Coffee & Wine

They have more in common than you might think.

Cherries Jubilee: As coffee fruit ripens, it turns red, though some varietals turn yellow when ripe. With coffee, it's never simple.

You’ve picked up on the language overlap, the rapturous “hints of ripe fruit,” “chocolatey notes,” body types from light to full and aromas from floral to earthy. Next step in mapping the parallel universes of wine and coffee is discovering varietals. Just as wine grapes like cabernet sauvignon, malbec and pinot noir have their individual characteristics but belong to one species (Vitis vinifera), Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta each have their distinctive varietals. Hundreds of them, in fact.

Examining only Arabica, there are heirlooms, like bourbon (pronounced boor-BONE) and typica; hybrids, like catuai, developed in Brazil in the 1940s; and natural mutations like caturra, an offshoot of bourbon found in Brazil in 1935. The higher you climb in coffee connoisseurship, the more you will be drinking (and paying for) not just single-origin coffees but single varietals.

“Each coffee farm is like going to a winery, where they could be growing multiple varietals,” says Coffee Afficionado CEO Adam Bossie. “We buy the entire crop of the La Suiza farm in Colombia. They produce four different varietals: bourbon, colombia, castillo and typica.” Coffee Afficionado sells La Suiza Colombia for $17.95 a 12-ounce bag. Its website describes the coffee as having, “Dry aromas of gingerbread and cocoa on the nose with hints of hazelnut.”

Perhaps the most surprising parallel between coffee and wine (beer and chocolate, too) is that they all involve fermentation. The difference between the beverages is that instead of using fermentation to turn sugar into alcohol, coffee farmers use it to separate the seeds of the coffee fruit from the slimy “mucilage” coating it. The harvested ripe “cherries” are first put through a mill that strips off the red skin and pulp. The slimy seeds are then dumped into concrete pools (called tanks) filled with water. “In some cases,” Bossie explains, “we add orange juice or cola to jump-start the fermentation process. In 18 to 48 hours, the mucilage dissolves and the seeds are spread out on huge concrete patios to dry. That’s the traditional wash process.”

You begin to understand the complexity of coffee when you discover that there are several wash processes. In Costa Rica, where restrictions on water use went into effect in 1992, growers developed a process that uses much less water. Then there is what’s called “natural process,” prevalent in Brazil and Sumatra. Whole cherries are spread on raised patios and left to dry and ferment in the sun for up to a month. Then they are mechanically depulped.

Growers in different regions use different processes and combinations of processes, each imparting specific flavors. Consider, too, that a single plantation can have many microclimates. Plants in different microclimates might reach maturity in different seasons and produce different flavors.

The variables multiply exponentially: Many varietals; many variations in soil and climate, from regional to micro; many ways of processing. All these elements come into play before the beans are even exported. Then roasters get their hands on the coffee, and they have different philosophies of roasting. Factor in a range of brewing methods and the permutations grow dizzying. And you thought coffee was coffee.

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