THE COMPLEXITIES OF COFFEE AND WINE
By Elvis Dyer
Sturbridge Coffee Roasters
I recently returned from California where I had the opportunity to speak with quite a few “boutique” or small production winemakers, and taste quite a few great wines. And during these conversations, I started to think about the similarities and complexities of wine and coffee. Exploring the art and science of coffee and winemaking, from planning to harvest to cup, is more than just the nation of origin and the soil. The perfect cup is a combination of history, of traditions in cultivation and processing, of the people and their specific culture, and all the environmental aspects including altitude, soil, and weather. As consumer knowledge about both products continues to grow rapidly, consumers are demanding more and more from their producers.
Both are agricultural products and a direct result of the plant, through careful handling and processing and the science of transforming the fruit into a beverage. Both have rich histories, including being banned in different countries throughout the years. We speak of coffees and wines by their variety and region. And, both use many of the same terms to describe the aromas and flavors. When not consuming, both have specific storing instructions – coffee in a sealed airtight, room temperature dark location, whereas wine is usually stored sideways and the temperature is dependent on the type.
A big difference is a potential for error at the consumption side – from grinding to brewing your beans (whereas wine is poured from the bottle to glass). So many variables at the end – grind size, water quality and brewing equipment – are dependent on the consumer, much different than what happens right before drinking the wine. And also at the end of the spectrum, many wines are better with age, whereas coffee is best fresh. The other big difference? The supply chain. Most wineries own or have a close relationship with, the vineyards responsible for growing the fruit. Yet with coffee, we depend on farmers who are miles away, and across oceans, from us to grow and harvest our beans.
Coffee beans come from cherries and the growth and processing of coffee beans, similar to grapes, is a blend of art and science. The farmer and the vintner have to know their crop and make all the right decisions before, during, and after harvesting their crop to make sure we experience the best flavor.
Climate and Soil
Coffees from Kenya are big and bold, due to their close equatorial origins and shade. Coffees from South America can be more acidity and have a caramel sweetness due to being grown at a higher altitude and wetter climate. This is no different than wines. California has a warmer climate, which results in a bold, full-bodied wine as compared to a French vineyard in a cooler climate producing wines that are lighter-bodied and more acidic. Maybe that’s why I am so fond of dark roasts and now California’s Pinot Noir.
Winemakers use the term terroir to describe how location affects cultivation. And in coffee, that concept also applies. The same coffee tree in the Northern and Southern hemispheres will produce beans that are greatly different.
For every word used to describe a certain wine, there is probably a coffee that would fit the same description – whether it be chocolaty, fruity, spicy, floral, nutty, grassy, citrusy, sweet or buttery. Have you ever seen the Specialty Coffee Association’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel? One of the most iconic resources in the industry, it has been the industry standard for more than two decades. You will see those same terms, and many more. We also “swirl/stir” both beverages to expose the liquid to more oxygen, which is critical to deciphering the individual tastes in the drink. With both beverages, we bring our nose close to the drink and inhale deeply, allowing us to take in the aroma of the beverage. Wine drinkers will slurp during a tasting, and during the coffee “cupping” process, you slurp to expose the liquid to more oxygen, allowing more specific flavors to come to light.
Coffee roasting is not an exact science and neither is winemaking. There is not perfect “recipe” to create a beverage that’s guaranteed to garner a high score from an independent review board or end user. Instead, it is a craft that is constantly being tested and evaluated, with tweaks in the process made along the way. Flavor profiles will emerge, and over time, this knowledge, commitment and time provide a delicious cup (or glass) for us all to enjoy. n