Saturday, May 14, 2011

What makes good espresso

Recently I visited a new coffee bar just opened by a local up-and-coming roaster. It was everything one would expect from a third wave coffee bar: a pour over bar in lieu of a coffee brewer, a paddle operated espresso machine, and your choice of a couple of different espresso offerings. Both espresso offerings were single origin, one being described as their "princess" espresso, the other was touted as a bigger espresso. I opted for the bigger one and was presented with a perfectly prepared, thin, biting, one-dimensional espresso.

This reminded me of a quote from Antony Wild's Coffee, a Dark History. He said, "espresso is a wonderful way to make good coffee, but not a good way to make wonderful coffee." This statement may seem like a slam on espresso but Antony is pointing out a fact that seems to have been lost of late, espresso machines make espresso coffee. What makes for a good coffee, or even a wonderful coffee, does not make for a good or wonderful espresso. I love Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee, it is one of those iconic great coffees. It has this incredible Jasmine like perfuming and an almost tea-like aftertaste. Put it in an espresso machine and you will get a thin bodied, acidic, almost flavorless shot. It's very delicate nature makes it completely unsuitable as an espresso coffee, especially on its own.

Many years ago, just after we had opened our second store in Alaska, I was working behind the espresso machine when a little old Italian lady came up and ordered a double espresso. I made the espresso and she disappeared around the corner. A short time later she returned the demitasse and saucer and said, "Your blender, he is a genius." It was, and still is, the highest praise from the best authority I could ever have.

Notice that she praised the blender of the espresso; not the Roaster, the Coffee Buyer, or even the Barista. The Blender, to her, was the craftsman.

In the early days of the espresso revolution here in America, there was a concept brought over from Italy known as the 4 M's. The 4 M's were Italian words that corresponded to the 4 necessary ingredients of a properly prepared espresso. They are, the Mano: the person making the espresso; Macinazione, the correct grind; Macchina, the espresso machine; and finally, Miscela, the coffee. Literally, the blend.

When we first began roasting we could only afford a few different varietal coffees. As the business grew, we were able to expand our offering. Armed with a simple sample coffee roaster, I began feverishly searching for unique coffees. I was excited at the time to try my hand at new blends, and since we were principally an espresso roasting company, these were espresso blends. But a funny thing happened with the espresso blend. The "better" the coffee used in the blend, the worse the espresso tasted. Now, better here means more uniquely tasting coffee beans. I found these unique flavors did not translate well in the blend, assuming they translated at all.

The thing about espresso machines is that they amplify certain flavors and mute others. Moreover, each brand of espresso machine has its own particular taste. The breakthrough for me was when I finally figured out that what I was trying to do was wrongheaded in its approach. Instead of trying to blend in new coffees what I needed to do was work backwards from what was, to me at least, an ideal espresso flavor. I needed to have an end in mind and utilize the components to reach that end.

For many, I think,the assumption was that espresso is just strong coffee, and so they went about a creating a strong espresso blend. Sort of like saying if brewed coffee is like wine, then espresso coffee is the liquor. In this case the end was more like a strong whiskey resulting in something akin to a distilled spirit, not entirely enjoyable, but gets the job done. For me, what I had in mind was more of a liqueur, a top shelf Cognac, something that was complete in and of itself. Paying as much attention to the mouthfeel as to the aromatics and taste. It should be a complete package, a complete experience in one serving. The espresso should affect everypart of the mouth.

Over the years I have spent the majority of my time working on just this one blend. I find it best to break the blend down to component parts, in a way that each component has a part to play. In time I realized that there were only so many parts one could feasably work in the blend. Its important to remember that it is only about 18 grams of coffee that can fit into a typical Marzocco basket. Too many components not only means the blend becomes muddled, but also creates variations from shot to shot. For me this meant a blend of 3 or 4 components max. Some have argued for more, Dr. Illy famously stated that 11 was too many, 9 was about right, but I find too many makes the blend unwieldy.

The challenge, of course, is not so much creating that ideal flavor, but maintaining it consistently. Developing a reliable supply chain is the first step. More important, though, is this idea of component parts. How does one keep the same mouthfeel? What about the body? What is the overall impression the espresso should have? How do I adjust through the year? I now keep samples of past blends going back some ten years just for when I get so lost I can go back and get my bearings again. I have tried on a few occasions to create a second blend without much success, admittedly. Seems as if I have only one good espresso blend in me.

Now, I love a great cup of coffee . . . right after I have had my espresso. When I visit other coffee roaster's clients or their own coffee bar, I tend to judge the roaster by their ability to get their espresso right. If the blend is lackluster, I become suspect of their other coffee offerings. I have known coffee bars that offer more than one espresso at a time, sometimes it is simply a variety of blends, other times it is a "seasonal" offering. I don't have any beef with that, other than espresso machines need to be temperature calibrated to the blend profile and it is difficult to do it for more than one blend. But that is different from a roaster saying that their espresso blend itself is seasonal, that it is going to change from year to year, or season to season, or simply a combination of whatever is on hand. Seems a bit of a cop out to me. Its one thing to pull off a great tasting blend, but it takes a professional to keep it consistent.

More wrongheaded, I believe, is simply taking a varietal coffee and making that the espresso offering. While I was out of town, a friend and I visited a local coffee bar. It was a great little store with a just-installed three group La Marzocco Paddle machine. I ordered an espresso and the Barista asked if I would like the Guatemala or the Brazil, Which one is better? I asked. He said to get the Guatemala. I did, and it was just as disappointing as I expected a single origin espresso to be. I decided to try again and asked about the Brazil. Get the Guatemala, he said, strongly indicating that the Brazil was not so good.

Pretty bad for the Barista to lack confidence in what he/she is serving, but I fear a more long term negative effect on customer's appreciation for espresso. Single origin espressos cement old stereotypes on espresso that took a long time to overcome here in the States.

While in Houston at the Specialty Coffee Conference I had dinner with some Italian friends who complained they couldn't find a decent espresso at the show. "Nobody knows how to blend, here," they lamented.


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