Compound drinking: Wine and coffee
Unpacking the flavour world of coffee.
Wednesday 10 November 2021
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“What’s the filter today?”
“You tell me.”
“I don’t know!”
“Well, what does it taste like?”
“Get out! Is it fruity or is it more chocolatey?”
“I thought you were supposed to have some form of superpalate?”
“Okay, okay lemme try again. Fruit, right? Okay… Peach?”
“...and sour cherry?”
Two months ago I started working in speciality coffee. Two months ago I became aware I was not the taster I thought I was.
I’ve been working with wine for some time now. To me, wine can taste of the sharp, blasphemous sweetness of pineapple on a pizza; of dusting icing sugar on top of a victoria sponge and of fat green olives nestling in a martini glass. To taste wine is to be greeted with who I am that day and to be connected with those whom I am drinking with too.
But coffee... Coffee so far just tastes like coffee. And that frustrates me.
Will Davies of Mec Coffee in Cardiff reassures me when I tell him of my frustrations.
“I think wine is quite immediate and coffee is a bit more like whiskey or beer,” he says. “You need to acclimatise your palate to it.”
Mec Coffee is currently operating as a pop-up in a wine bar, Bulles, my favourite in the city. Will visits wine on his foundation of coffee, the mirror image of how I am approaching my new role. As a result I find conversations with Will as comforting as they are fascinating.
“If I served you a coffee and said ‘I’m getting blueberry, with a toffee-like texture’ you, or someone else, might sip it and tell me ‘it tastes like coffee’,” continues Will.
“Whereas most people that try a really jammy, young Beaujolais would be like, ‘yes, that does
taste like Ribena!’ So I think wine is easier in that sense. I think coffee does taste like coffee, but you have to tune into that palate more to find what else is there.”
So what would tuning into a coffee palate look like? What affects the way coffee tastes?
One of the most crucial aspects in a wine’s taste is its terroir. In theory, a good wine should taste of where it comes from, to the point where some sommeliers may take it upon themselves to lick the ground in order to get a true sense of place. Couldn’t be me.
Thankfully, terroir can be applied to all products of agriculture, so as a starting point to tasting coffee this is something I’m familiar with at least.
Sam Thomas is the Head Roaster at Hard Lines in Cardiff, and my colleague. His role is adjacent to that of a winemaker if you’re approaching it from my brain — which I am. I’m intrigued as to how much a coffee’s heritage affects the decisions he makes.
“Just as in wine, a coffee’s terroir, along with the species and varietal or cultivar of the coffee tree, are what gives a coffee its inherent flavour characteristics,” he tells me.
“It’s fairly easy to be able to accurately describe Colombian coffees in one way and Ethiopians in another.”
Sam also explains that terroir isn’t the only thing that informs his roast approach.
“Factors such as altitude, varietal (therefore size and density of the bean) and the given fermentation process a coffee goes through, along with the desired brewing approach, that will determine how I roast a coffee. We essentially work backwards from the beverage or brew method — for example espresso or filter — determining the roast approach we will take and finding a coffee that fits.”
Perhaps part of tuning into a coffee’s palate is appreciating the sheer complexity of its supply chain.
Let’s try an example. With a glass of theoretical Pinot Gris (skin contact, if you please), grapes are grown, picked and taken to their maker. It is the winemaker’s job to tune into where the grapes have come from and where the wine is ultimately going, and decide what story it will tell when it gets there. While many can choose a wine, there are none that can take ownership of a wine in the same way a winemaker does.
Coffee has many owners, I have found. There are those that grow the coffee, then those who roast it, closely followed by those who brew it and ultimately, the choices a person makes when they order it.
Because here’s the thing: I have very little control over what a wine tastes like. There are minimal ways I can ruin a wine for a customer. I can serve it too cold, or not cold enough. I can forget to perform due diligence and serve a wine that is too faulty to drink. I can make a bad recommendation. Perhaps my hands will shake when I pour the bottle because the person I am serving is attractive and kind to dogs. None of these invoke the end of the world; all are redeemable.
While I have no control over how a wine tastes, baristas have an ownership of their finished product that I am unfamiliar with. It makes me wonder why on earth sommeliers are held in such high regard when all we do, really, is pour.
“That’s the thing with coffee, it’s just a really nice thing and you’re trying not to ruin it I guess,” Will tells me, when I ask him about how he’s finding serving wine in comparison to making coffee.
“The thing itself is already really great and I guess that is a parallel to wine, but instead of serving it at the right temperature and decanting it at the right time you have to grind it correctly, use the right water, brew it at the right temperature…”
To add anything to wine, be it ice or some form of mixer, is, as far as most wine professionals are concerned, to face God and to walk backwards into hell. The combinations in which a coffee can be served alongside milk and water, as well as various temperatures and textures are too much for me to comprehend. How would you even go about creating a product that could be drunk in so many different ways?
“Additives are great!” Sam surprisingly exclaims.
“They allow us to create unique and delicious flavours to serve and get excited about. We can start with one coffee and serve it in as many ways as our creativity allows us to – what’s not to like about that?”
“Unlike wine whereby the product is completely finished by the time the consumer gets it, coffee is still undergoing ‘processes’ right up until the cup is in front of the consumer - mad right? So in serving a coffee, we ask ourselves questions like ‘What can we pair with or add to this bright and juicy Kenyan to create a nice summer drink that will enhance its inherent flavours but also create a new flavour experience?’”
Coffee is still undergoing ‘processes’ right up until the cup is in front of the consumer
I cannot tell you how much I have dragged my heels writing this. I re-watched Season Three of The Office (US) instead of writing this. I planned an outfit for a date I haven’t been asked on instead of writing this. I thought really long and hard about hoovering my flat (before ultimately deciding against it) instead of writing this – all because I’m not as sure about coffee as I am about wine, and uncertainty breeds discomfort. This procrastination reminds me of something Will said when I asked what the biggest difference between working with wine and coffee was, to him:
“It’s the simplicity of the chain, and the sheer expectation of what you’re supposed to know when you talk about wine.”
But isn’t that where the joy comes from? Life would be dull if all knowledge were innate after all. I may not know much now but I will do, as long as I keep tuning in, and in the meantime I can greet those who carry a matched uncertainty with empathy. Oh, you’re not sure about this drink either? Neither am I. Let’s stumble through discovery together, curiosity looks good on us I think.
I made my own coffee this morning. It tasted like coffee at first, but after a deep exhale and another sip I got a faint whiff of parma violets and a tang reminiscent of honeydew melon. I took another sip, another deep breath in, head tilted towards the sun. I’ll get there.
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