Wine is to Coffee

Roberto and his truck “Cholo” at the entrance to his finca

..as vintner is to… coffeemaker? No, that won’t work; a winemaker is a person, but a coffeemaker is an appliance. What then to call someone who makes coffee? Barista? But they don’t really “make” coffee, they just prepare it. Roaster? But he (always a he…I actually haven’t met a female roaster! Something to seek out…) doesn’t quite “make” it either; he does the second part of a vintner’s job- the equivalent of fermentation in oak barrels and the art form of achieving taste perfection- but he’s really just transforming it; it was already kind of “made” when he got it.

So the miller then? Maybe he’s more like the vintner because coffee, come to think of it, does ferment too, in the wet processing method, and the mill workers are the ones who manage that fermentation. After it goes through the depulping machine it sits and ferments, usually for less than 12 hours, which is nothing compared to the length of time wine ferments, but there’s still a breakdown of sugars. Is that when the “making” happens?

Or is coffee “made” by the growers, the ones who tend the plants all year long, year after year? A vintner starts making wine when he chooses the day to plant his seeds, the week to prune (and how much to prune), and when he samples the soil to see if the nutrients are balanced. So are the coffee farmers the coffee makers? Or maybe it’s the pickers, who can haphazardly take any ripeish berries off the trees, or who can painstakingly search for only the largest, reddest fruit to harvest?

There is only one vintner, but maybe there are at least 5 coffeemakers. If we loose one coffee isn’t “made;” we can’t have coffee without the grower, the picker, the miller, the roaster and the barista (or equivalent coffemaking appliance). For pretty close to the past 200 years there hasn’t been one person who does for coffee what a vintner does for wine, so there’s been a gap in the language. But coffee’s like an accordion; back at its Ethiopian roots one person did it all, then the chain expanded and the “making” of commercialized commodity coffee for international consumers necessitated an accordion with many folds. But now it’s been compacted again. People in producing countries are discovering their capacities to absorb the chain and become all-inclusive coffeemakers, to be coffee vintners.

But the language is still a half-step behind the reality. Roberto owns a few hectares of land in Costa Rica, land he and his family grew up farming. With friends and brothers they bought a piece and divided it up. He now grows coffee on land that he can truly call his own. In his tiny garage, parked right alongside his moto, are a roaster and grinder he built himself. Behind his cousin’s house he has a depulper (that he also built himself) and bed for drying. Last year was the first harvest he picked, processed, and roasted himself. He calls it Don Berto coffee, after his father, and sells it in stapled brown paper bags with a sticker logo of his father’s face for 2,000 colones, or $4.

Roberto is a coffeemaker. But even in Spanish there’s no word for what he does. He’s a caficultor because he grows coffee, he’s a microbeneficio owner because he processes himself the coffee grows, and he’s a microtostador because he toasts and grinds it too.

While he showed me his cafetal, he explained, “I do know how to take care of a coffee plant…this was where we grew the seedlings. I ripped up all the seedlings that were here; I left these bigger plants, the ones that were healthier. I ripped up the almacigo, sold it, and let these ones be. The bigger the plants get, the more Laurel I’ll cut too, so that they have more space.” Later that day he showed me where he depulped his coffee and left it to dry. He’s a new breed, and he needs a new name.

microbeneficio where coffee fruit is depulped, washed, and dried

The layers of difference between vintners and coffeemakers lie deeper than the labels. The man in the hills of France or the valleys of Italy who knows his land and tends his grape vines is respected and revered for his knowledge of his crop. That respect is transferred into price paid for his product. Even though caficultores traditionally haven’t been the ones processing and transforming coffee for consumption, they’ve always been the ones who know the land. And that knowledge has only recently begun to be transferred into price paid. Sometimes.

In a recent article for STiR magazine, former Starbucks owner Jerry Baldwin expounds on the difference in consumer conception between two products that are practically parallel in their demand for nuanced knowledge to yield a quality final product.

“In wine, I grow the grapes and decide the varieties and blend. I can cover all steps of the chain in minutes. When I cork the bottle, there is a high likelihood that my work will remain intact until you drink it. With a cup of coffee, the aromas and flavors degrade by the second; with an opened bottle of wine they improve by the minute. A US$5 cup of coffee is perceived a rip-off; a US$15 glass of wine is an unremarkable cost.” Read the full, thought-provoking article here.

The way that we conceptualize value is wrapped up in all kinds of messy histories of Colonial trade. The analogy is incomplete because our language is lacking, and the gap language has a gap comes from the big hole in our understanding. When coffee speaks it talks in many tongues, but they all say that making coffee is a craft, a craft as demanding as that of a vintner.

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