It probably doesn't come as a surprise to you that wine tasting and coffee tasting have many more similarities than you might think. Both involve a lot of jargon, complex terminology, and very specific processes. And for both, becoming a professional sommelier or Q grader takes an incredible amount of work and testing. But don't worry, even for those of us who aren't experts, you can absolutely enjoy tasting each to the fullest just the same. And though tasting might be different for each beverage, they have more in common than you might think.
They both require sensory evaluation
First, let's look at the obvious: your gustatory sense. Both coffee and wine tastings involve this form for your tongue to taste five tastes: bitter, sweet, salt, acid and umami (savouriness).
Secondly, both coffee and wine tastings involve your olfactory sense which is responsible for smell. The olfactory bulb is responsible for receiving sensory information from the nose via nerve fibres called axons. This information is then transferred to other parts of the brain where it can be processed as a smell or an odor respectively.
Fun fact: wine tasters have been shown to have larger olfactory bulbs than non-tasters, suggesting that they may have more receptors in their nasal passages which allow them to detect odors more accurately than others.
The next sense is sight. For wine, you look at the color of the liquid and for coffee, you look at the bean. Size, coloring, oiliness all play a part at what you can detect just by your eye.
When sampling wine or coffee, you look for similar components
A sommelier's grid provides distinct categories when grading wine, but the overall categories are:
- Appearance/ Sight
- Color, staining, clarity, etc.
- intensity, age, fruit and non-fruit notes, clean
- sweetness, fruit and non-fruit notes, acid, tannin, alcohol, body, texture, balance, complexity
A Q Grader form for tasting coffee will include these categories:
- You grade both the ground coffee before it's wetted, and then after pouring water on it, you smell the aroma to find the differences in notes between the wet and dry states.
- Similar to wine, this includes fruit and non-fruit notes, intensity, complexity, after the whole palate has been coated with coffee.
- How long does the flavor last on your tongue? Was it short? Did it last? Did it taste different? More pleasing or less so?
- Depending on the type of coffee, having more or less acidity is important. Does the coffee taste sour? Does it taste bright and alive? Is it sweet? Similar to citrus fruits? Acidity is an important quality in specialty coffees but should always have balance and harmony with the other unique attributes of the coffee.
- Or mouthfeel, how does the coffee feel in your mouth? Was it heavy or light on the tongue, the roof, the inner cheeks? For instance, the mouthfeel of water vs. milk in your tongue. Usually milk is silkier and heavier than water, this will give coffee better attributes.
- How did all of those components work together? The body, acidity, aftertaste? Is one more overpowering than the other?
- Any obvious tastes of sweetness or do you detect astringent flavors? Specialty coffees always have sweetness but in different levels.
- Clean Cup
- From one coffee sample, 5 cups will be tested of the same sample. They need to consistent and clean. If one cup has a defect, then this will be marked and points will be subtracted. While conventional coffees are allowed some defects, specialty coffees should have zero defects.
- Was there a consistency of flavor between all of the cups tested? (usually 5 cup per sample is tested) or were there difference between cups?
- From any of the topics above, there can be a fermented taste or a moldy flavor or smells like rubber. Sometimes it will appear in all the cups and sometimes it will appear in just one cup. Depending on the frequency and intensity, points will be subtracted from the overall score.
You can see the similarities when grading each, and you'll notice a few differences. For instance, 'sight' isn't part of the grading initial for coffee, but can be listed if seen any on the beans under defects (such as black or moldy beans).
Both of them share some common tasting vocabulary
While there are some differences between wine and coffee tasting, they share a lot in common. One of the biggest similarities is their shared "tasting vocabulary." Tasting vocabulary is used to describe the sensory experience of tasting wine and coffee. This includes words like "taste", "smell", "mouthfeel", and more. Many of the notes are similar to each other, and there are some good tastes and bad tastes in wine and coffee. Examples include:
- Good wine notes: fruit, herbal, and floral
- Bad wine notes: sour, horseradish, egg, garlic
- Good coffee notes: floral, fruity, chocolatey, caramel
- Bad coffee notes: peanuts, vegetal, vinegar, mold
When you're tasting either wine or coffee, it can be helpful to use this common language to communicate with other tasters about what you're experiencing as well as any notes you might want to share about your experience with others (or yourself) later on.
They both use controlled conditions for evaluation
For both wine tasting and coffee tasting, the tasters have to be able to evaluate the product in a controlled environment. The temperature of the room, lighting, background noise, and even company present are all controlled to ensure a consistent experience for evaluating different products. In fact, that’s what makes it possible to compare two different products from different regions or vendors.
Tasters must receive training in order to understand how their senses will respond under these conditions. So what is it like to become well-trained?
Well, let's start with wine tasting. To become proficient at tasting wine, you must first learn about the vineyard, the soil and climate of where the grapes were grown, how they were grown (organic vs conventional), how they were fermented and stored after harvest, etc., then you have to learn about each grape varietal’s chemical compounds (flavonoids) and aromas/tastes provided by these compounds (for example: cherry flavors come from anthocyanin). Then we get into actually tasting wine itself—you need a trained palate as well as a trained nose. Next up is training your mind: when assessing different characteristics of something like this (sweetness vs dryness), there are many factors that contribute towards our perception of these things—but these perceptions aren't always accurate. For example: one person may think something tastes sweet because he/she doesn't realize another person has added sugar into their glass before drinking it; another person might think something tastes sweet because he/she was thinking about eating ice cream right before taking a sip...and so on.
Similar to coffee, understanding the process from seed to cup is extremely important (and one of the reason's why farmer-roasted coffee is so important since the actual producers fully know their crop). And then honing all your senses to feel the coffee, the notes, the flavor, etc. takes time and practice. As in wine, understanding the process of picking, fermentation, drying, and storage will be relevant when cupping coffees to be able to correlate tasting notes to the process at the farm level.
You don't have to be an expert to enjoy tasting wine and coffee
Both are popular and fun activities to connect around with a group of people, blind tastings are also a delightful experience, and a great way to learn taste to better appreciate all foods.
Though wine and coffee tasting share lots of similarities, the main difference is that wine tasting focuses on the nose and taste of the beverage, while coffee tasting focuses on the experience of drinking it (the aroma, how it makes you feel).
The wine taster’s palate is trained to detect subtle differences in flavor while the coffee taster is looking for more obvious qualities like body or acidity instead. Ultimately though, these two disciplines share so much more than just their names.