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March 30, 2015updated 02 Nov 2022 11:05am

Coffee. Actually, not very like wine

In the world of specialty coffee, we often draw parallels with wine when trying to explain the differences in aroma, flavor, and quality that we know are there but that have still to be discovered by many coffee drinkers. As agricultural products used to make beverages, coffee and wine grapes do have quite a few things in common. But the public awareness, perception, and understanding of those similarities, and how they can help consumers choose which coffee to buy, still have a long way to go.

The wine industry has had far more success in educating its consumers about what its product is, explaining why it is special, why there are myriad aromas and flavors, why there are different levels of quality, and why price differences may therefore be valid. The coffee industry is at least 20-30 years behind in this conversation with its customers. And while the comparisons with wine can be a useful way of imbuing coffee with a similar allure and aura of complexity, there are enough differences between the two beverages to limit the wine analogy to an efficient door-opener at best.

The path from the vineyard and winery to consumers is relatively short. The technology used in the wine industry is decades ahead of that used in the coffee industry, while the cultivation of craftsmanship and skill seems centuries ahead. But while the coffee chain can be long and complicated, there is enough in the story of coffee to make it enchanting and fascinating in its own right, with the power to stir the passions of historians, economists, scientists, and gourmands alike.

The plant

Coffee is an evergreen tree that grows in some 70 countries around the world. Coffea species are found growing wild mainly in Madagascar and Africa, as well as in the Mascarenes, the Comoros, Asia, and Australia. The modern way of classifying Coffea is evolving, as scientists discover new species. Nobody knows exactly how many there are, but about 124 species of Coffea have been identified so far-more than twice the number 20 years ago. Twenty of those species have been cataloged only in the past few years, including C ambongensis, with large beans that look like little brains; C richardii, which has the largest cherries; and C toshii, which has the smallest (about 3mm [0.1 inch] in diameter). Many species are critically endangered and severely threatened by climate change.

The two main commercially grown species of coffee are C arabica and C canephora (robusta), representing around 99 percent of production worldwide. Arabica is considered the better tasting of the two and represents 75 percent of the coffee market, while robusta has a more rustic taste profile and is higher yielding and more resistant to pests and diseases.

All photography courtesy of Anette Moldvaer

All photography courtesy of Anette Moldvaer

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Within C arabica there are numerous cultivated varieties. Wine has been ahead of coffee in selling itself by variety for years, but it’s becoming increasingly common to see coffee labeled as Bourbon, Pacamara, Geisha, or SL28-varieties that all carry intrinsic aromas and flavor qualities. Bourbons are soft and sweet; Pacamaras are often herbal and savory; Geishas are delicate and floral; SL28s are intensely aromatic, acidic, and fruity. Just as with wine, the look and taste of these coffees are influenced by the soil, the exposure, rainfall patterns, wind patterns, pests and diseases, and so on. Many of the varieties we think of as quite different are genetically pretty much the same; they have merely acquired different local or regional names in the areas where they have been planted. This makes it nearly impossible to map at all accurately the genetic development of C arabica and C canephora.


The history of how coffee was cultivated, traded, and spread across the world is a story of a world in rapid change. It is a history of religion, slavery, revolution, smuggling, war, poverty, and politics, but also of creativity, development, inspiration, love, and human relationships.

No one knows when or how coffee was first discovered, but even before the seeds were roasted, ground, and brewed, the fruit, leaves, and seeds of the coffee tree were used for their invigorating properties. African herders and hunters would mix green beans with fat and spices, creating their own energy bars for the long periods of time spent away from their homes.

The leaves of the tree and the skin of the fruit could be boiled to create an invigorating, caffeine-rich infusion. In the 1400s, Sufis from the Arabian peninsula in particular acquired a taste for the tea made from coffee cherries, calling it quishr and using it as a means to stay awake during nightly prayers. Coffee was fondly referred to as Arabian wine, and knowledge of its stimulating effects quickly spread. Through its journey to Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, the use of the plant came to center on the infusion that could be made from its roasted and ground seeds.

Records of how arabica, the most widely grown species, spread throughout the world are incomplete and sometimes conflicting. It is generally accepted that of the hundreds, if not thousands, of native varieties in Ethiopia/South Sudan, only one or two were initially taken out of Africa-first to Yemen, and from there to the rest of the world. The varieties came to be named Typica and Bourbon. Some believe that Bourbon did not come out of Africa and that it is, rather, a natural mutation of Typica that took place between 1717 and 1877 on the island of Réunion. The genetic bases for the further spread of these two trees were mostly developed in two different places: Java (Typica) and Réunion (Bourbon). Most of the varieties we talk about today came from natural mutations or cultivated crosses of the two.

This dramatic narrowing of the genetic material from which the majority of coffee trees outside Africa developed is one of the biggest challenges for the future survival of coffee. It leaves the trees highly susceptible to climate change and to new and more resistant diseases. Just as Phylloxera vastatrix devastated the vineyards of Europe in the late 1800s, Hemileia vastatrix wiped out much of the coffee in Sri Lanka and Java around the same time. Only Java managed to resurrect its industry by replanting with hardier, but less flavorsome, species.

