To become a sommelier, one must learn much about the subtle complexities of wine, its service and pairings with food. But can that same rigor be applied to the understanding of coffee?
Nespresso, the Nestle subsidiary and global coffeemaker based in Lausanne, Switzerland, thinks so. That’s why Nespresso invited sommelier Erik Liedholm, wine director of and partner in the Seattle-based John Howie Restaurant Group in Seattle to complete a coffee sommelier training program to learn about the botany of coffee, the process of coffee making, as well as pairing coffee with food, spirits or water.
Liedholm, a Master Sommelier candidate, is also co-owner with Howie in the distillery Wildwood Spirits Co. in Bothell, WA, which produces craft vodka, gin and bourbon with a farm-to-distillery approach.
He’s now also the only known Nespresso-certified coffee sommelier in the Pacific Northwest, a region that knows its coffee.
Here’s what he had to say about his new rank:
Would you say the process of becoming a coffee sommelier is as rigorous as learning about wine?
No. Coffee isn’t as regulated as wine. Wine’s had a few hundred years’ head start. With the botany of coffee, it’s just so different than wine, as far as having been cultivated. With coffee, one little farm is going to be very different from another farm on the same hillside. So unless they develop some standardization, it’s never going to be as difficult to learn as wine.
I think they’re heading toward that now, with the micro roasters and direct-trade coffees happening. It’s becoming a reality, but they’ve got a ways to go before it becomes the headbanger study session it is with wine.
Having been through this experience, how might you change how coffee is presented at your restaurants?
Knowledge is power. Knowing the right temperature that the water needs to be to infuse itself with coffee—that was something I didn’t know. I assumed you pour hot water on coffee and you made coffee. That’s not the case.
Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar is going through remodel in July and we’re definitely leaning toward more of an espresso program, using Nespresso’s single source, grand cru coffee. Because it’s available in pods, as they call them, it enables our bartenders and servers to make a consistent cup of coffee that’s always really super high quality and we’re not worried about coffee that’s been sitting in the brewer longer than it needs to be.
At John Howie Steak, we have a variety of coffee services. We’re going to take a look at our steeping approach; how we grind our coffee, when we grind our coffee and that type of thing. It has made me more aware of how we are currently doing our service. I think it will be really impactful in the long run.
What did you learn about pairing coffee with water?
When you’re in Europe, they always give you a shot glass of water when you order coffee. I always wondered why they do that, because you seldom see it in the U.S. Before the first session in Switzerland, I asked about the water. They said water plays a role in the enjoyment of coffee. We all scoffed at that, with chips on our shoulders, but when we tried different waters with coffee, it really does add a certain fullness to coffee. It changes how coffee feels in the mouth. It adds an element of texture.
You take a sip of coffee then a sip water and the idea is to refresh your palate and you taste different elements of the coffee and different elements of the water.
The effect of K-Cups
How about with food?
We did experiments with high-acid fruits and coffee. You don’t normally think of coffee as having so much acidity, but it does and it can be complementary or a balancing act. Mango, for instance, was paired with a lightly roasted coffee, or an unripe strawberry with a deeply roasted coffee. It was interesting to see the harmonization of the two.
How have K-Cups/pod coffee changed the business?
Pods and K-Cups are more expensive, but as far as consistency goes, you can’t beat it. The quality and selection Nespresso has is really terrific—I sound like an ad for them, I know. The pods are all recyclable so it becomes an environmentally impactful thing for us, because we are in Seattle, which is very conscious of the environment.
For high-volume restaurants that are focused on providing a great experience, when you’re doing 400 to 500 covers, it’s really hard to get a consistent cup of brewed coffee for service. You can do that with a pod. Per cup it costs a bit more, but it’s a service to the guest.
Were you a fan of coffee pods before this training?
No, I was a skeptic, being in Seattle, which is the de facto coffee capital. With the name Nespresso, my first thought was Nescafe, so I went in with a lot of skepticism. But, after going through program, I was really impressed. I was kind of sold on it.
What trends to you see in terms of coffee service in restaurants?
A lot of it is being more conscientious of where your coffee is coming from, whether it’s fair trade or direct trade. Also we’re seeing more in the way of presentation to guests, like a really cool French press, or a pour-over technique like Chemex. It serves as a double-edged sword: it’s a cool show but also a great way to brew coffee properly.