Coffee vs Wine: Why the Student must become the Master

Monday, 29 November, 2021

Words by Jono Le Feuvre (@han_drinks_solo)

In 1974, in an issue of the Tea & Coffee journal, journalist Erna Knutzen formally defined a term that would change the face of coffee forever: Specialty Coffee. She defined this term to talk about coffees that were (1) of the highest level of quality, separate from commodity grade coffee, and (2) in possession of very distinct flavour profiles, defined largely by their terroir. Just. Like. Wine.
This modest little piece, published in an even more modest trade journal would unleash a veritable tsunami of articles and videos, and marketing pieces over the next 40 years, all repeating what has become a very tired trope:

"Hey coffee lovers, you should know that coffee is just like wine" 

As someone who has spent almost 12 years in the specialty coffee industry, I have used this line more than most, but it was only when I founded a business in the wine industry that I noticed that no one ever uses that comparison in the reverse!
When was the last time you heard someone say, "you know what, guys?! Wine is just like coffee!"


Not ever.

And this is because wine - in all its smug self-sufficiency - is convinced that it'll glean not one single quantum of customer goodwill by comparing itself to coffee. After all, the oldest archeological evidence of winemaking is a massive 8000 years old. Winemaking equipment has been found in every major civilisation across the world from the Persian Empire 5000 years ago, to the Han Dynasty 3000 years ago, to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians. Wine is kind of a big deal. Coffee, by comparison, struggles to reach back even 600 years in its appeal to antiquity. 

So when people say, "Coffee is just like wine," it's almost always squeaked from under a big black veil of perceived inferiority. When a barista, roaster, or cafe owner utters that comprehensively calloused catchphrase, "coffee is just like wine", what they're really saying is, "Please take us seriously." 

So that's exactly what we'll do.

But I'm not proposing that we take coffee seriously simply because "coffee is just like wine." Rather I'm proposing that the coffee industry  - specifically *Specialty* Coffee - should stand tall, and claim a position as leader amongst its peers by embodying three key qualities - relevance, inclusivity, and enthusiasm. Ideally, by the time I'm done, the wine industry will be wishing it was just like coffee. 

Relevance: if coffee is Tesla, wine is...IBM

Specialty Coffee may have started this millennium attracting memes like "the douchebag barista", but 20 years later, the industry's loudest voices are preaching social justice, economic transparency,  new technologies, and new flavours. It has championed environmentally-friendly processing techniques, and has been aggressively pursuing the development of new cultivars to account for climate change. These initiatives are exactly the sort of planet-conscious themes that have gripped the emerging wave of Gen Z consumers. In other words, if Greta Thunberg was a beverage, she'd be Joe.

And the sales data reflects this shift. showed that between 2019 and 2021 wine sales in the United States shrunk, and are predicted (at best) to remain mostly static in 2021. Perhaps equally significantly, the plethora of memes and perpetual digital mockery would imply that Gen Z-ers are utterly unimpressed by the elitist, snooty, white male-dominated aura that the wine industry appears to embrace.

In contrast, coffee beverage sales in developed economies have shown strong growth for almost a decade, and are predicted to grow by at least 6-7% this year in the United States. In short, wine's flailing public image struggles to grip the imagination of the emerging youth, while coffee forges forward. 

Inclusivity & Inequality

At this point, it feels like I need to say that I have no beef with wine (although I do occasionally pair the two). I love wine for all the same reasons I love the magic and alchemy of coffee. I never tire of the way that a small change in a vineyard's soil, or sunlight, or cellar treatment can deliver dramatic swings in flavours and aromas. I get great joy from drinking a moody, green-grass-&-peppers sauvignon blanc alongside a blousy, tropical passion fruit bomb made from the same grape. One can't help but ask, "how can they possibly be so different?"

In the same way, I'm riveted as I listen to San Franciscan hipsters agonise over "the illusion of terroir", mostly because it reminds me of so many coffee conversations I've had over the years:

"Which is a bigger driver of coffee flavour: processing or terroir?"

"At what size does a crop of coffee cease to be "single origin"? 

