The Art (and Science!) of Chocolate and Coffee Pairing

A cup of organic coffee on a table with organic chocolate and some daffodils

Chocolate and coffee offer a variety of flavors that are nurtured through the cultivation and processing of the finished products that you enjoy every day. Both products are incredibly complex in flavor independently, but can also provide us with delicious flavor combinations when paired together. Enjoy a few of our pairing selections by yourself – or invite a few of your friends over for a pairing event!

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We’ll provide you with the tools to learn about tasting a few of our recommended pairings, but let’s begin by talking about flavor.

Elements of Flavor

Fragrance/Aroma: the power of fragrance is directly linked to the elements of flavor beginning with the olfactory bulb at the back of the nasal passage. It’s common to identify a smell like vanilla and also taste vanilla during a tasting. Fragrance and aroma are intrinsically linked.

Flavor: There are many levels of flavor in a cup of coffee. Focus on these two elements:

  • Four traditional flavors: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and their combinations
    Begin tasting by focusing on the four basic flavors of sweet, sour, salt and bitter. These flavors may present themselves immediately or may appear in combinations. Try to identify the sensation and describe it as a positive or negative. For example, think of the flavor of a ripe orange as opposed to an unripe orange. Oranges have a combination of sweet and sour as the base of the flavor, positive in the case of the ripe orange, with sweetness being the dominant flavor – as opposed to a sour flavor, which will dominate in the case of the immature orange, exhibiting an astringent and slightly sour flavor. These flavors can be straightforward and in many cases combined, with sweet and sour being the most prevalent. In addition to these four basic flavors, recent evidence suggests that a fifth flavor called “Umami” should be added to this group. Umami is the savory flavor you may taste, referred to as brothy, savory or meaty.
  • Level of complexity: intensity, balance and dimension in the cup
    Many coffees will be naturally well balanced, with the mouthfeel and acidity being in perfect harmony. Other coffees will exhibit deep layers of complexity with pungent flavors like black pepper complimented by dark chocolate. High quality coffees can be very complex in flavor or very simple. Sumatran coffees can be extremely complex with a flavor profile that is earthy, sweet, pungent, peppery and reminiscent of dried cherries. However, a high quality coffee from Bolivia may exhibit chocolate and citrus with excellent acidity. Both are high quality coffees with different flavor profiles.

Mouthfeel/body: Commonly referred to as “body,” the mouthfeel is measured by the weight and the texture of the coffee. Roll the coffee around in your mouth to settle in the center of your tongue, and then move it to the sides and the back, only to bring it back to the center. Is the texture velvety smooth like fresh cream? Heavy and dense like whole milk?

In the case of chocolate, feel free to chew on the chocolate to break it up or leave it on the center of your tongue to dissolve, so that you can feel the weight and texture. Is it dense and creamy or light and gritty?

Acidity: The bite, snap or sparkle found in a cup of coffee. Different acids will produce different sensations on the edges of the tongue. We refer to perceived acidity, as opposed to the level of pH, which is approximately 5.7 (7.0 is neutral) in the coffee. The perceived acidity in coffee is a direct result of the coffee growing conditions and more specifically the altitude of the coffee. However, the way that the coffee has been roasted may enhance or degrade this acidity.

Aftertaste: The flavor that remains in your mouth after you have sipped your cup of coffee or tasted chocolate may linger or fade away. The aftertaste is just that.

What kinds of flavors can you taste in your mouth after you have swallowed the coffee? Whatever the flavor is, don’t forget to ask: is it a positive or negative experience?

The Recipe

Pairing chocolate and coffee is like stepping into your kitchen to make your favorite recipe; you are the creative genius and you work to combine flavors that pull your recipe together! Think about the basic flavors that make up a fresh pasta sauce. Garden fresh tomatoes can be really tangy on their own, but when they are combined with the bitter herby flavor of oregano, the sweetness of sauteed onions, garlic, a pinch of sugar and a dash of salt, you have created much more than cooked tomatoes! The combined ingredients add flavor, texture and dimension to the sauce. Obviously this is a simplistic example, but I think you get the idea. Different flavor combinations produce different results; the goal is to find the tastiest combinations!

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Everyone has a complex system for tasting in their mouths, commonly called taste buds. We are all born with these fabulous flavor receptors and they help us decide what we do and do not like to consume. Everyone is different; some of us like a very sweet tomato sauce and others enjoy a more tangy tomato sauce. Food preferences are related to the kinds of food we are accustomed to eating and our ability to taste different flavors. Do your best to open your mind and let your taste buds do the talking! Feel free to try something new or stick with a familiar favorite. Here are a few tasty treats to try, courtesy of the Equal Exchange Quality Control team:

Our Fair Trade Chocolate and Coffee Pairing Recommendations: