What on earth is a `coffee sommelier’? And why is it that Erik Liedholm rarely tells anyone that he is the first accredited one in the city of Seattle?
“I don’t even know if you can call it an accreditation,” says the celebrity wine sommelier and distiller, who would rather pass quietly under the radar than be feted for a distinction that happened quite by accident.
It was like this. The International Chef’s Congress invited Erik Liedholm to participate in a competition in New York a couple of years ago, where 12 handpicked sommeliers from all over the country were doing blind tastings, wine-food pairings and answering quizzes to prove their authority on the subject of wine.
Erik ended up winning the competition, and was awarded some interesting prizes – a trip to the Rhone Valley in France, an iPad and a Nespresso coffee machine. He also got an opportunity to go to Switzerland, to the Nespresso headquarters, where he was introduced to every stage of the coffee production process – from growing and harvesting different genera of beans to roasting and brewing them to their best potential.
The teaching program was designed to make coffee sommeliers out of professional wine experts. Since they were already tasting specialists with a discerning palate, they could evaluate various subtleties in flavor and aroma profile and then find ways to pair coffee with food, spirits and even water. At the end of the teaching program, Erik was given a `test’ to prove he was really listening and learning. He passed the test, and consequently, came back home to Seattle with the “dubious honor” of being the first coffee sommelier in the Pacific Northwest.
“In Seattle, there are pros who are much more knowledgeable about coffee than I am,” Erik hastens to clarify. “People who have their own roasteries and coffee shops and who could talk me under the table on the subject. I guess I know just about enough about coffee now to be dangerous…”
For all his love for coffee – in fact, a crippling addiction to the brew – Erik isn’t about to monetize his coffee sommelier-ship any time soon. “Not unless I want to be living in a cardboard box,” he says wryly.
But there’s one question I’m sure everybody wants to ask Erik, now that we know he is also a coffee sommelier. Did his knowledge of wine help in any way with the study of coffee? And can coffee be paired with food, same way that wine can, to synergize their taste?
“Yes, they do try to draw parallels between coffee and wine,” Erik explains. “There are some similarities in coffee compounds that are also found in wine grapes, and terrior (home soil) plays a role, but in my opinion, it is more about how the beans have been roasted than anything else. I don’t think the other contributing factors are as relevant to the final body and flavor of the brew.”
On the subject of the roasting process, Erik confesses he is strictly old school. “There’s a trend in the wine business these days for what’s called `natural wines’,” he says. “Millennials are particularly fond of these really oxidated wines that I find quite difficult to drink. Same thing with coffee. Back when I was growing up, coffee used to be heavily roasted. Now it seems people like blonde coffee, which is roasted extremely light.” The attraction perhaps is the fact that the origin of coffee beans is at its most distinct in a light roast and people can make talking points of Indonesian versus Vietnamese versus Ethiopian, and feel good that way. Or maybe they simply prefer the taste. “Personally, I don’t get it, and I am not a fan of this bright, acidic flavor.”
He is particular about the manner in which coffee should be drunk as well. “I think once you make the coffee and it is in the pot and on the burner, you’re basically setting a timer on the destruction of that coffee. The longer it sits on the burner, the more the brew is going to deteriorate,” he says.
So if you have your coffee on a burner and come back an hour later, the coffee is not going to be good anymore? “Exactly,” he concurs. “If you make it and then pour it in a thermos instead, you can actually preserve the integrity of the brew that way.”
Pressing Erik for more nuggets of coffee wisdom, he offered another little tip that coffee lovers would love to know. If your coffee is too hot, there is no way you can enjoy it! “In the restaurant business, we cannot get our coffee hot enough. Customers are always expecting their brew to come out magma hot. But too hot coffee spoils the drinking experience. Much like white wine, which when served too cold can hardly be tasted at all.”
My final question for Erik was obviously about his personal recommendation. As a coffee sommelier from the coffee city of Seattle, which brew in the world would he recommend as his personal favorite?
“Nespresso, by Nestle.”
Erik’s answer may come as a shock to many, because the Nestle name is inextricably linked with low-quality, mass produced Nescafe in the public imagination. “I know that association is quite horrid, but Nespresso is really, really good coffee if you give it a chance,” he assures.
“Their coffee pods are beautifully made and they have so many choices of different roasts from different regions that you make a la minute. You make it per cup, so it is always super fresh.” What’s more, the pods that they use can be recycled, so they are globally conscious and care about the environment too.
“I think Nespresso gets a bad rap because they are looked upon as `Nestle the evil empire’, but as far as product is concerned, it is hard for me these days to have any other coffee,” says Erik. “In fact, we did blind tastings at the Swiss event, where we tried different products like Starbucks, Peat’s etc, and all sommeliers doing the blind tasting concluded that Nespresso was easily the best.”
You have to have the special machine and buy their pods, so the set-up is not cheap. Availability is also a factor, which narrows the Nespresso market to connoisseur-customers only. “You cannot buy Nespresso coffee at a grocery stores like Safeway,” says Erik. “They only have a handful of boutiques in the United States and sell at few select Macys stores. Even if you are buying online, after a certain date they won’t sell them anymore to make sure you get them at their peak. They have a very strict program to make sure the coffee is always at its best and they’re deeply invested in the integrity of their product.”
So does Erik serve Nespresso at the John Howie restaurants?
“Oh no! Our guests would probably have a meltdown if we were serving Nestle at John Howie,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “These ideas and preferences are all my own, and like I said, I am no expert in the field.”
Yes, right, Mr Coffee Sommelier!