"What is the maximum altitude range that one can have between low-lying coffee trees and high-lying coffee trees in a single farm, before the term "single origin" loses all meaning?" 

It's all the same nerdy stuff. Because coffee really is like wine. Both industries are a delight to the senses, and both industries inspire the most ridiculous academic pursuits of the abstract. So then why are the outcomes so different? My hunch is that one of the answers lies in another of those Gen Z core values: Inclusivity. 

Whether it is underpaid migrant workers in Burundi, overworked baristas in Cape Town, underrepresented women in management, or overarching cycles of oppression, these debates are the discussions that keep coffee pioneers awake. The ever-pressing drive to include and uplift is a rare and precious asset that Specialty Coffee portrays more than almost any other luxury industry that I can think of. 

It was privilege in my ten years with Rosetta Roastery to engage with companies whose primary goal was the uplifting and development of exploited coffee farmers. Outfits like Trabocca (in their partnership with the Ndaro-Ini Co-operative) and Nordic Approach, with their insistence on an elevated minimum price for the coffees they buy, are precisely the sort of teams that are missing from the wine industry. One might think that the wine industry would have an advantage in their ability to address the inequality between labourers and owners, given that producers and consumers often live in the same region. But it just ain't so. 

By comparison, in the coffee industry, consumers and producers are often separated by thousands of miles...and yet it's the Specialty Coffee industry that is most vocal about addressing those inequalities - no matter how far away they might be.

Enthusiasm: Sometime More is More.

Lastly, part of coffee's strength lies in its unrivalled, child-like, enthusiasm. A few years back I was watching a Youtube video, titled "Exploring Fermentation: Should Coffee be treated like wine?" In this video, Brazilian producer Felipe Croce gave a fascinating presentation on the list of potential benefits of yeast inoculation during the coffee fermentation process. And the possibilities were wild! One could potentially achieve (1) microbial control to prevent fermentation taints, (2) the introduction of attractive flavours through yeast strain modification, (3) the magnification of inherent flavours, and (4) the implicit improved earning potential for coffee farmers around the world. 

The excitement in the room was palpable. But then a wino opened their mouth to declare: 

"But if you add yeast into the mix then your coffee won't be pure." 

In that moment, the wino summed up all the differences between coffee and wine in one statement (which was pretending to be a question). To recap; Felipe (the coffee guy) had just shared potential ways to revolutionise coffee!!!... but Captain Wino was in the corner moaning about purity! Which is a little like watching a magician pull a pristine white rabbit out of a hat, and then complaining that the bunny is the wrong colour.

I think this fascination with the novel, and a 'blue skies' approach to new techniques is perhaps Specialty Coffee's most endearing quality. Coffee farmers, chemists, roasters, and baristas will do anything they can try to make coffee more engaging; more intriguing; more...enjoyable. The result of this collective drive is an undeniable enthusiasm over every little sensory advance, and every successful experiment. The questions that coffee professionals keep asking are "what if...?" and "why not?". And it is precisely these sorts of questions that have allowed coffee professionals to humbly borrow techniques like carbonic maceration from the wine industry, and learn from their processes. The end result of this enthusiasm and ingenuity is not only a better cup, but a warmer heart. 

Fermenting the baby with the bath water

Now, I am very aware that one might read this, and think that the wine industry is full of myopic misanthropes. It's not. In fact, I firmly believe that winemakers and viticulturists have a huge role to play in informing the coffee industry about regenerative farming, the link between agriculture and flavour development, and the merits of mapping cultivars to their ideal soils types and aspect. After all, wine has had more than ten times the history that coffee has had... which means it's had centuries longer to learn from its mistakes. 

BUT my point in all this is that coffee professionals need to know that they can stand up and recognise where their attitudes have become yardsticks and benchmarks that other industries should reference. And sure, we may still need to occasionally reference the familiar world of wine when convincing a new convert that there is more to coffee than Nescafe...but it's only a matter of time before wine will come begging for lessons on how to remain enthused, future-focused, and engaged with a fast approaching generation of thirsty consumers. 

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