American Espresso Blends by Kenneth Davids and Byron Holcomb | CoffeeReview.com

May 2009

American Espresso Blends: Boutique and Bigger
by Kenneth Davids; reviews by Kenneth Davids and Byron Holcomb

Specialty espresso is currently in the throes of a creative explosion. I think of it as "post-Italian" espresso, a dynamic community of baristas, blender/roasters and motivated aficionados remaking espresso as a global connoisseur's beverage with passionately contested barista competitions, non-traditional brewing innovations, and freshly conceived blend designs.

The goal of this month's tasting reviews was to survey and celebrate some of the American espresso blends that are the fruit of this wave of innovation. Hence the term "boutique." However, once we started to receive the coffees - close to one hundred blends from forty different roasting companies - it became obvious that we were going to have trouble enforcing any easy, caveat-free definition of "boutique." Size of the roasting company? Rarity of the blend? So we ended up being inclusive - all the roasting companies that sent us coffees had one of their blends considered, regardless of how large or small the company or rare or everyday the blend. Since many companies sent us two, three, even four blends, we asked each company to designate for review one of the blends they sent. This presented some companies with a dilemma, since they carefully design their espresso blends for specific purposes, particularly either effectiveness as a straight shot or in milk. Given the interest among roasters, we will plan to repeat this review exercise in early 2010 and conduct it in two phases - one month focusing on blends intended for straight shots and a second month on blends intended for milk drinks.

Counter Culture to the Rescue

However, that is next year and now is now. Or was now. We faced a logistics issue: how to provide precise, consistent production of forty different espresso blends in a concentrated, coherent period of time. Fortunately, we were able to rely on the help of Counter Culture Coffee, the celebrated Durham, North Carolina-based roasting company. Following the recent Specialty Coffee Association of America meeting in Atlanta, Counter Culture generously opened its Atlanta, Georgia training facility to us along with assistance from two key Counter Culture personnel. David LaMont produced the shots on a precisely tuned La Marzocco FB5. (Nuova Simonelli barista competition brew baskets, 18-gram dose, 28-second extraction, 2-ounce double split into two 1-ounce singles; water temperature 200F). Byron Holcomb, Counter Culture sales representative, coffee farmer, and columnist for Barista Magazine, joined me in the sunny Counter Culture facility, tasting the espressos and generating ratings and descriptions. Ted Stachura, Assistant Editor at Coffee Review, assigning blind codes to the coffees and made certain that none of the three of us knew their identities until the tasting was wrapped up. Counter Culture, of course, did not enter a blend in the tasting.

We started on the assumption that we would dismiss some blends without generating detailed descriptions for them in order to save time. We did end up dismissing eight of the forty blends, but eventually Byron and I tasted and described thirty-two of the forty. We often called for a second round of shots if we felt uncertain about the first set, and retasted three blends on the second day to firm up our assessments.

Blind Tasting Always Generates Surprises

As is always the case in blind tastings, some unexpected results emerged. Properly boutique, hand-made blends from small artisan roasting companies did dominate the 90-and-up ratings. However, several blends from celebrated small roasting companies stalled in the high 80's, while blends from lesser-known companies broke through into the 90s. Also, one blend from a very large (though family-owned and operated) company slipped into the top twelve: the Gavina Gourmet Coffee Old Havana Espresso (90).

Similarly, although most of the top-rated blends appeared to be the relatively recent offspring of the intensely pursued espresso experiments taking place among smaller roasting companies, two of the top-rated blends were anything but new, at least not in name and general concept. The Gavina Old Havana blend claims a 135-year history stretching back to the Gavina family's roots in Cuba, and the Martinez Fine Coffees Don Giovanni's Espresso Bellissimo (91) also has a considerable, if shorter, history. At the other extreme we had at least one consumer version of a blend that figured in the recently completed 2008/2009 round of barista competitions, the excellent Kaldi's Espresso 700 Competition Blend (92), which helped barista Mike Marquard place sixth in this year's United States Barista Championship.

Enjoy the Fine Print

Readers need to remember that similar ratings do not mean similar blends. We ended with eleven blends rated 90 through 92, but these blends achieved those ratings through different, sometimes very different, blend strategies. At one point during the tasting I was mentally dividing the samples into the earthy-dominated, the fruit dominated, and the classically balanced. When all was said and done, however, that simple schema did not make sense, since the complexity of some of the blending meant that a given espresso might express all three tendencies in a series of complex interactions.

This was undoubtedly the case with the top-rated Velton's Bonsai Blend (94). Both Byron and I were very taken by this blend, a complex creation with savory (spice, cedar) tendencies perhaps provided by slightly musty coffees, chocolate and fruit tendencies derived probably from dried-in-the-ripe fruit coffee types, and a lemony hint of brightness (washed coffees from Latin America or Africa?), but all integrated, poised, and ultimately complete.

