Coffee with a dash of wine

Why are natural wines appearing in coffee bars worldwide? Simon J. Woolf goes looking for answers.

Photo by Alesia Kazantceva on Unsplash
Photo by Alesia Kazantceva on Unsplash

Lex Wenneker waxes lyrical as he pours out an aromatic, translucent liquid: “Carbonic maceration really emphasises the fruit and brings out the berry notes,” he says. “They leave the skins on and then ferment for about 48 hours in this case.” He’s not talking about wine. The beverage is a Colombia XO unwashed (or “natural”) coffee, so named for its wine-like Cognac-esque flavours. 

Wenneker is a multiple barista champion and joint owner of Friedhats, a boutique roastery and associated café (Fuku) in Amsterdam’s up-and-coming Bos en Lommer district. Fuku doesn’t just serve coffee – a small selection of natural wines also sits on the shelves. Wenneker admits that he knows very little about wine in comparison to coffee, but that “it was always our dream that we could have a café that kept going into the evening, changing into a wine bar kind of vibe”. So when he and business partner Dylan Sedgwick found their space, they immediately applied for an alcohol licence, adding wines to their offering just a few weeks after opening.

They’re not alone in Amsterdam. Hip roastery White Label Coffee started selling natural wines in 2015 and has now opened a spin-off restaurant in addition to its café . Then there is 4850, a fully hybrid business focusing on specialty coffee, tea and artisan wine. Similar venues have sprung up around the globe, from Milk Beach in London to 169 West in Zurich, 212 Blu in Sydney, café  Physical in Hokkaido Japan and Vif in that most caffeinated city of all, Seattle. In almost every case, the bottles jostling for space among single origin pour-overs and futuristic espresso machines are natural wines. 

What is it about this niche that so attracts baristas, roasters and coffee nerds?

Natural affinities

Peter Giuliano is chief research officer for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), a global organisation that’s the WSET equivalent for coffee. He draws strong parallels between the two sectors. “If you’re working as a barista or a roaster, you’re a process person. At some stage you’ll inevitably end up visiting a coffee plantation and standing in front of the fermentation tank, smelling the yeasty aromas,” he explains. It’s not hard to see how a fascination with other fermented beverages ensues. 

But why natural wine? “The new generation of coffee professionals get really excited about natural [unwashed] coffees with powerful fermented notes,” he says. The newer “washed coffee” method involves pulping the cherry after harvesting to remove the outer layer. The remains are fermented in water, producing a coffee that’s fruitier in taste. Unwashed coffee, the oldest method for extracting the bean, involves cleaning the coffee cherry and putting it in the sun to dry, producing a more complex coffee taste. “It’s similar to the way natural wines often display more obvious signs of fermentation – there’s this idea that the rusticity of the process is more important.” Giuliano contends that natural wines, like unwashed coffees, have easily recognisable characters that people can latch onto. 

If Giuliano’s analysis seems technical, it’s justified. “Coffee people are very nerdy,” says barista, sommelier and owner of 4850, Daniel Schein. “They want to go deep and explore as much as they can”. Schein is Swedish, and started out in coffee before becoming enthused with wine when he realised it had a far superior lexicon for describing aroma and flavour. Schein has seen many coffee professionals broaden their interests from coffee through craft beer to wine, and agrees that natural wine is the obvious entry point: “It’s hip, it’s cool, it’s fun,  it’s different – and I think it’s easier to get a grip on than the whole wine scene.” He points out that the vast amount of knowledge needed to understand classic styles like “the big Bordeaux or Burgundies” can seem overwhelming. But with natural wine “you just need to recognise a few labels, a few top producers and you’re in”.

