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Jefford: Waking up the new year

Andrew Jefford is impressed by the mass of fascinating facts in a new book comparing wine and coffee...

January, a month of chilly austerity and the struggle for renewal, is when many regular wine drinkers set aside their divine bottles for a while. Perhaps that includes you in 2019; perhaps you’re spending more time with coffee as a consequence. If so, here’s just the book to occupy 31 days of caffeine-toned abstinence.

It’s called Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared (Matador, £30), and the author is Morten Scholer, a Swiss-resident Dane who formerly worked as a UN coffee advisor. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a factful book before – on any subject. Even if you have no interest in coffee, you’ll still find a mass of revealing and hard-to-come-by data about wine in this book. Scholer’s research is impressive; I’ll roast you with a little of it in a paragraph or two.

Writing about two subjects simultaneously is never easy; the bifocal gaze can be distracting. Scholer isn’t advancing any particular argument, though, so there is no thesis to juggle. He’s just splitting open his subject like coffee cherries (or macerating it like red wine), the better to extract the essences inside. He colour-codes each paragraph according to its subject matter, moreover, so you can dart between the two easily enough.

Interesting differences

Does the overall comparison he makes between coffee and wine provide new insights into each? No; but the points of comparison and contrast are deeply interesting in themselves. The two drinks are very different: coffee is a stimulant that celebrates bitterness and empyreumatic (or burnt) flavours, the key processing act being roasting or charring. Wine, by contrast, is a drink designed as a relaxant and to alter mood, and the key part of its processing is the fermentation of sugar into alcohol (and CO2) by yeast. The spectrum of aroma and flavour of each drink is as different as are their effects.

Of the two, wine is historically the senior, and there is a sense that coffee ought to emulate wine in order to assume some of its lustre. One of the likely origins of its name references wine: the Arabic word qahwah means (according to Scholer) ‘some sort of wine’ or ‘wine of the bean’. Coffee, though, was only domesticated around 1,000 years ago, whereas we now know that wine as a pure beverage was made and drunk in Georgia 8,000 years ago, and consumed as a mixed beverage even earlier than that in China. (Tea, too, is a younger beverage than wine, though it is older than coffee: the earliest physical traces of tea date back 2,150 years.)

Did you know?

In testament to Scholer’s almost frenzied research (and an often entertaining mania for tabulation), here are some of the most interesting things I learned from his 300-page fact explosion.

  • More agricultural land is devoted to coffee production than to wine production: around 11 million ha compared to around 4.7 million ha for wine grapes. Most coffee is grown in Latin America (60 per cent), and most wine in Europe (65 per cent). For all that, coffee is an African gift to the world: the high-grown Coffea arabica is native to Ethiopia, while the lower-altitude Coffea canephora (the source of robusta coffee beans) grows indigenously in Western and Central Africa. Wine is of course a gift of the Caucasus, Anatolia and the Near East to the world.
  • Coffee may take up more space as a growing crop, but the weight of harvested wine grapes is much higher than that of harvested coffee beans (36 million tonnes of grapes are used for wine compared to just nine million tonnes of green beans). The wastage involved in coffee production is much higher, too. The actual ‘beans’ (in fact they are seeds) only constitute 15 to 20 per cent of the weight of the harvested coffee cherries, and of this only 20 per cent ends up in the beverage, whereas 70 per cent of a wine grape becomes wine.
  • The processing of coffee as part of the route to a finished drink is a much more violent affair than gentle wine vinification. The skin, fruit flesh and sticky mucilage has to be removed from coffee beans, and they then have to be dried and rested. That gives you ‘green’ beans – which, unlike wine grapes, are eminently storable (for several years if need be). Blending is generally done in green form. Roasting requires temperatures of between 200˚C and 240˚C in order to caramelise sugars and induce the Maillard reaction (a reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars – a vital component of numerous cooking processes including meat roasting and bakery), and many final forms of coffee-making require both high temperatures and high pressures, including soluble coffees and espresso coffee. Nespresso machines work with pressures more than three times those you’ll find inside a Champagne bottle (19 bars compared to six).
  • Scholer is very sure-handed on the chemistry of both wine and coffee – the table covering ’28 techniques for quality enhancement of wine’, for example, would be very useful to any wine student, and there are also useful descriptions of how reverse osmosis and spinning cone machines work. From these analyses we learn that wine is a more acidic substance than coffee, and red wines much richer in polyphenols. Coffee (especially robusta) is much more bitter than wine, and is also vastly more aromatic than wine thanks to its serving temperature and the process of molecular diffusion. (Anyone wandering into a wine tasting with a fresh cup of coffee will be ushered out swiftly.) The intricacies of caffeine (and alcohol) are described here, too, including an explanation of the ways in which coffee can be decaffeinated. Did you know there are 10 ways of measuring alcohol concentrations in wine? I didn’t – but Scholer lists and describes them all in one of his succinct tables.
  • The coffee trade is structured very differently to the wine trade, and in many ways wine production is admirably and securely diffuse. Not one of the world’s ten largest wine companies has more than three per cent of the global wine market, for example, whereas the world’s two coffee giants (Nestlé and JAB) both have around 20 per cent of the coffee trade, and Starbucks alone accounts for four per cent of global coffee sales (Gallo, the world’s largest wine company, can only manage 2.8 per cent of the world wine market). For certain coffee-producing nations, the coffee crop represents a dangerously high percentage of export earnings: between 25 and 50 per cent for Ethiopia and Rwanda, for example, whereas wine represented just two per cent of France’s total export earnings in 2017.
  • The carbon footprint of a cup of coffee (60 g) is four times lower, Scholer tells us, than that of a glass of wine (240 g). Oh dear. (Bravo to Torres for funding research on carbon capture for wineries.)
  • Scholer also (amid so much else in this fine book) explains why it is so hard to get a good cup of coffee on an aeroplane. Good coffee needs to be made with very hot water or steam – but water boils at 92˚C on aeroplanes (pressured to the equivalent of an altitude of 2,400 metres; it would boil at just 72˚C were one to attempt to make a cup of coffee at the top of Everest’s 8,848 m). Once boiled, the temperature cannot be increased further, and in any case it may drop off before the coffee is made. The dry atmosphere and low pressure in aeroplanes, furthermore, combines to rob all foods and drinks of their intricacies of aroma and flavour – wine included.