Coffee -Wine Comparison

Coffee seems like a straightforward topic, at least it did when you bought coffee in a can, dissolved it in hot water, (clenched your jaw) and slogged it down. When I started in coffee, many people still did not know what a roasted coffee bean looked like, let alone the green seed! These days Joe Consumer may have an inkling that there’s more to coffee than it seems. But when a local TV station in the Bay Area (aren’t we supposed to be sophisticated?) had a “coffee expert” guest, the discussion was limited to Latte vs. Mocha. Information about the coffee origin, where it was grown, by whom, how it was processed, etc. is pretty hard to find at a Starbucks … the names of proprietary beverages and blender drinks dominate the menu.

The discussion in Specialty Coffee has been how to get people to take coffee seriously… how do we get them to ponder the notion that there is a lot to know about this very complex beverage? The answer has been to make coffee the “new wine”; talk about it like wine, write about it like wine, sell it like wine. I guess the argument was convincing; one company started to sell their roasted and green coffee in clear, corked wine bottles! Another deep freezes green coffee to save “vintages” as one would cellar Burgundy.

In a general sense, it is easy to compare coffee to wine. Neither are nutritional necessities, but are integral to our food habits. They are both consumed for pleasure. And the aroma and flavors of both have the potential to connect those who imbibe with the lives and fates of people throughout the world, to their culture, their nation, their soil. What we enjoy is a direct result of their care of the plant, precision in processing, careful transportation and handling, and diligence in preparation. The more we enjoy single-farm coffees from distinct origins, the stronger and clearer that connection might become.

Why make standards? Coffee certainly needs standards to enhance the bond between those who love the drink, and all those whose work makes it possible, standards that are adaptive and suited to our unique trade. No, you can’t certify a good cup of coffee since it could be stale, or even worse, French-roasted! And the process of instituting a neutral “coffee board,” one not related to any trade association or business entity, is a daunting task. But someone has to guarantee the meaning of first-tier coffees when the market refuses to pay a fair price, and corporations are happy to fudge the names of offerings to make them sound single-origin, or Estate-grown.

“Why not let the market determine coffee denominations?”. In our trade, the highest end of specialty coffee, there is a problem with “phony specialty coffee” being offered by brokers and exporters. To an inexperienced cupper they seem passable, but the coffee has not been processed to high standards, the cup masks flaws which eventually emerge, the green coffee will not hold up over time. It’s easy to attach “brand names” to coffee lots at a mill that sound like farm names, when in fact the coffee is mixed. Such coffees do not deserve their low market prices.

On the other hand, true single-farm coffees often deserve double their current price! A market based on global competition over undifferenitated commodity lots makes no sense in the specialty community. Visit a coffee farm that has its own mill; you cannot believe the amount of specialized, skilled labor that goes into each pound of green coffee.

In parts of the greater coffee trade that lie a universe apart from our business, there is another need for standards. Ever have an “espresso” from an automated machine at a service station or convenience store? Ever wondered why Kona Blend tastes like crud, or if a Mocha-Java has Yemen or Java in it? Or that everyone seems to have Antigua and Tarrazu now, but neither region produces that much . How about “Jamaica High Mountain?”

What you get without standards is a lot of coffee businesses with a lot of standards, competing on an uneven surface. You have roasters with the highest principles of quality and freshness in a marketplace with crudy old coffee from an unscrupulous business, and both have the exact same name on the bag: two coffees can be called Sumatra Mandheling and be of completely different cup character and quality.

But why ape the wine model? Speaking as a well-meaning and imperfect participant in a flawed trade, coffee seems to get things quite backwards. We don’t seem to understand the empirical method well, or working from a set of basic problems toward a systemic solution. We just want results. In this trade, coffee producers, brokers and sellers would love the cache (and price premiums) of selling coffee like wine, but without doing the work. The problem with comparing coffee production to viticulture is that a wine appellation system is the result of decades of history, culture and agronomy specific to wine. It wasn’t whipped up overnight as an answer to the question “what do consumers want?” It wasn’t the result of marketing.

Defining coffee appellations would not start with the coffee regions, the arabica cultivars, or the altitudes of the farms. All these are important factors in quality coffee, but appellations would need to start with the cup. Why do coffees from different origins taste different? Like wine, it is a combination of history, of traditions in coffee cultivation and processing, of the people and their specific culture, and all the environmental aspects: altitude, soil, and weather. There are many ways to process coffee correctly, there are many opinions on what “correct” means. So start with the cup to determine what those who appreciate coffee, experts and amateurs side-by-side, find unique about each origin. The result will be a rough sketch of the different “signature character” cups that an origin produces. From that, the factors that produce that cup (and the negative actions that mar that cup) can be determined.

Unlike wine, the resulting set of primary “causes” that result in a particular cup character will be quite different from the oenological universe. Yes, cultivars matter, but only as a muted and oftentimes indistinguishable element of the cup. The method of processing, wet-processed or dry-processed, is much more significant. Wet processed coffees are roughly akin to white wines, fermented without the grape skins, whereas dry-processed coffees are like red wines, fermented in the coffee cherry with the skin intact.

Unlike wine, strict geographical standards would not work well with coffee. Coffee is too dependent upon altitude, microregional soil variations, climactic subregions, local soil differences. A coffee can be grown in the geographical center of Tarrazu and have no “typical Tarrazu character”, another can be grown just outside Tarrazu, and be the epitome of the region. Or a coffee can be grown on the perfect plot in Tarrazu, but is planted with Catimor (a highly productive hybrid that is actually an arabicarobusta cross) and have poor cup character. And then there is another confusing problem with the way coffee is currently evaluated: some markers and grading systems are irrelevant! These factors, which seem important in some coffee marketing literature, are fairly irrelevant the cup. The screen size of the coffee, and the resulting grading based on size (Supremo vs. Excelso in Colombia, AA vs AB in Kenya, Extra Fancy 19 screen vs. Fancy 18 screen in Hawaii) are differences that make no difference. Why introduce details that don’t matter in the cup, when the ones that do are obscured from the roaster and coffee-drinker?

And the influences upon cup character can not be abstracted and minimized to essential notions like terroir as they are in wine. Coffee is a product of a history; not only in terms of growing and processing, but in terms of brewing and “taste.” It is a double bind, with culture as an influence throughout. There cannot be a universally recognized “good cup” of coffee, and so there cannot be a universally “correct” way to grow and process coffee.

This cuts both ways. I deeply enjoy the traditional natural-dry coffees of Brazil, and I appreciate the newer pulped-natural coffees too. But in the competitive Brazil auction, being a natural coffee is a kiss of death. I don’t believe a single natural coffee, with their unique fruity tones and greater overall intensity, has made the finals in the last 4 years. Why would a historically established defining characteristic of a coffee origin be deemed a defect, especially when many coffee cogniscenti love it? The official answer would be that, as the capricious result of coffee processing, and not of the terroir of the coffee is a hypothetical “pure” form, these flavors are taints.


Tom 3-10-04

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