What is so common between coffee and wine? Once you get to know these two beverages more, you will be surprised how very similar they are in so many aspects. It is true however that coffee still doesn’t get enough hype as wine does.
As a coffee professional, I like to explain coffee quality and specialty coffee through the dictionary of wine, because I believe we live in a moment where the general public has some notions about the wine world, but knows very little or nothing about the coffee world.
So using known words from the production of wine makes it easier to understand coffee, where it comes from and I don’t mean the coffee brand. I mean the origin, the terroir, the farm, the variety, just like you would with a good bottle of wine.
Firstly, there are two different coffee species – Coffea arabica (the more delicate one, more prized and expensive) and Coffea canephora, also known as robusta – more robust (the reason for its commercial naming), more intense, harsh and bitter.
In this article I want to outline some characteristics of specialty coffee, a product with traceability and a superior flavour quality, so I’ll be referring only to arabica from this point onward.
This is a fundamental aspect when we speak about wine, because the precursors of aroma and flavour in each grape variety are quite different.
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc might both be white grapes, but we know that they present different aroma characteristics no matter how they will be fermented and aged. The first will be slightly more buttery or maybe lightly fruity, the later might present some herbal aromas and the typical cassis flavour. Some varieties have thicker or thinner skins, this might determine the climate where the grapes can grow best, but mostly it tells you about a possible taste profile you could expect as a consumer.
This famous French word nowadays is used by most other languages as well. What does it really mean? Territory? Yes, but that is actually a part of it. We use this word to describe the following aspects as one:
- Soil properties
We can plant the same variety of a vine or coffee plant in different terroirs, and because of the change of temperature, humidity, soil, tradition of cultivation and processing, we will get two very different products.
We never speak about the wine of France in general or the wine of Europe in general, if it is fruity or citric, because it is impossible. There are too many variables, different climates, different varieties and traditions. That is why also coffee has specific differences depending on where it comes from. It is too generic to say coffee from Brazil, because it is as big as Europe.
These are still quite large distances we are talking about in Brazil, but terroir is defined also by microclimate. What is a microclimate? Climate is a more wider understood term, such as, Latvia has a cooler climate in general comparing it to that of Spain. If we are speaking about the microclimate, we understand that my vineyard on the hilltop will be different in its humidity, temperature etc. versus my neighbour’s vineyard just 500m away at a slightly lower altitude. This means that, even if we use the same varieties and same cultivation techniques, the outcome will be different.
Fermentation and processing
In order for us to have alcohol in wine, we need to ferment the grapes. In order for us to get the coffee bean out of the fruit and develop aromas, we also need to ferment the beans to break down or to get rid of the coffee fruit pulp.
Washed coffees like white wine will have the skin removed. The bean with the pulp will be put in water tanks to ferment until the pulp and mucilage disintegrate with the help of microorganisms (like yeasts, or bacteria) and the bean will be ready to dry. This method will produce higher acidity, more citrusy and floral aromas.
Natural coffee can be something similar to red wine, because we will leave the cherry fruit skin on. We will not break it like in wine production, we will just leave it intact and dry the fruit directly under the sun on special patios. This process will also undergo some fermentation and some enzymatic processes until the fruit is completely dry and hard. The outer layer is then broken off to reveal the coffee bean. This process gives more body to the coffee, it can sometimes produce more intense wine-like flavours. Chocolate, dried fruit and tropical fruit are also typical.
Honey process is a mix of the two previous methods. The fruit skin will be taken off like for washed coffee, but then the bean with the pulp will be put out under the sun to dry. This will create some fermentation and oxidation for the exposed pulp, and will creare some sweet honey-like characteristics.
Basically what you need to know is that in different methods, different microorganisms will do their part to obtain different sensory characteristics for the final product.
So this is a different stage than what wine goes through, but let’s pretend its something like ageing, that will define the style of the wine. We might leave it only for a while in stainless steel tanks and then bottle it, because we want to keep it fresh and mineral for a white wine, for example, or we can age it in barrels and give it a completely different, more mature character.
Coffee can be roasted light or dark, but it really is an art, because different machinery can be used, and different application of heat can be done. You can roast a coffee to the same final color in 180 seconds with high heat, or we can roast it in 13 minutes applying gentle heat. Of course this will change the aromatic and flavour compounds for the final product.
I do advise not to look for too darkly roasted coffee, as you will lose all the previously mentioned carefully formed aromas and flavours.
The key to finding certain flavours in coffee as you would in wine, delicate floral notes like jasmine, or some red fruit like raspberry, is to pay attention from where the coffee has come from, preferably a single origin, single terroir, farm and producer or just a smaller area of production. And pay good attention to the roast. Coffee shouldn’t be oily on the outside. If it is, it means it has been roasted for way too long until the cells have disintegrated and oil has started leaching outside. This will make coffee oxidise and go rancid much faster and all the delicate aromas will have long been lost and destroyed.
SERVICE OR EXTRACTION
Wine is quite different in this aspect, as the producer has already put it in the bottle as he intended for you to try it ,you just need to make sure your bottle has been correctly conserved, you need to know how to open the bottle and serve it at a correct temperature in an appropriate glass.
Coffee is quite different and much more complicated, because you need to decide what extraction you will use and what you will have to do to prepare it correctly.
The preparations are all quite different, it might be French press as infusion, a filter coffee as a drip coffee method using gravity for the water to pass through the coffee grounds or we can use an espresso machine that pushes the water through coffee at 9 bars of pressure. The results will be very different.
In order to enjoy all the magnificent flavours created by all the previously mentioned aspects, you need:
- to use clean water without odours, that will not be to hard (it will make your coffee taste bitter) or too soft (it will extract too much and will be harsh);
- use the correct water temperature, never over 95 degrees, but I always advise to stay close to 90-93 degrees Celsius;
- use the correct grind size for your extraction method – coarse for French press, medium for filter, medium to fine for moka pot, fine for espresso;
- use the correct recipe. For filter and French press preparations it is best to use 6g of coffee per 100g water, for espresso single porta filter (with one nozzle) 9g for 18g water, and for the double porta filter, you will use 18g coffee for 36g water approximately. It depends on your taste and what you want to accentuate in the final cup
Do you really need to use a recipe?
Well, yes. Once you understand what coffee really needs to taste like, it has to be sweet and aromatic, not astringent or heavy or bitter, you will appreciate the importance of a correct recipe. It’s like cooking, you can bake potatoes without any salt and they will have no flavour, you can bake them with 50g of salt and they will be inedible, but when the salt is just right, baked potatoes can be one of the tastiest things.
Enjoy good coffee just like you would enjoy a good glass of wine!