Today, we see problems with Hemileia vastatrix rising along with temperatures in Central and South America, attacking trees at farms that would not normally be susceptible.

Being the first to cultivate coffee for trade, the Arabs were very protective of the plant and would boil green coffee seeds before sale to ensure that no one could propagate it elsewhere. But in the early 1600s, a Sufi smuggled seeds from Yemen to India and planted them in Mysore, while a Dutch trader succeeded in smuggling a few seedlings out and planting them in Amsterdam. By the end of the century, the seeds from these trees had been used to plant coffee in several Dutch colonies, particularly in Java-on such a scale that it became synonymous with the beverage itself.

The Caribbean and South American colonies saw coffee planted in the early 1700s. Back in Europe, the French had been gifted some coffee by the Dutch and brought their own coffee seedlings to Haiti, Martinique, and French Guinea. The Dutch planted their coffee in Suriname, and the British brought coffee from Haiti to Jamaica. In 1727, the Portuguese dispatched a naval officer from Brazil to French Guinea to bring back some seeds, but the story goes that he was denied and had to seduce the governor’s wife into smuggling a few seedlings his way for him to bring back. From South America and the Caribbean, coffee spread to Mexico and the Central American countries, and toward the end of the 1800s coffee started being returned to colonies in Africa. Within the space of a few hundred years, coffee had reached around the world, first as a beverage, then as a commodity, spread by religious leaders, missionaries, businessmen, the military, and womanizers.

The cultivation

Coffee takes a long time to cultivate, and every step-from sowing seeds, to export-requires an enormous amount of hands-on work and meticulous care. Unlike vines, arabica is grown from seeds, and germination itself can take between six and eight weeks. Seedlings are delicate and have to be kept in shaded nurseries till they are about eight months old. It can be five years before the first flowering takes place and the first mature cherries can be harvested. Flowers and cherries are sensitive to strong winds and frost, and arabica is generally of better quality if grown under shade or cloud cover. Near the equator, higher altitudes are needed to provide a suitable temperature range, while closer to the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn you can grow good coffee at lower altitudes. The coffee cherry normally holds two seeds known as beans. Occasionally only one bean is found; this is referred to as a peaberry and can be separated from the rest and sold as a special preparation. The seeds are covered in a thin layer called silverskin and protected by a shell called parchment. Between the parchment and the skin of the cherry is a layer of sticky, sugary mucilage, or pulp, which plays a big part in the flavor development of the coffee through the processing stage.

All photography courtesy of Anette Moldvaer

One arabica tree can produce anything from about 1kg to 5kg (2.2-11lb) of cherries in a season, depending on how healthy and well cared for it is. It normally takes about 5-6kg (11-13lb) of cherries to make 1kg of green coffee. The trees can grow several meters high but are usually pruned to facilitate picking, which is done, cherry by cherry, by hired hands brought in from nearby villages. It can be done in one pass or several passes, stripping unripe cherries, overripe cherries, and everything in between in one go, or picking only the ripest cherries and returning to the same tree several times through the harvest season.

There is almost always a coffee harvest happening somewhere in the world. Some countries and regions harvest intensively once a year, some have two distinct harvest periods, and others have long seasons that last almost all year round. The cherries are at their prime potential when fully ripe, but once picked there is really nothing that can be done in the processing, roasting, or brewing that can improve on the bean. You can only try to maintain and preserve the potential that was there at the time of harvest (in this, coffee cherries are certainly like wine grapes), but the pitfalls where everything can go wrong are many. Whether stripped all at once or selectively hand- or machine-picked, the cherries are then subjected to several stages of wet and dry processing, separating the best quality from the poorest.

The processing

The traditions and resources for processing coffee vary wildly around the world, and many countries have their own ways of doing things-for better or for worse. Processing can make or break a coffee, because a lot of physical and chemical damage can easily occur that will ruin even the most carefully grown and picked cherries. The road from fruit to green coffee can take several routes but is broadly split into two main categories of processing and three techniques: dry (natural) or wet (washed and pulped natural).

Once picked, cherries need to be processed within a few hours, or at least on the same day, to preserve their quality. Some producers have their own wet mills and/or dry mills and retain control and ownership of the coffee across some of the stages up until export. Others sell their fresh cherries on to collectors or centralized stations that take care of the milling and further sales. Some will dry the whole cherries themselves on tarpaulins or directly on the ground and sell them to the millers already sun-dried.

A wet mill takes the coffee from cherry to dry naturals or dry parchment at about 10-12 percent humidity, acceptable for export. If the coffee is to be dry processed, or “natural,” the cherries go straight on to patios or raised beds, where they will spend around two weeks drying in the sun. These coffees take on a fruity, sometimes funky, tropical taste and are often sweet and heavy in texture. But they can also taste fermented and suffer from mold damage.

If they are to be wet processed, the cherries are sent through pulpers, machines that strip off the outer skin but leave the mucilage more or less intact on the parchment. The discarded pulp is normally used for compost or fertilizer in nurseries and coffee fields.

