We recently invited our new neighbour in Sai Ying Pun over for a cupping session. The gentleman in question, Linden Wilkie, is not your average sipper. Founder and managing director of The Fine Wine Experience, Linden is widely known to have one of the most respected palates in Asia. He may know his Romanée-Conti from his New World Pinot Noir, but can he spot the differences between a Costa Rican and Papua New Guinean single origin?
Linden, can you tell our readers how you got into fine wine?
I grew up in New Zealand and joined the wine club at university. From then on, I was hooked, trying young wines and old wines in the university wine cellar. I reached a point shortly after I left that I realised I wanted a career in fine wine, so I headed to London to learn everything I could before setting up my own business. Now, we are a wine merchant who have operated in Hong Kong for nine years and have the largest collection of fine wines to sell.
The process of getting coffee from tree to cup is complex. At each stage, the coffee can either be enhanced or degraded by the actions of those looking after it. Here at the Roastery, we only have control of the last part. Is this the same for the winemaking process?
In wine, there is an entire transformational process from when the grapes are picked. It’s a natural product because it’s all from the grapes, but there is a lot of intervention along the way. Winemakers are really trying to preserve the quality of the wine rather than change it. With coffee, it seems that the roasting process is as important as the picking and drying process, but rather than to preserve, it has the ability to transform it.
We held a cupping session with five different coffees: two house blends and three single origins.
Sam explained the cupping process: smell the grounds, immerse the ground coffee in hot water (92.2–94.4°C) for four minutes, smell the aromas before and after breaking the crust. From the high temperature until it reaches room temperature over the course of 30 minutes, tasting should occur regularly to see how the profile of the coffee changes.
Linden, what differences do you notice in the aromas after the first pour compared to when it was just the ground beans?
Some of these smell almost like a tea – very light and floral. I’m surprised by that. I always expect coffee to smell more rich, more burnt almost. This one here [pointing to the Papua New Guinean single origin] is very delicate. This one [pointing to the NOC house blend #18] is, by contrast, much deeper, more chocolatey, more what I would expect in a coffee. But it has softened after the water has been poured over the grounds.
After tasting each of the coffees, what are your observations?
There were some very unexpected flavours in there. Berries, maybe even a blueberry jam in this one [pointing to the NOC house blend #34] – I think this is my regular choice [full marks, Linden, you are correct!] – but it tastes lighter now, I guess because of the pour-over brewing method. It’s interesting seeing how the flavours develop on the palate. There is definitely a transition in flavour and texture from the first taste on the front of the tongue to the aftertaste. This is very similar to how we assess fine wines.
After the cupping session, we lined up the same five coffees prepared as pour-overs. We asked Linden to go all-out wine specialist on us and describe what he tasted before we shared our own tasting notes that appear on each coffee card.
Kenyan single origin
I can smell caramelised onions, quite sweet. Almost sweet and sour. There is much more molasses now [on his second taste, seven minutes later], from caramel more to a raw brown sugar. A very good finish here.
Costa Rican single origin
Wow, yes, this is much more harmonious, in a lighter, more elegant way. This is your Chambolle-Musigny [area in Burgundy with some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world]. This is a very elegant coffee. I could imagine it would be good to drink in the afternoon instead of a cup of tea.
NOC house blend #18
Much stronger, smokier, a lot of power in this one. Much more texture here too. I could imagine using a high-fat milk with this to balance out the acidity.
Wine and food pairing has always been an important part of wine’s appeal. Having tasted some different types of coffee, do you think there is scope for there to be coffee and food pairing?
I can’t imagine a five-course meal served with different coffees, but I can definitely see that it could be possible to pair certain smaller items with a specific type of coffee. For example, a type of black sesame biscotti with a #18 black or a madeleine with a #34 flat white – or even something savoury like a flaky cheese pastry with one of the lighter single origins. My brain kind of likes that thought, but maybe normal people wouldn’t be as interested! Like wine though, it’s all about the experience, so if you are able to bring something new to people, they generally like it. Single-origin coffee served with a carefully matched food item would be really interesting, especially if real harmony is achieved.
What are your key takeaways from the coffee-tasting session?
One thing I appreciated in particular from this tasting, aside from the obvious skill that goes into the roasting, is just how different these single origins taste. Unfortunately, for me, this may well have opened up another habit that I’m going to have to satisfy. I tend to have an espresso or a flat white, but I think it will be a pour-over moving forward. My eyes have been opened. I really wasn’t aware of the complexity and depth behind different well-roasted coffees served in this way; that has been a really interesting surprise. One of the things I love most about wine is that the same grapes can be grown in the same region but have a completely different flavour depending on the changes in the terroir, how much sunlight they have received and at what point the grapes were picked. It now makes sense that this same principle is true for coffee beans, and for me, that is a really exciting parallel that I think many wine lovers would be really interested in.
Finally, we have to ask you – do you think coffee is the new wine?
Well, I can’t fully endorse that or I’d be out of a job, but I do think there are many interesting similarities that most daily coffee drinkers are not aware of. People are getting more interested in where their food and drink is coming from, what goes into it, how it’s made. What’s more, tea in Asia has been a specialist drink for thousands of years, so there is a deep understanding and appreciation for the craft and efforts that go into making different types. Maybe, because of this, there is an even greater chance for fine, well-roasted speciality coffees to be appreciated just as it has for wine over the last couple of decades or so.
Visit the The Fine Wine Experience’s main showroom, located right next to the NOC Roastery in Sai Ying Pun, at 165–166 Connaught Road West.