“Variety”, “terroir", “micro-climate”, “the producer’s hand”, all of these concepts sound pretty familiar if you know something about wine, right? Well, believe it or not but they are just as important in the production of coffee, especially when we talk about the sensory characteristics that we find in the final cup. It is quite common that people ask us coffee professionals about the coffee of Central America or Africa, about its taste and production but the truth is if I ask you “What does the wine of France taste like?”, wouldn’t you be a bit confused? Which wine are we talking about, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley.What about the producer? They’re all different!
Yes, well, so is coffee.
As it is an agricultural product, the varieties can be very different, the soil, sun or shade, high or low altitudes influence what the plant physiologically produces for its survival - higher or lower sugar content, the quantity of polyphenols and acids, which will automatically influence its processing time and develop substances, that you will get in the end of the production chain, ergo the espresso.The big difference between wine and coffee producers is their economical capability of investing in their production facilities and in research, so coffee has remained in its embryonic state if compared to oenology and could be considered a more artisanal way of doing things.
Making natural wine is a way of producing wine in an ancestral manner with minimal chemical or physical human interference, so it is never filtered or clarified, only indigenous spontaneous fermentations are used from the yeasts found on the grape. Historical containers, like amphoras may also be used. So, I suppose coffee processing in many cases is very similar. Washed coffee, for example, when fermented in water tanks, could use some pre-selected yeasts for a more controlled fermentation like conventional wine (ongoing researches are happening but still not widely in use). One could supervise the temperature and time, adjust the process each year based on the harvest, but instead everything still mostly happens in a very ancestral way - in some places farmers just put a wooden stick in the tank to see if the mucilage has already detached from the beans. Having said so, coffee is fermented in a very natural spontaneous way, just like natural wine, which gives the sensory part even more significance - each farm, soil, micro climate will have slightly different characteristics that will give the plant different properties and the cherries will be covered in slightly different yeasts, that in turn will produce different flavours. I think this is an excellent representation of the terroir, so give it a go and taste some microlot coffee to see their incredible variety and flavours just like you would taste a spectacular Pinot Noir from some natural wine producer from Alsace. And I’d suggest you check out the wine and the coffee flavour wheels.
The many descriptors look pretty similar, don’t you think?