Nice Going: Readers' Choice Espressos
Coffee Review readers appear to have good taste in espressos. Of the fifteen espressos tested for this review, all were nominated by Coffee Review readers. Of those fifteen, seven achieved scores of 90 or over, and two more hovered in the 88/89 range. This success rate is considerably higher than typically achieved when I simply collect samples based on roaster nominations plus a random sweep through the Internet.
True, some of the nominating "readers" turned out to be nominating roasters bringing their own coffees to our attention, but these readers-cum-roasters still appeared to be able to distinguish a good espresso when they tasted one, even if it was one they helped produce.
Co-Taster Ted Lingle
I was assisted in this review by Ted Lingle, longtime director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), industry authority, and author of The Coffee Cupper's Handbook, the standard technical work on sensory evaluation of coffee. We conducted our testing at the SCAA laboratory and training facility in Long Beach, California. The espresso was prepared (with great aplomb and impressive consistency) by Lorenzo Brown, SCAA Research and Training Associate.
I was relieved to find that my reading of these espressos differed very little from Ted's, although Ted's net scores tended to come in higher than mine. (We tasted in silence while we rated these espressos, by the way, and did not share our assessments until the tasting and scoring was finished.) This consensus was reassuring because systems for evaluating espresso have not been nearly as thoroughly worked out by the American coffee industry as have systems for evaluating coffees intended for normal brewing. The consensus reflected by Ted's and my assessments suggests that the American coffee industry probably is not wallowing in sensory anarchy when discussing quality of espresso beverages.
Espresso Tasting Protocol
In the espresso tasting protocol pioneered by Coffee Review, each taster is provided two one-ounce servings or "shots" of espresso, one served plain and one mixed with two parts hot milk. Shots are produced with a La Marzocco espresso machine and grinder, using the double portafilter and the industry standard of approximately 7 grams of ground coffee per serving. Each pair of one-ounce servings is extracted in an industry standard time of 17 to 23 seconds. In the case of this month's sessions, Lorenzo managed to produce all shots we evaluated at exactly 22 seconds.
Criteria for Espresso Excellence
Reading between the lines and numbers of Ted's and my tasting forms, what characteristics mark an outstanding espresso, and how are those characteristics different from those characteristics that mark excellence in coffees intended for use in drip or French-press coffee makers?
Heavy body and substantial mouthfeel. The tactile sensations of weight and texture are arguably far more important in determining the pleasingness of espresso than they are in determining the pleasingness of coffee brewed in the ordinary way. Nothing disappoints a drinker of straight espresso more than a thin, watery beverage when the expectation is a thick, richly textured one. Furthermore, heavier bodied espressos carry their flavor into hot milk far more effectively than those that are lean in mouthfeel or light in body.
Balance and complexity. Complexity is an important criterion in evaluating any coffee no matter what the brewing method, but the espresso system, with its rapid, thorough extraction, particularly awards balance, or the absence of extremes. Too much bright acidity from high-grown coffees can doom an espresso blend, for example, as can the burned bitterness of many dark-roasted coffees.
Procedure and Criteria Aside, What about this month's coffees themselves?
Most of the coffees reviewed here were produced by small, in some cases tiny, roasting companies. Most of the nominations we received were for such small-roaster, boutique coffees. Several readers also nominated espressos that are blended and roasted in Italy. Unfortunately, these coffees proved to be very difficult to obtain. As I write we still are waiting for our Lavazza samples, which we ordered over two weeks ago.
Boutique Espressos Redux
On the other hand, the impressive quality of the small-roaster espresso blends we reviewed is no surprise. As I observed in our June 2004 review of Boutique Espressos many of these often superb blends are the creations of upwardly mobile members of the new American barista movement, younger professionals who grew up in the new American culture of espresso and who probably began their coffee education with portafilter and demitasse rather than with the conventional cupping spoon and water kettle.