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Bottled coffee and freshly brewed wine

August 24, 2012

There is a saying I often use when trying to explain the challenges of speciality coffee.  The quip uses wine as a reference point and goes as follows –  I secretly feel a little sorry for coffee, that it cant be bottled up like wine under the supervision of one individual.  It requires a chain of individuals to meet many different criteria in order for a coffees flavour potential to be realised.

The other day I found myself chatting to a master of wine who also runs a couple of specialist wine retail shops. I brought up this very comparison, a fascinating and insightful conversation followed that I found very thought provoking.

He began to muse on issues regarding wine (its bottled format), the way it is served and how the ease of access to a variety of wines has its own drawbacks.  He suggested that my little dream of a more stable/controllable bottled type quality for coffee may have more problems than meets the eye.  In the case of bottled quality, a competitive price point becomes a strong driving force/possibility.   Quality wines are now mostly sold outside of specialist environments, mainly supermarkets. This could be great if accessibility is widened.   The irony here though is that it is not; the likelihood that people can miss out on helpful expertise, knowledge and education increases.  In effect an in depth experience becomes less accessible.

The story, the provenance and the intricacies that makes varying wines “special” can be lost and people with a little curiosity may not have the opportunity to indulge that curiosity as easily.  The concern for the wine enthusiast is that it can become an obscure knowledge rather than a shared one – rather than a dialogue.

Concerning coffee and wine the dangers are in essence eerily similar for these two complex products – Coffees’ is a worry that it won’t be well presented due to poor brewing and lack of understanding by the server.  Wine’s is that it will not have the chance to be represented well as the position of education, dialogue and expertise is being removed.  Although the hurdles differ, the struggle for accessibility and quality occurs in both fields.

I have always used the “bottled” saying rather light heartedly, and have focused on the value of the varying roles that set coffee aside as such a unique product at the same time.  But I hadn't really considered what the downsides of a “bottled” coffee quality would be.  Bumping into an expert from the wine industry was a wonderful experience that highlights a “grass is greener” simplicity.

This encounter left me with a renewed vigour for our role (server/barista), for its vitality and worth on a larger scale.  Although there are limitations as there are with all things, the role of the barista/server is also one full of potential that can allow us to positively take part in coffees story and to take part in others enjoyment of it.


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