Coffee and wine comparisons are flawed – the two industries are worlds apart

wine industry
  • Coffee and wine have been increasingly compared since the 1990s
  • Morten Scholer highlights contrasting trade and supply chains in his landmark book
  • More suitable comparisons could be found in the cacao and tea sectors

COMPARISONS BETWEEN wine and specialty coffee are difficult to escape. As coffee has increasingly transitioned from a commodity to a luxury product over the last 30 years, it has seemed a natural thing to do.

After all, at the core of the specialty coffee industry is a quest for quality excellence, and the belief that, similar to wine, true appreciation of coffee requires a discerning palate. And it’s true that sensory attributes, sophisticated branding, and high prices regularly overlap.

Concepts such as terroir, tasting notes, and variety blends that dominate the specialty coffee industry have also been heavily inspired by the wine industry.

For example, Ted Lingle developed the original Coffee Tasting Flavor Wheel in 1992, borrowing from the logic and descriptors of wine’s sensory analysis, including flavour, aroma, and texture attributes.

George Howell, one of the pioneers of the specialty coffee movement in the US in the early 1970s, took a similar approach, selling coffee like wine by showcasing the rarest and most expensive, while also offering high-quality, affordable coffees that would appeal to the masses.

However,  from their supply chains to their trade systems, the two industries are, in reality, starkly different

“Since the beginning of specialty coffee, people like Ted Lingle and George Howell have compared the sensory attributes of coffee and wine,” says Vanúsia Nogueira, the executive director of the International Coffee Organization (ICO).

“For me, evaluation and sensory experience are indeed major similarities – but the comparison doesn’t go much further.

“Even when you talk of microlots and a 90+ coffee score, they may well be attributed to the terroir, but only partly. The barista can make or break it through brewing, or the roaster through roasting.”

Coffee and wine comparisons

A tale of two industries

At the 2015 World Barista Championships, Sasa Sestic made waves when he presented a coffee that had undergone carbonic maceration, a fermentation technique commonly used in winemaking.

For many, this technique only reinforced the connection between the coffee and wine industries and sparked a search for further inspiration.

However, in his seminal book, Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared, Morten Scholer argued that the similarities between coffee production and winemaking are overstated. Scholer’s main point of contention is trade.

Coffee is exported as a raw commodity, whereas wine is sold as a final product by the producer, bottled and ready to drink.

The length and complexity of the coffee supply chain, therefore, means there are more factors that will make or break the final product. This also means there is generally a wider gap between the producers and the consumers.

“Coffee producers’ major clients are traders and importers in consumer countries. For winemakers, they are retail actors,” Vanúsia says. “Most coffee producers are completely disconnected from the consumer side. In the same way, it’s hard for consumers to understand their challenges.”

The coffee industry is also subject to greater volatility, with prices susceptible to dramatic swings on the world’s leading commodity exchanges. In contrast, the price of wine is considered relatively stable, with no world market or benchmark price for an internationally recognised standard.

Furthermore, European wine-producing countries subsidise their wine producers, while coffee producing countries, often developing economies, do not have the capacity to do the same. Scholer notes that these subsidies for coffee are too complex to calculate or evaluate.

Vanúsia suggests that subsidies handed out to winemakers in Europe only serve to highlight why coffee production should be viewed in a league of its own.

“[Subsidies] keep producers in the field and countries on the production map, but they are very EU-specific,” she explains. “Brazil, Chile and Argentina have a highly developed wine industry, but they don’t have subsidies. This is a case of rich versus poor countries. Because coffee comes from developing economies, governments don’t have the capacity to subsidise coffee producers.”

The size of companies in the industry also differs greatly. Some coffee companies are huge, holding 15% or more of the world market. The largest wine companies, on the other hand, cover less than 3% of the world.


Towards a more accurate comparison

Agricultural value chains with production origins in developing countries and closer supply chains may offer more suitable comparisons.

Vanúsia suggests cocoa and tea as more relevant sectors in terms of supply chain structure, production systems and sensory evaluation.

“Cocoa, coffee and tea have a predominance of small producers, many intermediaries in the chain and the producers rarely have control over the final consumer product,” she says.

Finding useful agribusiness comparisons may also help coffee producers diversify their crops, income streams, and risks. Identifying crops with similar production requirements, supply chains and trading systems could help them find more lucrative options to supplement their income and grow their business without too many transition costs.

Spices like ginger, black pepper and cardamom or avocado trees are some examples.

When you take a closer look, coffee and wine production and trade are in fact worlds apart. Modelling production and business strategies on a sector with such a different landscape may not be doing the specialty coffee industry any favours.

The goal may be to get consumers to appreciate the attributes and value of coffee in the same way they do wine – but the means to achieve it may be entirely different.