What we can learn about coffee through wine
For many people who work in the world of coffee, the wine industry is a familiar topic of conversation. Often, the discussion is about how coffee can be positioned more like wine, with the latter’s detailed sensory descriptions, successfully cultivated demand for its product, and devoted customer base willing to pay top dollar.
Exploring these two worlds is the subject of the new 330-page book Coffee and Wine—Two Worlds Compared, released in October 2018 from author Morten Scholer. The book is the first comprehensive study and comparison of wine and coffee, covering how the two beverages are grown, processed, marketed, and consumed, as well as many of the agronomical and climate-related factors affecting the corresponding crops.
Morten Scholer was a senior advisor at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, for 14 years, where he worked directly with coffee producers, exporters, and institutions in coffee-producing countries. After years of hearing comparisons of the coffee industry to the wine industry, he decided to fully explore how the two beverages line up; the resulting book is the product of his research.
We talked to Morten about what the two industries can learn from each other, the power of serendipity, and much more.
World Coffee Research: What’s an example of something that coffee can learn from wine?
Morten Scholer: Keep experimenting. Let me explain.
Take quality, for example. In the book I have listed a few ways in which the quality of coffee can be enhanced‚ in addition to the careful sorting of the beans, of course. One of them is the production of pulp naturals with different levels of mucilage and thereby different honey-sweetness. Another example is steam-cleaning of Robusta.
For wine there are many more ways of enhancing the quality throughout the value chain. In the book I have listed and described 28 techniques—several of them the result of serendipity. They are so-called "happy accidents” where hard-working, inventive, and risk-taking people experimented and then ended up finding something different from what they were looking for. The many techniques in wine cannot be copied in the production of coffee, but the long list shows what can come out of experimenting again and again. Several of the quantum leaps wine has undergone over hundreds of years are the result of serendipity—for example, the many methods of trellising and training, and the production of sparkling wine and ice-wine.
So when you look at something like WCR’s International Multilocation Variety Trial, which is planting 31 Arabica varieties in more than 20 countries, this is a great initiative with the objective of seeing what grows best where. I am sure there will also be spill-over experiences that we cannot even imagine at this early stage that will reveal additional learnings. In other words: serendipity. So—keep experimenting.
WCR: What can coffee learn from wine agriculture?
MS: In the production of wine, everything happens in one place: growing of the grapes, harvest, fermentation, aging in barrels, quality control in the laboratory, and eventually bottling and sale (though there are sometimes exceptions).
Coffee is completely different, as the coffee beans are continuously moved around and ownership changes several times between growing, primary processing, export, shipping, importing, roasting, and brewing.
For wine it is a huge advantage that the vintner is involved in everything; they can experiment at all levels and will see the results. The final product can be quality-tested with the staff and other professionals, and the vintner will often know the buyer and sometimes even the end consumer.
We cannot change the long chain in coffee, but we can do one thing that I have also been involved with myself in a couple of countries: We can arrange more cuppings with farmers and discuss quality issues with them. I know this is already happening in many instances, but its still not commonplace. Most farmers never see or taste their brewed coffee—they just produce the cherries or the beans. Having more small quality laboratories and cupping facilities in remote areas will demystify many things for smallholders. They will get a better understanding of what happens with the coffee when it leaves their farm and why they may need to adapt some of their routines.
WCR: Coffee is often presented as aspiring to be more like wine. Are there ways in which coffee is “better off” than wine?
MS: It was around 2004 that I began more systematically to compare coffee and wine. What triggered my interest was that I noticed that the coffee community often looks up to the wine sector with admiration and a bit of envy.
People at all levels in coffee are impressed by the long history of wine, the prestige, the terminology used in sensory descriptions, the references to terroir, and not least, the sometimes high prices. But coffee has many good reasons to be proud when compared with wine. Let me mention just a few of them:
Every day the world consumes 2.5 billion cups of coffee but (only) half a million glasses of wine. That’s a ratio of 5-to-1 in favor of coffee.
The yield is much higher for coffee than for wine. On one hectare of land (2 1/2 acres), you can annually produce coffee for around 100,000 cups, whereas you’ll only get 40,000 glasses of wine. So, a ratio of 2.5-to-1 on yield.
The CO2 emission from growing, producing, transporting, and brewing a cup of coffee is around 60 grams, whereas it is around 240 grams for a glass of wine. Sources differ, so I am only talking about magnitudes, and if you add milk and sugar to your coffee, the difference is smaller or might even be gone.
The coffee sector has managed to set up some global standards for sustainability—primarily Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance (now merged with UTZ), and the Global Coffee Platform with its 4C Code. Almost all the standards for wine are national, and the countries have themselves decided how high to set the bar for the many criteria. It is impressive what the coffee community has achieved when you look at the obstacles: The standards are truly global, so many more people have to agree on the terms; the many partners in the coffee value chain all have to be certified and they are far away from each other; and many of the participants (smallholders in particular) have limited access to information and shorter education than the wine producers and others in the wine business. So, hats off to the entire coffee community for their efforts.
Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared is available from the publisher’s website and at other online booksellers.