What can coffee roasters learn from the wine industry?

Kahwei Yoong
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December 6, 2021
coffee served in a chemex

From flavour descriptors to fermentation techniques, wine and coffee share countless similarities.

While one might contain caffeine and the other alcohol, their industries constantly overlap and borrow from each other in the pursuit of higher quality.

Only recently, Australian barista champion Sasa Sestic introduced a fermented coffee using a technique borrowed from winemaking, known as carbonic maceration.

For many, this demonstrated the benefits of looking beyond their sector and applying tried-and-tested techniques from one industry to make improvements in the other.

And as a culinary appreciation for coffee continues to develop, specialty roasters are increasingly looking to the wine industry for inspiration.

To understand more about how coffee and wine intersect, I spoke with former marketing manager for ONA Coffee, Jordan Montgomery.

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wine tasting
The coffee and wine industries use similar words to describe characteristics

The parallel worlds of coffee and wine

Coffee and wine are agricultural products derived from fruit: coffee from cherries and wine from grapes. Both fruits are found in numerous species and varieties that have an impact on their characteristics.

For example, chardonnay is a variety of wine that tends to display fruity flavours like apple, lemon, and pineapple. Pinot noir, on the other hand, tends to have cherry and raspberry flavour notes.

However, the characteristics of both coffee and wine are also influenced by terroir. Terroir is a term that originated in winemaking and refers to qualities imparted by the environment, including climate, soil, and topography.

Over the years, the term spilled over into the coffee industry to describe a range of influential factors. These encompass not only soil and climate, but also people, processing methods, farming techniques, and infrastructure.

As agricultural goods, both coffee and wine are also equally affected by climate change.

Research shows a 2°C to 4°C increase in global temperature will shrink wine-growing regions by as much as 56% and 85% respectively. For coffee, it’s thought that a similar rise could halve the amount of land available to grow high-quality coffee.

Another parallel that can be drawn between coffee and wine is the tasting process. Coffee is typically evaluated through cupping by certified Q graders who are akin to the sommeliers of the wine industry.

During a tasting, the two industries often adopt a similar vocabulary. Words such as “body”, “acidity”, “fruity”, and “mouthfeel” are commonly used to describe the characteristics of both wine and coffee.

coffee in a chemex
Coffee has a lot to learn from the wine industry

What are the differences?

Despite their similarities, wine and coffee are still two distinctly different products – and their industries diverge in several areas.

Jordan has worked in the coffee industry for years. Among other positions, he was marketing manager at ONA coffee where collaborated with winemakers to explore crossover products.

He tells me that the wine industry is generally more sophisticated than coffee, having had a significant advantage in historical terms.

“Wine is highly regarded around the world and there is a certain level of prestige to it,” he says.

“Using France as an example, you have all these château and wine houses that have been operating for centuries. So there is a level of history and refinement there, whereas with coffee, it is still an ever-developing industry.”

He explains that wine drinkers tend to be more specific in their decision making and possess a fair amount of wine knowledge. The same is not always true for coffee.

“In coffee, it has tended to work the other way,” Jordan says. “People say that they like lattes – but that’s the end drink. It doesn’t say anything about the products that have made the end product.”

“We’re lucky we can learn from what wine has already done.”

This means that more can be done in the coffee industry to cultivate awareness and educate consumers on everything from processing techniques to price differentials.

Wine’s historical advantage also presents an opportunity for the coffee industry to learn from the other’s mistakes, as well as borrowing tried-and-tested techniques.

A good example is the introduction of carbonic maceration to the coffee industry in 2015 by Sasa Sestic. Inspired by winemakers, Sasa brought a carbonic macerated coffee to the world stage – and claimed the title of World Barista Champion as a result.

This spirit of experimentation is undoubtedly influenced by winemaking. And it’s happening more and more to the benefit of the industry as a whole.

“I think coffee is already on the right path,” Jordan says. “We’re lucky we can learn from what wine has already done.”

coffee roasting
As a culinary appreciation for coffee continues to develop, roasters are looking increasingly to wine for inspiration

What can coffee roasters learn from the wine industry?

To help consumers understand the true value of coffee, some cafés and roasters have started to build reserve menus. Restaurants adopted this approach to wine long ago.

“Businesses are investing in more expensive, exclusive and high quality coffee – and offering them as limited release items to elevate quality,” Jordan says.

“It sends a message that not everything served is one level and there is a hierarchy or tier, and I think that is opening people’s minds a bit more to what coffee can be.

“The more we invest in our coffee and in producing countries, the more we are going to be able to do. If we want to serve really good coffee but are not willing to pay for it, then it’s not going to be good because the people who grow it will not have the resources to make it better.”

Much like the wine industry, a diversified coffee menu can make it easier for consumers to understand quality and price differences in coffee.

US-based Press Coffee Roasters has also taken a similar approach for coffees of exceptional quality.

Borrowing a term and sales strategy from the wine industry, the company launched its own “allocation” line for coffees that score 91 and above on the SCA 100-point scale.

Additionally, the way coffee is marketed and communicated to consumers is important. For example, wine labels typically contain details such as producing region, varietal, tasting notes, and food pairing. The same can also be applied to coffee labels to effectively inform and educate consumers.

Stories of producers can also be helpful information – but Jordan highlights a crucial point. 

“Purely telling the story of producers often isn’t enough,” he says. “The story should allow the person who is drinking the coffee to make an association to it by bringing them into the producer’s world.”

Importantly, it should help create a sense of proximity for consumers to feel connected to the people who grew their coffee. It should also promote the partnership between producers and roasters to bring coffee to the table.

compostable coffee bags

To push the coffee industry to greater heights, we have to keep experimenting, learn from what has been done, and continue extolling the benefits of drinking coffee.

At MTPak coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options for specialty coffee roasters. Our coffee bags are made from recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable materials that have minimal environmental impact.

We also have a team of designers who can work closely with you to create packaging that tells the best story and showcases all the unique traits of your coffee.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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What can coffee roasters learn from the wine industry?

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