"Well, isn't that special!" — The Church Lady
Who better to pass judgment on vices and virtues than Enid Strict, Dana Carvey's holier-than-thou "Church Lady" of SNL fame? No one was immune from the Church Lady’s ire — not even Santa Claus, whom she famously impugned as being Satan incarnate in her ever pious manner. This article’s topic would surely cause the Church Lady’s cankles to swell as it addresses two beverages that straddle the balance between vice and virtue: coffee and wine.
Let’s start with virtue: Many know that Jesus’ first recorded miracle was turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. That’s a pretty strong checkmark for the virtue category and is perhaps, in part, responsible for the stature that wine occupies in society — one that many wish to see coffee aspire to. But with wine, a single individual or company is often responsible for planting, harvesting, processing, and packaging the grapes and wine. And while many aficionados abhor the practice, magazines like Wine Spectator and others attempt to assign a numerical grade from 1-to-100 to capture what boils down to a very complex set of flavonoids that develop through fermentation, secondary fermentation, lees contact, and aging — not something a numeric “grade” can hope to encompass all that well. That’s even more the case when you take personal preference into account: some people love bright acidity; others, dry astringency; and some prefer the bubbly carbonated version from the south of France. Nevertheless, we humans love to benchmark — so a number it is. But something to remember about coffee is, at the end of the day, serving wine is as simple as uncorking it and pouring a glass (I know, I know: save your fancy saber-and-champagne-bottle parlor tricks!). In contrast, the vast variety of preparation methods, water temperature, grind size, roasting methods, extraction ratios, etc., result in coffee being infinitely more complex to prepare. The result is that the same coffee may taste as if it originated on a completely different continent depending on myriad factors and decisions from seed to cup.
Coffee also uses a grading system for classification purposes. But unlike wine, coffee uses different systems for different phases of the bean's journey. First, there’s a system that applies to green coffee. In contrast to wine, coffee grading is initially based on grading categories: Grade 1 (Specialty), Grade 2 (Premium), Grade 3 (Exchange Grade), Grade 4 (Standard Grade), and Grade 5 (Off-Grade). For our purposes, the relevant inquiry here boils down to “grade 1 or bust.” Per the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) protocols, green beans are either specialty grade or they’re not; it’s that simple.
After weeding out non-specialty beans, the next step is cupping — the step where beans are sample roasted and examined for their aromatic and flavor components. In this step, coffee grading is more in line with what one sees in the wine industry. In cupping, Q-graders — who undergo a battery of 22 tests and must be recertified every three years — review each coffee’s characteristics, evaluating taste, acidity, body, and aroma. Based on the bean's cupping characteristics, Q-graders assign a grade (85–100). In short, specialty coffees range from really good to absolutely fantastic!
Like winemakers, many coffee farmers spend a lifetime perfecting their craft. But there's a key distinction between the wine industry — where most vintners care for their grapes from vine to wine — the coffee trade has many middlemen between the farm and the barista. From the coffee farmer, beans go to a miller then to intermediaries (shippers, etc.), then finally to the roaster and brewer. Starting at ground level, specialty coffees originate at the intersection of a careful selection of bean varietals, microclimates, soil chemistry, and crop husbandry. This means that a great variety of coffee planted at the wrong altitude or in the wrong soil will result in an inferior product. After harvesting, the type of processing also plays a key part in developing the bean's flavor characteristics. All along this continuum, small mistakes in screening, processing, packaging, or storage can degrade a coffee's potential. The result depends on each link in the chain playing its part, which is why the SCA and Q-grading plays such a crucial role.
That is why Vice & Virtue Coffee orders only those coffees that meet the SCA's exacting standards for specialty coffees. Once in our hands, we spend countless hours finding the perfect roast profile for each coffee to enhance each coffee’s attributes. This ensures that aspects like the coffee's boldness, sweetness, acidity, body, and balance are preserved so that we may pass on only the finest coffees to our customers. This is why we only offer our coffees at the roasting level that best accentuates the particular coffee's characteristics — said another way, not all coffees taste good if roasted too dark. On a 100-point scale, anything 84.99 and above falls into the range of Specialty Coffee. Anything below that does not express the vibrant characteristics that Vice & Virtue aspires to embody.