If the coffee is to be pulped natural or honey processed, the sugary pulp-covered parchment is carried or pumped to drying patios and beds where it drains off, is spread out in a 1-2in (2.5-5cm) layer, and should be constantly raked to dry evenly. This process should take between seven and 12 days, depending on climatic conditions and the style chosen by the millers. If drying is too rapid, it can cause problems that will adversely affect the taste. Pulped naturals are sweet and often softly fruity, taste cleaner than naturals, and have a medium viscosity.

If the coffee is to be washed, it goes from the pulper into tanks filled with water, where they soak and ferment for anything from 12 to 72 hours until the sticky mucilage is broken down and can be washed off. Sometimes there are two soaks, to bring out specific qualities in the appearance or taste profile. Once all the pulp is removed, the clean parchment is taken out to dry, a process that can take from four to ten days, depending on local traditions and the weather. Washed coffees have a light body, taste bright and acidic, and have a shorter aftertaste.

Once at the target level of humidity, coffee rests and equilibrates, still in parchment, for up to two months before being further processed at a dry mill.

The dry mill removes dried skin, parchment, and varying degrees of silverskin to reveal the green bean inside. The greens are then sorted into several categories and qualities depending on the country and their methods of classification. They can be machine-sorted by density, size, and color, polished to remove silverskin, or hand-sorted on tables or conveyor belts to separate low quality from premium specialty quality. In coffee, everything has a buyer-from the cheapest floor sweepings, to the top one percent of the crop.

Once the green bean is fully extracted and graded, the coffee is poured into containers for shipping to the bulk commodity market, or bagged in jute or hessian sacks typically ranging from 60kg to 70kg (132-154lb) each when filled. Specialty coffees are increasingly shipped in Grainpro plastic-lined jute bags or smaller foil vacuum packs, to protect the beans from taint during transport and to prolong their shelf-life. Green coffee is acidity. FOUR CLASSIC COFFEE ESTATES porous and unstable and deteriorates over time. It will normally only taste fresh and interesting for a few months before taking on wooden, flat, and dusty taints. Unlike wine, which (ideally) improves with age, coffee most certainly does not, and once roasted, the rate of decline is even faster-within weeks.

Up to this point, where the producer parts with his product, you could claim that wine and coffee follow a fairly similar path. But while wine leaves the winery in a bottle, largely ready to be enjoyed, coffee still needs to go through several more stages before it can be drunk, or even be called coffee the way most people enjoy it.

The roasting and brewing

The roasting process is where coffee becomes coffee as we know it. There are many styles of roasting-some slow, some fast, some light, some dark-and everyone will passionately defend their choice and claim it produces the best aromas and flavors. Blending of coffees-whether by origin, species, or variety-also usually happens at the roasting stage. As with blending wine, every coffee company will have its own philosophy and its own reasons for blending beans or keeping them separate, whether or not it chooses to reveal its thinking.

The roasting stage is often shrouded in mystery and secrets, to the point where many people do not know that it exists at all. Roasters are like chefs: They define, control, and develop the taste of the coffee as they see fit. They can bring out all the potential and uniqueness of the beans that the grower worked hard to create, or they can destroy it in a matter of seconds through a bad roast, or dilute it by blending it with any number of other coffees.

Thankfully, this is changing, since small, artisan roasters are on the rise. They are paying close attention to their craft and celebrating single-farm, single-variety coffees, passionately speaking about their growers, their products, and their approach to taste. The need for and impact of these roasters and their coffees are undeniable, as they break down some of the barriers that have denied consumers access to information on their beverage for far too long.

Spreading the word

Roasters develop aroma and flavor, and they are the ones most often responsible for finding a way of communicating these to interested coffee drinkers. If you look at some of their aroma or flavor wheels, the words used to describe wine and coffee are often very similar.

One of the challenges facing the movement toward greater transparency and heightened interest in coffee as a gourmet product is finding a way to do it that does not alienate the curious consumer. As in any field to do with appreciation and taste, no one likes a know-it-all. We’ve all come across insufferable wine snobs, and there are plenty of coffee snobs, too, who take any opportunity to reject your drink of choice and proceed to lecture you about the superiority of their own chosen bean or brew.

Baristas, in particular, have a huge responsibility when it comes to communicating the story of coffee, explaining why you should pay more for quality, why you should explore origins, regions, and varieties, and why you should buy and brew fresh beans. They are like coffee sommeliers, in that they should know all there is to know about a coffee, but they have the added task of having to brew and serve the coffee correctly -the final hurdle on the way from the grower to the consumer. Brewing coffee is often considered a menial job, but the skill required to treat great beans with the respect they deserve, and thereby to translate the hard work of producers and roasters into the cup, is not to be taken lightly.

We cannot cling to the coattails of wine and expect coffee to be raised to its level of appreciation and understanding, since the ways in which it is produced and sold are so vastly different. Coffee has to create its own story, in order to entice, educate, and convert coffee drinkers, persuading and seducing them to move away from jars of instant to fresh and well-made coffee-the kind that has been well grown and harvested, well processed and transported, well roasted and ground, well brewed and served.

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