The coffee industry recognizes the parallels between the world’s second most popular beverage (just behind water) and wine. But few wine lovers know that the same pleasures in a Burgundian Pinot Noir can be found in coffee.
Coffee—like wine, cheese, meat and other food/drinks—is capable of conveying a sense of time and place. Examples of efforts to preserve these categories include European regions that carry protected designations of origin (PDOs) like Prosciutto di Parma in Italy. Wine, of course, comes from thousands of global appellation systems like the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the U.S.
One reason coffee has yet to cultivate the connoisseurship of wine is because its beans have long come from developing regions like East Africa and Central America (read: not Europe), grown either by large corporations or impoverished farmers. For a long time, coffee has been sold as cheap fuel for the human engine which makes it no wonder coffee beans trail only crude oil as the world’s top traded commodity.
Compounding the problem, beans demand careful shepherding from the harvest to the consumer. Coffee is a delicate product. John Moore, CEO of Nobletree Coffee, says “[It’s a] miracle it actually makes it to your cup.” Until recently, few had the interest or resources to get fresh, near-perfect beans to consumers.
As enthusiasm for wine continues to spread in the U.S., specialty coffee is poised to follow. Growers, importers, roasters and retailers want coffee to be seen as a pleasure to be appreciated for all its complexity, not just to clear a brain fog.
Species and Varietal Classifications
Most wines come from a species of high-quality vine called Vitis vinifera (for example, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). Its workhorse counterparts are the hardy Vitis labrusca (Concord, Cayuga) and Vitis riparia (Frontenac, Baco Noir) varieties and hybrids.
For coffee, that parallel is drawn between Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica is the source of the majority of specialty-grade coffee. Robusta, on the other hand, is the general base of commercial blends like Folgers and Maxwell House.
Within the Vitis vinifera subset of wine grapes, hundreds of varieties are cultivated for commercial winemaking. The coffee equivalent of a “variety” is a cultivar. There are thousands of cultivars within the Arabica species, and important ones include Bourbon, Typica and the rare, expensive Geisha (or Gesha).
Vintners maintain that wine is made in the vineyard, and they’re not being coy. The same concept applies to coffee. Quality starts with farming practices.
Coffee cultivars display certain, consistent sensory properties, whether they’re grown in Colombia or Panama. They also transmit terroir, just how a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir tastes ripe, with notes of cherry cola, compared to a racier, earthier German Spätburgunder.
Transmission of Terroir
Fine wine is valued for its ability to transmit specificity of place that can include geography, soil, climate and weather patterns. Wine appellations attempt to identify and protect these differences, and provide quality standards. While specialty coffee has identifiable regional characteristics, no formal appellation system yet exists.
Ethiopia, for example, has quality and character recognition for its beans from Harar (known for exuberant fruit aromatics, especially blueberry) and Yirgacheffe (known for vibrant acidity, citrus and floral notes).
Promoting terroir to market coffee is a fairly recent concept. On its Brazilian farm, Nobletree Coffee plants trees in different locations to gauge site influence. These days, most consumer coffees are labeled by their country of origin, but are increasingly noting specific regions and farms. The uptick in “micro-lots”—coffees from exceptional beans separated from the larger harvest—shows promise in identifying special sites, much like single-vineyard wines.
Quality Starts on the Farm
Vintners maintain that wine is made in the vineyard, and they’re not being coy. The same concept applies to coffee. Quality starts with farming practices. For a long time, quantity was favored over quality, as pickers were paid by the weight of beans harvested. Education and training have taught farmers skills like identifying cherry ripeness, sorting, pruning and processing, as well as pest and water management. And similar to grapes, bad weather can wipe out an entire year’s crop.
Sensory Attributes: Flavor, body, and acidity
Professional tasters from both worlds describe coffee and wine by their flavors, aromas, body and acidity (a few more attributes exist for wine, like alcohol). Wine has around 200 recognized flavor compounds, while coffee has nearly 500. Tasting coffee for purchasing and quality control is called cupping, and certified Q Graders are akin to top sommeliers.
Other flavor influences
Roasting coffee is akin to the influence of a wine’s barrel aging. A winemaker that ages Pinot Noir in a heavily charred barrel for 24 months sacrifices bright fruit for smoky, toasty, vanilla notes. The latest term in oak usage is “judicious,” recognizing when barrel aging enhances and supports a wine, but doesn’t smother it. Coffee that’s roasted judiciously highlights unique flavors. For a long time, consumers wanted “strong” and “bold” brews, synonyms for dark, oily, heavily charred beans. However, the availability of better coffees has driven the adoption of lighter roast styles and helped change consumer preferences.
The People Behind the Drink
Whether a bottle comes from the cellar of a historic château or a low intervention vineyard, wine drinkers take interest in a producer’s story, we want to connect to the origin and creator of the drink. Coffee also has incredible history, culture and human stories behind it, too. Whether it’s two exporters who fled war-torn Yemen to bring rare beans to a specialty coffee show in the U.S., or the cooperative in Kenya that empowers women by providing critical income, a deeper look at our morning cup reveals a chain of human hands behind it.
An Unfair Reputation for Snobbery
Some consumers complain that hipsters have hijacked the specialty coffee industry. Stories abound of snooty baristas who roll their eyes if a customer requests milk and sugar in a pour over. These complaints are similar to ones long lobbed at the wine industry for thinking too highly of itself for its specialized knowledge.
To be clear, when the faces of the wine or coffee worlds convey haughtiness, it’s a shame. But let’s not penalize an entire industry because of a few who sometimes poorly represent it. And when we do learn, let’s take joy in sharing our enthusiasm, not lord it over one another. The best way to do that? Over a cup of coffee.
Last Updated: May 4, 2023