Francesco Grassotti, co-founder of White Label Coffee and one third of the team behind their new Schuurmanoomkensgrassotti restaurant (the name is just the conjoined surnames of the three partners), adds that he and his colleagues discovered natural wines via their clients. “Several restaurants started to serve our coffee, and Figo van Onna, the sommelier from Choux restaurant, [one of the leading lights in Amsterdam’s natural wine scene], became a regular customer at our café . So did Jan van Roekel, another local wine importer and winemaker [in Beaujolais] –  we had a really nice match with him so we decided to sell his wine in our shop.”

Everyone interviewed for this article echoes Grassotti’s experience: speciality coffee venues and their staff are at the centre of an ecosystem of young food and beverage professionals, and enthusiasm for new flavour experiences and trends flow across sectors. Nowhere has this been more visible than with Sprudge, the world’s premier specialty coffee media outlet.

The hybrid model

Sprudge Media founders Zachary Carlsen and Jordan Michelman certainly had their finger on the pulse when they launched a new offshoot wine publication in June 2017. Sprudge Wine has since built up steam faster than the frothing spout of a Gaggia. Devoted entirely to natural wine, the online magazine features almost daily updates on where to enjoy natural wine in different cities around the world, plus short features about the people who make it.

Michelman says: “So much of daily urban life flows in and out of coffee bars, be it chefs, sommeliers, wine bar owners, etc. There is a natural synergy and overlap among people who work all day long with their flavour senses.” Michelman himself now spends most of his time writing about wine rather than coffee.

He notes that the trend towards hybrid coffee and wine venues has been limited on the American west coast, “though there are a few excellent outliers”. Giuliano explains that, particularly in Southern California, “the challenge with wine culture is that everyone’s driving all the time – in SoCal people drink wine in their backyards”.

This isn’t the only challenge for specialty coffee venue owners who want to move into alcohol, as Michelman notes. “Hybrids are tantalising for business owners because it feels like maximising  profitability – you’re paying rent 24 hours a day, so why shouldn’t you have bar hours in the evenings?” he says. “The reality is more difficult: extra hours means extra staff, and on-boarding a wine program can be difficult and expensive.” In Schein’s case, where both coffee and wine are popular day and night, it is yet more demanding. “You need very skilled people for both daytime and night-time,” he says. “You have to have someone who can make very high-quality coffee and communicate that, as well as someone who can pour wine.”

Kai Keong Ng, owner and operator of wine bar, café  and wine shop 169 West in Zurich, nonetheless feels that diversification is essential to the future growth of speciality coffee. “It’s moving away from specialty coffee as a boutique sector and broadening it out with other offerings like food and wine,” he says. “This is a trend that’s a lot more advanced in Australia, where coffee bars in Sydney or Melbourne often have serious food offerings.” Ng, who is Swiss with Chinese heritage, started out in coffee and then decided to open his own business in 2017. “I was looking for something that was close to coffee, with the same idea of expressing terroir and the purity of the product,” he says, “and I discovered natural wines at a slow food event.”

Ng concurs with Wenneker and Grassotti that even if his customers aren’t already familiar with natural wine (a very new scene in Zurich), they tend to be sympathetic towards it. “It seems to attract the same kind of people,” he remarks.

The links between specialty coffee and natural wine have been strengthening for at least five years. Isabelle Legeron MW spoke at the Specialty Coffee Association’s Re:co conference in Boston in 2015, and the SCA’s many other events often feature talks about wine. Specialty coffee is a well established component at natural wine fairs, including Legeron’s RAW Wine events. What’s new is the progression of specialty coffee professionals from natural wine fans to natural wine purveyors. What makes these businesses special is their often markedly different style and culture.

Solely wine-focused businesses tend to fret about whether their customers will “understand” natural wine, or whether they need more crowd-pleasing options mixed in with the cloudy orange cuvées, but their coffee counterparts are frequently free from any such baggage. 

For Wenneker, being uncompromising is a key part of the proposition. “We like natural wines because the people who make them aren’t afraid to make something that not everyone will like,” he says. “The idea is not to have easy and approachable here. If people want that, there are plenty of other places they can go.” 

Simon J. Woolf

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription

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