Tasting or "Cupping" Coffee : The Wine Comparison

Coffee tasting is in many ways more crucial to buying quality coffee than wine tasting is to buying quality wine. The reason: Wine is labeled fairly specifically, whereas coffee is labeled vaguely. For instance, we can learn from its label that a given wine is from France, a country; from Beaujolais, a region; and from Moulin-à-Vent, a village in Beaujolais whose vineyards produce a particularly sturdy and rich red wine. Finally, the bottle tells us what year the grapes were grown and the wine bottled.

Suppose, however, that we buy a coffee from Ethiopia. More than likely it will simply be labeled Ethiopia or Ethiopian. This tells us nothing and would be analogous to simply labeling all wines from France, from the cheapest everyday wine to aged Lafite-Rothschild, as French.

Some specialty roasters might go further and label a coffee Ethiopia Harrar. Harrar, like Beaujolais, is a region or market name, so we are getting closer. But few specialty roasters will tell us more. Only occasionally are we told what plantation, estate, cooperative, or village a coffee comes from, for example, even though this may be the most important piece of information of all. Nor are we told when the coffee was harvested, or how long the coffee was held in warehouses before roasting.

So a wine book can be much more specific in its recommendations than can a coffee book, not only because wine labels are themselves more specific, but also because coffee is a continuous work in progress, a collaborative endeavor involving creative and crucial contributions from many individuals, starting with the grower, moving from there to the mill operator, the exporter, the importer, the roaster and blender, and finally, the consumer who actually brews the beverage.

A bottle of wine can be affected by how it is stored, transported, and handled, but the fact remains that it is bottled and ready to be enjoyed (at however remote a date) when it leaves the winery. Coffee is subject to three crucial operations — roasting, grinding, and brewing — by parties who are thousands of miles away from the tree on which the bean originated. Thus, coffee even from the same crop and estate may taste different after having been subjected to the tastes of different roasters and a variety of grinding and brewing methods.