Readers' Choice Espressos
Well, special readers. The majority of the espressos reviewed this month were nominated by the roasting companies that produced them. I assume that a roaster knows what his best products are, so it also may be logical to expect these espressos to impress.
Most did. Of the twenty-eight we tasted, nine scored 90 points or better. Here are reviews of some of the highest rated or most interesting.
All of the samples we tested turned out to be from small to mid-sized companies that represent the sort of fresh thinking and tasting that over the last few years has transformed American espresso from dark-roasted predictability to explosively varied and inventive.
Although the majority of samples we tested occupied the sweet mid-spot of espresso roast color -- a medium-dark roast that develops sweetness and body without promoting bitterness - one high-rated sample, the heavy-bodied, muscular Reading Coffee Roasters Espresso (90), arrived very dark-roasted. Despite the perhaps inevitable hint of bitter astringency, it managed to preserve a fat body, fundamental sweetness and considerable nuance along with the deep, smoky character of a tactfully achieved extreme dark roast.
At the other end of the spectrum were espressos roasted considerably lighter than many American breakfast blends, including two single-origin Ethiopias intended for espresso brewing, one from the leader of the new light-roasted American coffee movement, Terroir's George Howell (Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, 90), the other a dry-processed Ethiopia from southern California's Coffee Klatch (Ethiopian Hache, 89).
The Blends-Are-Best Truism Revisited
Of course, offering coffees from a single region and crop for espresso brewing runs counter to the long-standing contention that the fast, efficient extraction achieved by the espresso brewing system exaggerates any imbalance in the coffee, putting a premium on the completeness and restrained complexity that can only be achieved by blending multiple green coffees. And, although it is true that neither of the two single-origin Ethiopias reviewed here were quite as balanced and complete as the very best of the blends, they were pleasing, impressive and offered espresso aficionados the same opportunity afforded aficionados of wines and single-origin drip-style coffees: a chance to taste the combined contributions of nature and culture as they manifest at a specific moment in a specific place in the world.
Defined by Brewing Method
Which gets us to the brewing side of espresso. Espresso, of course, ultimately is defined not by coffee origin or style of roast, but by brewing method: Espresso is coffee brewed by forcing hot water under pressure through a tightly compacted bed of ground coffee. This brewing system tends to exaggerate characteristics of the coffee; a coffee pleasingly tart and sweetly acidy brewed as drip may taste like vinegar as espresso, and the ultra-dark "French" roasts that many coffee drinkers find bracingly bittersweet when brewed in a French press may taste like water oozed from a burned building when sampled from an espresso machine.
The Espresso Reviewing Challenge
The espresso brewing system also makes reviewing coffees intended for espresso particularly challenging because the details of the brewing procedure have an enormous influence on the coffee's flavor and mouthfeel.
For the record, we use a La Marzocco one-group semi-automatic machine for our reviews, with the thermostatically controlled brewing temperature set at 200F and the grinder calibrated to produce an approximate one-ounce shot in 19 to 22 seconds after the first drop of coffee appears, or 25 to 30 seconds after the button is pushed initiating the brewing cycle. We use the leveling method to dose the coffee, which typically nets an 8-gram dose of ground coffee per shot.
Intimidation and Reassurance
For those readers who have never struggled with espresso brewing (or perhaps more so for those who have), these prescriptions may sound absurdly detailed. On the other hand, super aficionados and aspiring barista champions may consider them rather general and imprecise.
I can only reassure beginners that the high-rated blends reviewed here will produce a fine cappuccino or caffe latte even using a little steam-pressure device that retails for under $50 and a $15 blade grinder (although you do need to roughly understand what you're doing; see Espresso Brewing in our reference section). On the other hand, if you hope to produce at home a perfect, full-bodied one-ounce shot that is so naturally sweet that you don't need to add sugar, yes, you need to produce your perfect shot using a rather expensive machine ($500 to $800) matched with a good specialized home espresso grinder ($120 and up). Plus buy fine espresso coffees.
As for the demanding expectations of roasters, baristas and super-aficionados: Our brewing specifications put us in about the middle of the generally accepted range of espresso brewing parameters. Some, for example, argue that a brewing temperature of 198F produces a more complex, lively, aromatic shot than a brewing temperature of 200F, but since others argue for 203F, we compromised at 200F. Similarly, some pack the portafilter with 10 grams of coffee per shot and extend the shot to 30 seconds after the first drop (35 or so after initiating brewing), practices that, in my experience, produce a shot that may be impressively heavy in body, but often at the cost of the smoother mouthfeel and more fully expressive flavor obtained by the more conventional 8 grams and somewhat shorter shot time.
Finally, a note to buyers of these blends: These reviews, like all of our reviews, are snapshots, a single sampling at a given moment in time. Like any fine-tuned, subtle culinary production that is in a continuous state of re-creation, espresso blends can wander off track easily, more easily than blends produced for drip or French press. All it takes to turn a 91-rated espresso into an 87-rated espresso is one faded green coffee or a cell phone call in the middle of a roast batch. On the other hand, a new shipment of a blend component or more attentive roasting may turn a 90 into something truly extraordinary, in which case I gladly accept the role of coffee scrooge and offer my belated congratulations to the underappreciated roast master.