Becoming an expert at something takes years of practice; this is a familiar notion for wine aficionados. Repeated tasting and thoughtful analysis bring the ability to recognize varieties and terroir. The same is true for coffee. The main distinction is that most coffee lovers savor their first cup of joe well before a more appropriate hour for a glass of wine.
Jeff Porter recently took SOMM TV viewers through an insightful coffee tasting (also known as cupping) at Devoción in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout the tasting, he divulges that 2.5 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide daily. And New Yorkers hold the title for most caffeinated in the United States, as they drink seven times more coffee than other Americans.
In this clip, Porter gives some insight into coffee culture and explains how it became such an important beverage in the United States.
Throughout the rest of the episode, available exclusively to SOMM TV subscribers, Porter journeys through four cups of Colombian coffee, analyzing and appreciating their differences. The reputation of Colombian coffee is rising because it resembles the zeitgeist of wine. From slopes and altitude to varieties and production methods – Colombian coffee isn’t just Colombian coffee. It expresses terroir and personality.
Here are seven surprising similarities between coffee and wine.
1. Varieties of Wine and Types of Coffee
Ask any wine lover, and they can usually recollect some, if not all, of the major international grape varieties. Ones like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot create some of the most renowned styles of wine. Outside of these well-known varieties, there are more than 10,000 types of wine grapes.
Like wine, coffee has varieties as well, but far fewer. The two main types are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the most common, accounting for 60% to 70% of global production. It has a delicate, sweeter flavor and is less acidic. Robusta has higher levels of caffeine and is more prevalent in areas where very strong coffee is the cultural norm, like Europe and the Middle East.
2. Coffee Is Site-Specific, Like Wine
A Cabernet Sauvignon grape that ripens on Bordeaux’s Left Bank produces aromas and flavors that differ from a grape that grows in Napa. The distinction lies in the growing climate. Besides being on the opposite side of the planet, Napa sits several latitude degrees south and further inland than Bordeaux. These variances are critical to a wine’s identity. Over the past decade, coffee’s terroir integrity has become equally important. Everything from the soil, slope, and altitude contributes to the resulting aromas and flavors.
3. They Both Grow at Certain Latitudes
Grapevines grow best between the 30th and 50th parallel in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Latitudes further north or south are too cold, making it impossible for the vine to recover after a harsh winter. At latitudes closer to the equator, vines wouldn’t get a dormant winter phase. Instead, it would endure a near-constant growing season producing over-ripe fruit.
Coffee enjoys the warmth surrounding either side of the equator. Coffee beans grow between the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees north) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23 degrees south). This latitude band incorporates countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia and Kenya, among others.
4. They Both Go Through Flavor-Imparting Production
When grapes are picked off the vine, they’re taken to the winery, where they’re turned into wine. They’re pressed and fermented, then filtered and aged. Each step of the process imparts aromatic and flavorful characteristics. Coffee goes through a similar journey, although with differing steps. After the coffee fruit (known as the cherry) is picked from the tree, it follows one of two paths to become a coffee bean: washed or natural/dried.
Washed: Though never indicated on the packaging, washed coffee is the most prevalent. The coffee cherry is put in a bath where it undergoes a short fermentation and is separated from the pulp, leaving just the bean. This process produces a bean with high acidity and a concise bean flavor.
Natural/Dried: The most straightforward way to explain this process is to compare it to Amarone. A grape’s journey to becoming Amarone involves drying the grapes. The drying concentrates the characteristics, leaving a more intensely flavored fruit. Similarly, the coffee cherry is dried on concrete patios where they are raked or turned often to avoid rot. During this process, they’ll lose 10 to 12 percent of their weight. Once the cherry is completely dried, the pulp is removed, leaving a coffee bean with a more intense fruit flavor.
5. Coffee and Wine Both Undergo Fermentation
This one is similar but also different. Both a wine grape and a coffee cherry contain sugar. The sugar combines with enzymes and yeast through its production and undergoes fermentation. The difference is that the resulting alcohol remains in the wine. But in coffee, it’s cleared away with the pulp.
6. Roasting Is Coffee’s Version of Barrel Aging
The roasting process and the barrel aging process hold few similarities. But, the purpose of each concept is the same, to develop flavor.
Coffee beans are roasted to bring out the aromas and flavors locked inside. In its natural state, a coffee bean is green, soft and spongy with a herbal or grassy smell. Once roasted, it’s brown, crunchy and weighs less (because the moisture has been roasted out). Generally speaking, there are three types of roast: light, medium, and dark. The lighter the roast, the more vibrant the flavor with higher caffeine. The darker the roast, the more bitter the flavor with less caffeine.
A winemaker has near-infinite choices when it comes to barrel aging a wine. The flavor differences are nuanced by the type of oak, the barrel’s size, and the barrel’s age. The length of time a wine sits in the barrel is also a factor.
7. Both Wine and Coffee Can Be Blended or Single Vineyard
During Jeff Porter’s tasting at Devoción, he tastes four cups of Colombian coffee, three of which are of single origin. Much like a single vineyard wine, the beans for the coffee originated from a specific site cultivated by a single farmer. This notion reverts to our earlier references to site-specific characteristics. Those characteristics can’t shine if the beans are blended with a batch from a different location or farmer.
Much like blended wines, blended coffee can also express unique attributes. It allows flexibility if one region has too much or too little rainfall. It also allows the creation of a house blend – like a Champagne house’s flagship Brut wine. It’s a calling card, reliable time after time. And as any diehard coffee enthusiast will tell you, messing with a house blend is never a good idea.