Many of the other blends achieved similar complexity, though not always with quite the same completeness and balance. The Barefoot Coffee The Boss Espresso (91) was forceful and complex but perhaps not completely integrated. Byron leaned toward reading the musty suggestions and Ken the flower and fruit hints. On the other hand, the Zingerman's Espresso #1 (also 91), composed of coffees from a single set of Brazilian farms (the famous Daterra farms) was beautifully balanced and complete, though for me balanced to the point of simplicity, whereas for Byron there was plenty of quiet, tight-knit complexity to admire and describe. Note that both the Barefoot and the Zingerman's blends rated 91, but the approaches they took to generating that similar rating were very different, different enough that even a consumer with little experience with espresso evaluation should be able to taste and appreciate the distinction.

A Little on Tasting Criteria

Those interested in the subjective process of evaluating espresso would be well served reading the second paragraph of Byron's sidebar piece accompanying this article: Espresso: Tasting Super-Heroes. For me, aftertaste is one of the most important categories of evaluation for coffee generally and for espresso in particular, and Byron in my view rightfully emphasizes it. He also emphasizes the importance of the tactile properties, or "body," in evaluating espresso. He does tend to downplay the importance of an espresso's performance in milk, which I think is justifiable for the short-shot connoisseur, but less relevant to the many consumers who enjoy their espresso as cappuccino or caffe latte.

The good news on the milk front is that all of this month's top-rated espressos proved to be quite versatile. All did well in four parts hot milk (representing a milk-to-coffee ratio somewhere between cappuccino and a traditional caffe latte), and some did exceptionally well. To extend Byron's excellent testimony on espresso evaluation, to me an espresso does well in milk when it blooms without losing individuality or presence; in other words, when it sweetens and softens toward the inevitable chocolate tendency while still preserving some of the nuance present in the foundation shot.

The Value of Blind-Tasting Espressos

Now to the repetitive but apparently obligatory defense of blind-tasting espressos. One would think that given the almost universal use of uniform blind tasting protocols and procedures to evaluate virtually every beverage and food now existing in the Western world I would not have to defend the use of those same protocols and procedures to evaluate espresso. Nevertheless, a passionate group of espresso aficionados in particular questions us every time we run another blind tasting of espressos.

Admittedly there are unusual issues at play in evaluating espressos. Coffee generally is a fragile beverage that is in a continual state of re-creation. In particular, there is an intimate interplay between the espresso coffee and the extraordinarily complex act of brewing it on expensive, sophisticated pieces of machinery. I certainly have no problem with people publishing reviews of espresso coffees in which they have made every possible adjustment within their technical capabilities to maximize the performance of the coffee being reviewed. This practice provides valuable insight for everyone.

On the other hand, there also is enormous value in gathering a lot of coffees in one room, subjecting them all to the same protocols and procedures (protocols and procedures that reflect a consensus of industry leaders), and with everything stripped away except the fact of the cup itself, with all triggers of expectations, loyalties and coffee ideologies hidden and out of sight, taste and report honestly on what one has tasted.

Expectation vs. Evidence

I think the value of such an exercise is precisely what creates controversy around it. Often the evidence of the senses runs counter to expectation. For example, some blends Byron and I tacitly expected to perform better at this month's tasting ended at 88 or 89, whereas other blends we might not have expected to pop into the 90s did. (For the benefit of the expectations crowd, Intelligentsia Coffee, Stumptown Coffee and Terroir Select Coffees did not send samples for this tasting. And Counter Culture, of course, left itself out owing to conflict of interest issues.)

Finally, I am quite sure that there were some espressos in this month's tasting that might have attracted higher ratings if they had been extracted at, for example, higher temperatures or lower temperatures. Or in triple brew baskets. Or using one of many little ingenious brewing variations that have bobbed up out of the sea of experimentation going on in espresso today.

However, I think caveats are in order, not excuses. Forty roasting companies felt confident enough in the impartiality and soundness of our protocols to send their finest espresso blends for evaluation. Note that those that may have been held back from 90-plus ratings because the water extraction temperature was standardized at 200F rather than customized at a higher or lower value have not been punished, just left out. Those that rated 90 or higher did well at standard brewing parameters, which offers at least some reassurance that they are versatile enough to perform well in home equipment.

Byron Holcomb

Like many coffee professionals Byron Holcomb reports receiving his coffee epiphany after rejecting the initial signs. While serving in the Peace Corps from 2003-2005 in a coffee producing community in the Dominican Republic, he heard a small voice in his head saying, "do more with coffee." After a year working in the non-profit sector, he finally realized his calling in coffee, and in late 2006, he started working at Batdorf & Bronson as a production employee. In July of 2007 he became a coffee farmer in the Dominican Republic, in the same town he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now he works as a sales representative for Counter Culture Coffee in Atlanta Georgia, while spending about one month a year on the coffee farm. He also currently writes a column for Barista Magazine on his farm experience titled Harvest Journal. He can be reached at bholcomb@counterculturecoffee.com.

David LaMont

David discovered his passion for coffee after taking a job as a "person behind the counter" at a suburban Atlanta coffee shop several years ago. Since then he has worked at and managed several coffee shops in Atlanta, all the while remaining a faithful student of all things coffee. Over the past three years with Counter Culture Coffee he has overseen the building and development of the Atlanta Training Center "a barista safe house of sorts" where knowledge-hungry professionals and consumers gather to learn together. His official title is Customer Relations Representative. As a participant in this month's espresso tasting, David reports he did everything possible to bring consistency and control to the drink-making process.