By LETTIE TEAGUE
As wine has become more accessible in recent years, coffee has moved further into niche territory. To find out if the once-simple cup of joe has surpassed its vinous sister, Lettie Teague hosted a tasting matchup in Seattle
WINE IS COMPLICATED. Or so most oenophiles are taught to believe. And yet wine has become more and more accessible over the years, thanks in part to the 100-point scoring system that allows wine drinkers to buy by the numbers—not to mention all those “Dummies” guides. Meanwhile, coffee, the beverage of diners and truck stops, has grown more complicated as specialty coffee purveyors take it to ever more intricate levels of connoisseurship.
Starbucks was the first to introduce a new language to coffee drinkers, including a much more complex way to order a simple cup of joe: Venti, Grande, Tall. Coffee lovers today are expected to know the difference between coffee regions, growers and brewing methods. And whether you make your small-batch Blue Mountain with a pour-over filter or your cup of bulletproof in a Chemex has become an all-important fact. It’s gotten to the point that I’ve begun to wonder if coffee has become even more complicated than wine.
To find out, I asked a wine expert and a coffee expert to join me for a tasting and talk last month in Seattle, where American coffee culture and Starbucks were both born. I met Erik Liedholm, wine director of Seattle’s John Howie Restaurant Group, and Andrew Linnemann, Starbucks vice president of global procurement, in a glass-walled, aroma-free room at Starbucks’ headquarters. (The smell of coffee is unsurprisingly pervasive in the building.)
Mr. Liedholm brought along three wines, all from great producers, for his part in the show-and-tell: the 2010 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru, 2012 Emmerich Knoll Vinothekfullung Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Wachau and 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett. Mr. Linnemann contributed the Starbucks House Blend and two small-production coffees from some of the company’s best growers: Paradeisi and Ethiopia Bitta Farm.
Mr. Linnemann tastes, or “cups” as they say in the coffee trade, between 200 and 400 coffees each day between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Mr. Liedholm’s sampling is a comparatively modest 70 or so wines a week, although he noted that the number can be larger if he attends a trade tasting or wine event. Both men spit while tasting, of course.
The two soon discovered that they employed many of the same tasting terms, too. “We’ll talk about aroma and complexity and body and flavor,” said Mr. Liedholm. He generally advises his staff to eschew excessive adjectives or too much talk about fruit, lest they sound pretentious or silly. If someone “pulled out something like ‘brambleberry,’ we’d double over and laugh,” he said. Mr. Linnemann replied that his team talks about “the mouth feel and if [the coffee is] bright, clean or balanced.” He didn’t mention laughing—perhaps because coffee is a beverage of sobriety rather than mirth?
He acknowledged, however, that few nonprofessional drinkers actually talked about coffee the way he did. Instead, a regular consumer might speak of brewing methods or regions, he said. By contrast, among amateur wine drinkers, tasting terms like “structure” and “tannins” have become commonplace—even if the tasters don’t always know what the words mean.
We started our tasting with wine as the smell of brewed coffee is so strong. I thought it would be fun to have Starbucks’ Mr. Linnemann offer his impressions first. We began with the 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett. “It has some thickness to it. Some floral notes, some sweetness,” Mr. Linnemann said. “It has good balance.” If I hadn’t been watching him taste, I wouldn’t have known if he was talking about coffee or wine. Mr. Liedholm, who’s also a “certified coffee sommelier,” remarked at the coincidence that beginning wine drinkers and coffee tyros both start out with sweet drinks like Moscato and Frappuccinos. He wondered if Mr. Linnemann was bothered by coffee drinkers who favored such stuff. The 22-year Starbucks veteran said he wasn’t—although he wished more people appreciated “what it took to get a coffee from a mountaintop to a countertop.” It was a wistful echo of every sommelier I know who is frustrated by drinkers devoted to cheap Moscato.
The second wine, a golden-hued Grüner Veltliner, prompted a discussion of color. Wine seemed to be more complex than coffee in this regard. As Mr. Liedholm noted, a great deal of information can be found just by looking at a glass of wine—from its age to whether it had been aged in barrels. The color of a coffee is mostly a matter of brew strength, said Mr. Linnemann.
Confessing he found the Grüner “hard to describe,” Mr. Linnemann asked Mr. Liedholm what he would pair it with. “A sunny day, a rainy day,” Mr. Liedholm replied breezily before adding a bit more practically, “It would be great with a poached piece of fish.” Pairing wine with food is one of the biggest challenges that sommeliers face—and a problem that baristas rarely have to deal with beyond, perhaps, choosing between a muffin and a croissant.
Mr. Linnemann was quick to find adjectives for the Chambolle-Musigny, the last wine we tasted. Describing it as redolent of “blackberry and leather,” Mr. Linnemann sounded more and more like a sommelier (albeit one a bit too free with the fruit descriptors). Mr. Liedholm, meanwhile, noted its intense aromatics, voluptuous texture and great youth; it still had many years to unwind—something that couldn’t be said of a coffee bean.
Now it was Mr. Linnemann’s turn to offer up coffees for tasting. He served the Ethiopian blend first, explaining that Ethiopia was the birthplace of coffee and that its beans are known for their fruitiness. “When I think of Ethiopian coffees, I think about sweetness,” he said. Mr. Liedholm wondered if the coffee source predicated the roast. (In the world of wine, different grape varieties may be treated differently in the winery.) “We let the coffee tell us,” Mr. Linnemann intoned, sounding a lot like winemakers who like to claim that their wines are “made in the vineyard.”
The second coffee, the Paradeisi, named after a seaside Greek town, was a blend of Nicaraguan, Costa Rican and Ugandan beans. Mr. Linnemann said that each region contributed a slightly different note: “The body of Nicaragua El Suyatal, the bright acidity of Uganda Sipi Falls and the crisp citrus notes of Costa Rica la Candelilla,” as the tasting card read. Mr. Liedholm found it “very floral, with a Bergamot note.”
He liked it much more than the final coffee we tasted. The Starbucks House Blend was created in 1971 and has pretty much stayed the same ever since. Mr. Liedholm said it was “as subtle as a brick,” but he acknowledged the difficulty of producing a consistent blend and related his own experience of making a nonvintage Champagne for his restaurant.Nonvintage Champagne is one of the most challenging wines to produce, as it requires a Champagne house to create a wine that will taste the same from year to year using multiple blends of multiple vintages.
Our tasting session revealed more than a few similarities between coffee and wine: the way they are made, the way that specific places are evoked, and the pretentious talk that they sometimes inspire. In fact, aside from the fact that one is served cold and one is (almost always) served hot, sometimes it was hard to tell the descriptions of the two apart. I might give wine the edge in complexity, since coffee doesn’t have grand cru vineyards, first-growth estates or vintage charts. But on that day in Seattle, I’d say it was a draw.
Originally posted in The Wall Street Journal