Coffee and Wine Have Common Ground

July 19, 2012

Coffee and wine are two things I have deep love for, and enjoy daily. Though normally I don't have wine at breakfast. (Unless it's Moscato d'Asti--the ultimate breakfast wine --and I have the rest of the day off.) And for something I enjoy daily, I really haven't delved in deeply to the world of coffee. This had to change. Luckily, living in Seattle, I am surrounded (if not inundated) with coffee history, lore, and innovation. So I was excited to get the chance to visit Fonté Micro Coffee Roaster, south of downtown in the Georgetown neighborhood. I was really struck by the parallels between how we talk about, appreciate, and enjoy coffee and wine.

I had the great fortune to spend time with Owner Paul Odom  and Master Roaster and Vice President of Coffee, Steve Smith. (I can't decide which title is cooler: Master Roaster or Vice President of Coffee. Together they are pretty awesome.) Along with Sheri Wetherell, Co-founder and CEO of Foodista, we peppered Paul and Steve with questions. Listening to Paul and Steve talk, I was constantly thinking how every time one of them said "coffee" I could replace it with "wine" and it would make sense.

coffee cupppingWe talked about pairing coffee and chocolate. Steve said that you need a coffee that makes "a bold statement" that won't be overwhelmed or you can choose something contrasting, like a clean, acidic coffee to cut through the richness of, say, a chocolate torte. This compliment/contrast idea of pairing is a basic tenet of linking food and wine.

I also asked Steve if the world of coffee there is something akin to the concept of "terroir" in wine. (Terroir is the idea that a wine demonstrates a sense of place based on the environment where the grapes are grown.) He said most definitely, that different coffees have a distinct flavor influenced by their place of origin. When we spoke about coffee from very specific and small sites, it reminded me a lot of talking about wines that come from a single vineyard and how that site becomes recognized as distinct or exceptional.

coffee cuppingOne thing I was not excited about was finding out that coffee is starting to be scored on a scale like wine. Though not as ubiquitous commercially as the 100-point scale in wine, I wonder how long before I see a shelf-talker saying that this coffee got 9.5 out of 10 from Mr. Coffee, or whatever coffee reviewer will be considered the cream of the crop. Steve is not a huge fan of a point system, finding the wide variety of subjective opinions on different coffees to be part of the charm of the industry. He does, however, see utility with the protocols of scoring coffee. For me, the cupping form pictured did shed light on the complexity of coffee, and how rigorously it is evaluated. This makes wine judging look like a walk in the park!

Luckily, my cupping experience was much more low-key. The slurping and spitting of coffee is done in a manner similar to wine tasting, though for coffee you taste from a spoon and violently slurp the contents into your mouth. (I should try this wine at a tasting and see what kind of looks I get.)

cupping coffeeSteve (pictured) is as passionate about how coffee is grown as he is about how its brewed. Please do not mention blade grinders in his presence. I learned that they are really not grinders, but choppers. As Steve simply puts it, "If you get a blade grinder, you're off my Christmas list." Don't skimp on the grinder! Invest in a good burr grinder.

When I talked about the symmetry between wine and coffee, Steve pointed out that, as a beverage, coffee is a lot younger than wine. He said (half-jokingly) that coffee people "walk around with a chip on our shoulder." If that's the case, I encourage that attitude if it continues to drive people like Steve and Paul to share their passion for coffee, and convert people to its vibrant, exciting, and complex world. One cup(ping) at a time.

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Comments

Warren Bobrow's picture

Really nicely written and researched article. Not only did I learn something, but I got thirsty about one sentence into the piece!
Cheers! wb

Jameson Fink's picture

Thank you, Warren. Very gratifying to get a tip of the hat from someone whose writing you greatly admire.

Cheers,

Jameson

Warren Bobrow's picture

Really nicely written and researched article. Not only did I learn something, but I got thirsty about one sentence into the piece!
Cheers! wb

Rhea's picture

Would you be able to tell what all coffees you tried at Fonte? I really want to like Fonte but they have tendency of over roasting a coffee. Dark doesn't always mean good. From your article it seems they understand that coffees differ according to regions and how they were processed. I recently had tried their Ethiopian Tchembe and was thoroughly disappointed. Ethiopian Tchembe beans are rare to find and as precious as Harar. But I tried not once but twice a pound of Fonte's Tchemebe (different batches) and it was a let down. I am told that they prefer Dark Italian roasts. African coffees are ruined by dark roasts. I am trying to understand is Steve Smith going the Starbucks way?
PS: I asked this question of Fonte's FB page and never got a response.

Jameson Fink's picture

Rhea,

I didn't taste any over-roasted coffees; everything I tried was well-balanced. (Of course, this was my first coffee cupping; I'm by no means an expert.) I'll forward your comments along to Fonte regarding the Ethiopian coffees you tried and their roasting techniques.

Jameson

Jameson Fink's picture

Rhea,

Here is a response from Steve regarding your questions and concerns:

"I was sorry to hear that you found our coffees, and in particular the Ethiopia Tchembe, to be disappointing. At the same time I can assure you that these coffees have been selected and roasted with intention, and have shown themselves through a program of continuous quality assurance cupping to be presenting the profile in the cup that we had hoped for.

As you know everything in specialty coffee comes down to the cup. We can for example look at the geography, physical appearance and roast intonation of a given coffee and bring some assumptions to the cup based on previous experience and knowledge, but these ideas must ultimately yield to the actual taste sensations presented by the cup itself. It is also true that a given coffee holds within it the potential for several valid interpretations of flavor profile as developed by the roasting and brewing of that coffee. Once we have established a responsible sourcing of a coffee and a careful, considerate development of that coffee in the roaster we are then left with personal preference as a determiner of what we choose to drink.

In the arena of personal preference then one coffee drinker may gravitate towards a lighter touch in the development of East African coffees, appreciating the complex interplay of brighter acidity and fruity aroma, another drinker might prefer a fuller development of the same bean that presented a heavier body and sweeter finish. Neither of these approaches could be characterized as “right” or “wrong” per se, but rather are two different expressions reflecting two different intentions.

Finally as a side bar to thinking about the merits of various roast intonations I think it’s useful to not encourage an unfounded contentiousness in discussions on this topic. The color of a roasted coffee bean is not a definitive measure of its flavor or quality. Unfortunately that assumption has occasionally been employed in a continuing mock battle of the Specialty Coffee generations. As Jameson mentioned in his article I believe that the wide ranging, firmly held differences of opinion about coffee in the specialty community to be a healthy part of the ongoing exploration of coffee, and to afford us diversity in the cup I’d be sad to lose."

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