notes and body are.
The only way that you’re going to be able to do that is by learning how to taste with intention.
Without understanding the nuances in both flavor and texture of your cheese and coffee independently of one another, figuring out how to put them together in a successful way is darn near impossible.
So first, we have flavor.
Yes, that piece of cheese you just ate tastes like cheese. Of course it does. But what else are you tasting?
Once you get past that initial, “Yup, tastes like cheddar” thought, can you detect any flavors that remind you of something else?
It might make you feel strange at first, but trust me, these secondary flavors are what make each product unique. This is how you train your taste buds to pair properly.
Does it taste a little mustardy?
Is there a green, asparagus-y kind of flavor going on?
What about a certain umami, brothy sort of note?
All of these pieces of information will clue you in to what coffee pairing will be the most successful!
Mouthfeel and Body
Next up, we need to evaluate mouthfeel and body. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, the easiest way to describe body is to think about the difference between drinking cream and skim milk.
Cream coats your mouth and lingers for a significant amount of time. That's what we would consider full bodied.
Skim milk, on the other hand, is not nearly as viscous and doesn’t hang around in your mouth after you swallow it.
Because of that lightness, it would be considered light bodied.
Both coffees and cheeses have body. Think about a light roast pour over with bright, fresh flavors versus a thick cup of dark Turkish coffee.
Yes, both are coffee, but the experience of drinking them is very different. And not just because they have varying flavor. Each sensory experience is distinct.
Tasting in this way can be a fun exercise in and of itself.
One of my favorite food-geeky things to do is to get a bunch of friends or coworkers together and taste through cheeses that we’ve never had before.
It builds what I like to think of as my mental cheese library. Each time I need to come up with pairings, or the next time I try a new product, I can pull from this internal catalog for reference points.
One word to the wise: Everyone’s palate is different, so while tasting with friends is fun, don’t let anyone tell you that what you are tasting is wrong.
First, not everyone has the same amount of taste buds. On a basic, biological level, it is possible for some folks to taste the same food differently than others.
Second, a lot depends on your past food experiences.
For example, if you’ve never eaten a mushroom before, you’ll find it really hard to detect notes of mushroom in whatever you’re tasting.
The more vast of a variety of foods you eat, the more precisely you’ll be able to pinpoint tasting notes.
I like to think of it as fun food homework. The more food experiences I have, the better I will be at tasting and understanding flavor nuances.
What Makes A Good Coffee And Cheese Pairing?
Okay, so you’ve got a particular coffee or cheese in mind that you would like to figure out a pairing for.
You’ve tasted it and have an idea of its flavor characteristics and what kind of body it has.
You are looking for a complimentary cheese or coffee that enhances your eating and drinking experience.
A really good pairing boosts both the cheese and the coffee so that they taste better together than they do separately.
Sometimes you’ll even get an entirely new flavor from the combination that just blows your socks off.
A bad pairing, on the other hand, means that they taste worse together than apart, which obviously nobody wants.
More often than not, most items put together come out neutral - they’re not bad together, but they’re not great either. Obviously this isn't ideal either.
How To Make A Successful Coffee Pairing
In my experience, when it comes to pairing cheese and coffee, I’ve found two strategies that have helped guide me towards successful pairings:
1. You can use the flavor notes in your cheese and coffee to recreate flavor combinations that have worked in other dishes.
For example, if you have a very fruit-forward cup of coffee, pairing it with a traditional English cheddar that has a lot of green peanut flavors could give you a peanut butter-and-jelly type vibe.
Or, you can recreate one of my favorite, if a bit unorthodox, cheese pairings - blue cheese and dark chocolate - by pairing a fudgy, lightly sweet blue cheese with a cup of chocolatey, Central American coffee.
2. You can pair cheeses and coffees together that have similar flavor notes in order to marry the two products together.
For example, you could pair a light, bright, citrusy African coffee with a similarly light, bright, citrusy fresh or barely aged goat cheese.
The parallel flavors in both the coffee and cheese harmonize the two products in a complementary way and highlight the salty and sweet notes in each.
Favorite Cheese and Coffee Combinations To Try
The more you eat, drink, and pair, the easier it becomes, the more educated you will be, and the more ideas you’ll have for future pairings.
To get you started on your own coffee and cheese pairing adventures, here are a couple of my favorites coffee and cheese combinations:
1. Vermont Creamery Bijou And Chocolate-forward Espresso
CHEESE: Bijou from Vermont Creamery
COFFEE: Chocolate-forward espresso
WHY IT WORKS: I wish I could claim credit for this pairing, but it was actually put together by a friend of mine for a cheesemonger competition. His idea was to recreate an affogato with cheese instead of ice cream.
Bijou is a small, ice cream scoop sized goat cheese that is smooth, creamy, and delicately goaty, with a geotrichum rind that gives it a cute, wrinkly appearance.
The combination of this gorgeous cheese with the deep, dark, chocolatey espresso creates a perfect balance and a pretty darn good alternative to a traditional affogato.
2. Mt. Alice And Funkier Sumatran Coffee
CHEESE: Mt. Alice from Von Trapp Farmstead
COFFEE: Funkier Sumatran coffees
WHY IT WORKS: Mt. Alice is a bloomy-rind cow’s milk cheese (any cheese with that delicate white rind, like brie or camembert, is classified as a bloomy-rind).
Its flavor ranges from fresh button mushrooms and cream when the cheese is young, to earthy, funky flavors as it ages.
That earthiness is what we’re after with this pairing.
Those mushroom, umami notes are echoed in many coffees in Sumatra, creating a wonderful, funky harmony between the two.
3. Gouda and Central American Full-Bodied Roasts
CHEESE: Signature Gouda from Fromagerie L’Amuse
COFFEE: Any Central American full bodied coffee with low to medium acidity
WHY IT WORKS: This aged cow’s milk gouda is full of caramel and butterscotch notes. It's a clear companion for coffees that have a high degree of burnt sugar and chocolate flavors going on.
Putting the two together makes you feel like you’re enjoying a decadent dessert, with a great salty-sweet balance.
4. Chevre And Light, Bright African Coffees
CHEESE: Allegheny Chevre from FireFly Farms
COFFEE: Light and bright African coffees with lots of citrus and red fruit flavors
WHY IT WORKS: Pucker up, folks, we’ve got some acid on acid action.
The bright, lemony acidity in this fresh local goat cheese marries beautifully with similar flavors these types of coffees.
It’s a punchy combination that will really wake you up in the morning.
5. Sheep's Milk Ricotta And A Medium Roast Blend
CHEESE: Sheep’s milk Ricotta from Bellwether Farms
COFFEE: Any medium roast cup o’ joe
WHY IT WORKS: Sheep’s milk has more fat and protein than cow or goat’s milk, which makes this ricotta particularly rich, creamy, and decadent.
This fresh cheese also has a beautiful sweetness to it that makes it hard to stop eating.
Because of its sweet and creamy flavor profile, eating it with coffee is just like adding cream and sugar to your cup.
Not a bad way to start your day.
6. "Barely Buzzed" (A Coffee Cheese!)
CHEESE/COFFEE: Barely Buzzed from Beehive Cheese Co.
WHY IT WORKS: Cheese and coffee all in one!
This unique cow’s milk cheddar has been rubbed with coffee grounds and lavender, giving it a coffee kick in every bite.
The nuttiness of the cheddar mixed with the floral and aromatic rind makes this cheese a universal people pleaser.
Don’t be afraid of the rind on this guy - it’s all totally edible.
Eating a piece from the inside (farthest away from the rind) towards the outside (closest to the rind) is a fun way to see how many different flavors can be present in one, singular piece of cheese.