Italy Seen from America: Nine (Genuine) Italian and Three American Espressos
Italians must both wonder and cringe when they observe the amazing globe-trotting journey of espresso, a beverage system so quintessentially (and once so exclusively) Italian. Setting aside the implied stereotype that associates Italian-Americans with gangsters, the scene in an early episode of The Sopranos in which Silvio encounters a Starbucks-style espresso bar for the first time and wants to break it up because they've stolen espresso from the Italians must strike a sympathetic, if secret, chord.
Espresso is now the variously interpreted centerpiece of sleek coffee bars and caffes from Cleveland to Sydney to Mumbai. Barista contests proliferate like junior soccer leagues, with judges eyeing crema like grouchy Milanesi while youthful audiences cheer the elegant moves of their tattooed favorites. And while the beverage and the superbly tuned technical system that produces it are continuously transformed by global marketing and local taste, they still remain closely tied in name and spirit to Italy.
Different Despite the Gondolas
Italian names both real and invented decorate bags of American espresso blends. However, anyone who has mindfully consumed coffee in Italy can vouch for the fact that these American blends are quite different from their Italian counterparts, despite the Americans' tendency to scatter Italian names and gondolas across their packaging.
How different in sensory character are actual roasted-and-blended-in-Italy blends from their American counterparts? And how attractive are they from the point of view of the (perhaps Americanized) criteria we've developed at Coffee Review?
We were able to purchase about a dozen espresso blends roasted and packaged in Italy. At this writing most are available to consumers only via Internet, and only in large (though relatively inexpensive) one-kilo (2.2-pound) valve bags. Of the blends we reviewed, only the rather expensive Illy, in its elegant 8.8-ounce can, can be found in American food stores.
Impressive Straight-Shot Option
Nevertheless, ferreting out such blends appears to be well worth the espresso aficionado's effort. The majority of the roasted-in-Italy blends we sourced for this review were dramatically different from the typical American blend, in some cases different from any American espresso blend. And at least one, the Segafreddo Massimo (93), was different in such a dramatic and (to my taste) impressive way that I would recommend that any American aficionado of straight-shot espressos try it at least once. Others, like the familiar and delicate Illy (89), the versatile Oro Caffe (92), the expansively milk-mastering Attibassi Espresso Italiano (90), all expand on the more familiar espresso experiences offered by American blends.
The majority of the Italian blends we reviewed were produced by very large to rather large Italian roasting companies, which led to the next question: Which American blends should we choose against which to benchmark the Italian blends? Because the Italian blends were not boutique coffees but rather produced by large to medium-sized companies, we decided to choose as comparison a trio of American blends from a range of similar sized companies: the gigantic Starbucks, the large West-Coast roaster Peet's and the smaller but expanding Chicago roaster Intelligentsia.
The Italian Difference
What makes the Italian blends different? First of all, most are lighter roasted than their American counterparts, sometimes dramatically so. Perhaps more importantly, Italian (and European roasters generally) apply heat during roasting in different ways than do American roasters. Many Italian roasters, for example, interrupt the roasting after the free moisture has been forced out of the beans but before the roast transformation begins (what American roasters call "the dwell"), then resume the roasting after the beans have cooled. The general impact of this practice is to mute acidity, but it doubtless impacts blend flavor profile in other ways as well. Italian roasters also may pursue other practices before and after roasting that doubtless affect sensory profile, like allowing green beans composing a blend to "marry," or sit together and stabilize their collective moisture before roasting, or allowing roasted beans a longer period of rest or degassing before packaging.
Nevertheless, what to me mainly appears to drive the difference between these Italian blends and typical American blends is the character of the green coffees that make up the blends.
Most of these Italian blends (Illy is the exception) clearly make effective and imaginative use of coffees of the robusta species, whereas the three benchmark American blends consist entirely of coffees of the arabica species. Although some American specialty roasters are beginning to make cautious use of clean-profiled, neutral-tasting wet-processed robustas in their espresso blends, many of these Italian blends also appear to incorporate some fruity, edge-of-ferment dry-processed or "natural" robustas, a coffee type so completely relegated to cheap commercial coffee in the United States that an American specialty roaster would be hard put even to find a high-quality version to try in its blends.
The Illy Difference
At the other extreme from the Italian with-robusta camp stands Illy, which uses only coffees of the arabica species and attacks robustas as relentlessly as the Pope attacks contraceptives. However, Illy composes its all-arabica blends with a deft subtlety that escapes most American roasters. Illy buys coffees that are naturally sweet, low in acidity and roasts them lighter than most American specialty roasters roast their drip blends. Above all, Illy makes skillful use of naturally low-acid Brazil coffees, particularly those processed by removing the skin and often some of the fruit pulp before drying the beans - coffee types that Brazilians call respectively pulped natural and semi-washed, coffees that doubtlessly contribute the sort of silky delicacy and cleanly fruity top notes that are a hallmark of the Illy blends.
The American Difference
What all of this adds up to, whether achieved by robusta-based blends or Illy's Brazil-based blends, are espresso coffees that are naturally sweet, smooth in mouthfeel, usually rather full-bodied, with low acidity, little astringency, and the requisite fountain of crema, the golden froth that Italians consider the no-compromise sign of good espresso. The only exception to this generalization was the Amante Coffee Amalfi Blend (83), a very dark-roasted Italian blend that may have been deliberately designed for an American (or Americanized) market, perhaps to compete with Starbucks-style blends.
By comparison to the more characteristic Italian blends, the three American blends we tested were on an average leaner in mouthfeel, a bit sharper in the cup, and, above all, more astringent (a tight, drying sensation on the tongue, often overlapping but confused with bitterness) in the long finish.
Which is not to say the three American blends were alike. The Starbucks espresso (85), which I have often reviewed on this site to benchmark and situate espresso tastings, struck me as simpler, sharper and more scorched than usual this time around, perhaps because, judged by machine reading of color, it was even darker roasted than usual. The slightly less darkly roasted Peet's Garuda Blend (89), on the other hand, displayed considerable complexity, especially in the aroma, with no burned or scorched notes whatsoever and a smooth balance. The Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso (88), roasted to a moderately dark degree similar to many of the Italian blends, was agreeably versatile and probably closest in character to the Italian blends.
The Latte Challenge
A justification often given for the dark roast applied to many American espresso blends is the need for a sharp, roasty edge to carry coffee character through all of the milk and flavorings Americans tend to add to their espresso. However, based on this month's very small sampling, this claim appears to have little validity. Just as the moderately dark roasted Black Cat projected its character in milk more decisively than did the darker roasted Starbucks and Garuda, the medium- or moderately-dark-roasted Italian blends carried in milk much better than did the one dark-roasted Italian blend, the lean-bodied, slightly scorched Amante Amalfi Dark Roast.
On the other hand, it's difficult to judge which dominant green coffee types produce the best and most expansively pronounced character in milk drinks. The all-arabica American and Illy blends were not champions in milk, nor were the clearly robusta-dominated Segafredo Massimo and Segafredo Extra Mild (88). Perhaps the most one can conclude from this testing is that a balance of good robustas, natural Brazils and low-acid washed arabicas brought to a moderately dark roast is most likely to net the biggest bloom and most pronounced presence in milk.
A last note on the highest-rated Segafredo Massimo: This is, by American standards, a very unusual blend. It is lackluster in milk, but as a straight espresso it displayed the heaviest body, most honeyed mouthfeel, and most cigar-and-brandy style complexity I have ever tasted in an espresso. So, again, a caution: This is a blend for the curious espresso adventurer, not the casual latte drinker.