Wine and coffee cultures

Wine and coffee cultures

1 April 2014

Wine culture (viticulture) is much older than coffee culture. The first written record of the cultivation of grapes to produce wine concerns Noah of the Ark fame. This is reputed to be about 2500 BC, or about half a millennium before Abraham. That's a long time ago, whichever way you look at it. The myth about Kaldi the goatherd seeing his goats consume coffee berries is at best about 1000 AD, which is still a long time ago. But the reality is that viticulture is a lot older than coffee culture: about three and a half millennia older!

If you consider that espresso-based coffee, the style that currently dominates in Australia and New Zealand, really only came into mainstream culture with the advent of the E61 Faema espresso machine in the 1960s, we have a coffee culture which is only just over a half a century old. This is actually a very new culture. And it shows.

For instance, the idea in the wine world that you would advertise a wine list as one house-blend wine plus a few single origins is laughable. In fact, the whole notion of 'single origin' in wine culture would be considered Neanderthal, and consequently it isn't even referred to. Imagine a wine list that identified the wines as American California, Australian Barossa, or just Chile or South Africa. Wine consumers are sufficiently educated enough now to demand much more information regarding harvesting, processing, storage and cellaring, estates and individual wine-maker personalities and preferences.

Ordinary wine consumers refer to varietals: malbec, shiraz/syrah, pinot noir, traminer reisling, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and so on. Consumers can readily picture a flavour profile given the warm or cold climate that the fruit has been grown in, for instance. But this is also a relatively new feature for the wine industry, at least in Australia. In the 1960s, popular wine styles were claret, moselle and champagne. But it was very limited even then. So there is cause for some hope that coffee consumers and their palates will become more educated.

At least the specialty coffee industry is now talking about varietals a little more. That being said, there are problems clearly identifying these differences on a regular basis due to the vagaries and variability of transport, storage and especially roast technicalities.

Roasting is still very much a wild, black art and unfortunately there are very few industry standards. For instance, bean roast levels are evaluated according to exterior appearance, which would be like a chef judging a well-done versus a rare steak by only looking at the outside of the char-grilled piece of meat. The real flavour is determined by what happens inside the steak. The same thing applies with coffee beans. This is still very confusing, even for experienced coffee professionals, let alone the unsuspecting coffee public.

When someone refers to a Melbourne light roast, and doesn't have any objective reference, let alone a taste one, for an Agtron 80 versus 70 internal bean roast point, discussion is often just reduced to disparaging alternatives. I recently heard: "Oh that's darker than a Melbourne roast" as if it was defective, when in actual fact it had a very rich deep flavour. This is evidence of a relatively young and immature coffee culture.

Unfortunately, too few coffee roasters invest in the kind of standard scientific equipment like a spectrophotometer which enables pinpoint consistency of target roast and flavour profiles. It is hard to imagine a credible winery that could survive without considerable investment in quality assurance and climate control equipment.

It is only just recently that chefs have at long last taken coffee somewhat seriously, whereas they have always taken their wine seriously. Albeit when it comes to coffee, it is often more a matter of a customer following a prominent brand where they don't have to spend too much time coming to grips with its complexity, and where they just trust they won't be embarrassed.

A true specialty coffee menu though, is very hard, if not impossible to manage in an effective way in a restaurant. How do you list even half a dozen unique estate coffees and do them all justice given the small amounts sold? How do you keep them from going stale and use them all within a week or two? Wine, which can keep for years if cellared properly, lends itself much more easily to an extensive credible offering list.

Nespresso, for instance, has a menu of different coffee styles and blends, and the coffee capsules keep much better than many poorly packaged specialty coffees that don't employ even simple oxygen-free packaging.

Tasting coffee's ephemeral elements can be much more elusive than tasting wines. Certainly wine and coffee seem to share many of the same whacky descriptions on their respective labels. But, just like many younger siblings, the new upstart tries extra hard to be noticed and taken seriously. This is perhaps why coffee tries hard to be like wine.

Which brings us to acidity. Wine and coffee actually share some intrinsic acids. Two of the best known acids are citric (think of lemon juice) and malic (think of green apples). There are many more acids of course like: tartaric acid, which comes from grape skins but is not significant in coffee; or phosphoric acid, which is thought to possibly be responsible for the wonderful and powerful classic Kenya style acidity.

More malic acid is found in Chardonnay grapes grown in Burgundy France than those grown in Napa Valley California, due to the respiration of acids in warmer climates. But more sugars are created by a warm climate. Similar effects are found to occur in coffee fruit. But unlike wine, we coffee makers don't use the fruit of the tree to produce our liquid beverage.

In the coffee world, we in fact throw away the fruit skin and pulp (mucilage), keep the seeds of the plant, cook out the remaining 11 per cent moisture, grind them into sawdust and then rehydrate the newly created flavour compounds embedded in the sawdust. A very weird concept at best!

This is no doubt why terroir is probably far more significant to the intrinsic wine flavour than to coffee. It is possible to manipulate the processing, roasting and brewing processes of coffee to either enhance or restrict the effect of acidity in coffee. And, just as in wine, there are definitely pleasant and unpleasant tasting levels of acidity and sweetness. It is also interesting to note that winemakers manipulate their processes. In Burgundy, for instance, they are permitted to add sugar to their wine production but not acids, whereas in California winemakers are permitted to add acids to their wine production but not sugar.

This is quite different to a coffee roaster, who adds no sugar or acid to his coffee and only manipulates the roast profile to either enhance or tame the intrinsic acidity or develop the intrinsic cocoa/ chocolate character. In both cases this is developing the purely intrinsic character. It is clearly nonsense to insist that the flavour is only intrinsic if it is acidic. As long as there is nothing extra added like winemakers in Burgundy and Napa do. But this of course does not include cafe consumers, the majority of whom do add their own sugar. Mind you, I haven't found a consumer who adds their own acid yet.

Coffee acidity is not linked to altitude per se, as some would like to believe. I have tasted coffee that had screaming acidity and was grown at 234 meters in the Hogarth ranges, Australia in a year when they had a profound cold snap. In contrast, I have also tasted a coffee grown near La Paz Bolivia at about 3500 meters, which had a very refined and elegant acidity, possibly due to the prolonged ripening phase that occurs in this unique estate.

Coffee elitists who say that appreciating the acidity in coffee is the only way to enjoy the drink are another sign of the immaturity of coffee culture. In the more nuanced and mature wine world there is the recognition that while it is pleasant when acidity is in balance with the other factors affecting flavour, acidity can also be unbalanced and unpleasant.

This is not to say that boring wine snobs don't exist. The movie Sideways made wine drinkers look down on anyone who drinks Merlot and helped insecure drinkers feel safe because they were drinking Pinot Noir. There is a snobbery that is common to both coffee and wine consumers that, in the end, is just an inherent part of human fallibility. Having said that, ignore what anyone else says. Have fun and let your taste be your guide!

This article was also published at BeanScene Magazine