It takes years of practice to become an expert at something. This is not a new notion for wine aficionados. Repeated tasting and thoughtful analyzing brings the ability to recognize varieties and terroir. The same is true for coffee. The main distinction is that most coffee lovers savour 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 every day around the world. And within the United States, New Yorkers hold the title for most-caffeinated. They drink 7 times more coffee than people living anywhere else in the country.
In the episode, Porter journeys through four different cups of Colombian coffee. The reputation of Colombian coffee is rising because of how 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. Continue reading to discover seven ways that coffee and wine are similar.
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 percent of global production. It has a delicate, sweeter flavor and is less acidic. Robusta has higher levels of caffeine and is more popular in areas where very strong coffee is the cultural norm, like Europe and the Middle East.
Coffee Is Site-Specific, Like Wine
A Cabernet Sauvignon grape that ripens on the left bank of the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux produces aromas and flavors that are different 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 important to a wine’s identity. Over the past decade, the integrity of a coffee’s identity has become equally as important. A coffee bean grows from the earth, like a wine grape. Meaning everything from the soil, slope, and altitude contribute to the resulting aromas and flavors.
Coffee Can Only Grow at Certain Latitudes, Like Wine
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 near 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 that would produce over-ripe fruit.
Coffee enjoys the warmth surrounding either side of the equator. Coffee beans grow anywhere 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.
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. Here, they’re pressed and fermented, then filtered and aged. Each step of the process attributes aromatic and flavorful characteristics. Coffee goes through a similar journey, although with differing steps. After the coffee fruit (also 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 flavors, 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 anywhere from 10 to 12 percent of their weight. Once the cherry is completely dried, the pulp is removed which leaves a coffee bean that holds a more intense fruit flavor.
Coffee and Wine Both Undergo Fermentation
This one is similar but also different. Both a wine grape and a coffee cherry contain sugar. Through its production, the sugar combines with enzymes and yeast and undergoes fermentation. The distinct difference between the two is that the resulting alcohol remains in the wine. But in coffee, it’s cleared away with the pulp.
Roasting Is Coffee’s Version of Barrel Aging
The roasting process and the barrel aging process hold little similarities. But, the purpose of each concept is the same. They both develop flavor.
Coffee beans are roasted to bring out the aromas and flavors that are 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 size of the barrel, and the age of the barrel. The length of time a wine sits in the barrel is also a factor.
Both Coffee and Wine 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, coffee that is blended can also express unique attributes. It allows for flexibility if one region has too much or too little rainfall. It also allows for the ability to create 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 aficionado will tell you, it’s never a good idea to mess with a house blend.
Sign in or subscribe to SOMM TV to catch the entire episode on coffee which includes a detailed side by side comparison of all four coffees tasted by Jeff Porter. In the meantime, watch him give some insight into coffee culture and explain how it became such an important beverage in the United States.
Nicole MacKay in the Managing Editor of the SOMM TV Online Magazine. She holds her WSET 3 and is a Spanish Wine Scholar. With a passion for food and travel, she's often found in her kitchen adjusting perfectly good recipes to be gluten-free and plant-based.