Espresso: Tasting Super-Heroes
I have spent plenty of hours with a cupping spoon in my left hand. This is my first "official" espresso tasting (American Espresso Blends: Boutique and Bigger, Coffee Review, May 2009). Each espresso we tasted was expertly pulled under the exact same parameters: 18g dose, 28 sec, 2 oz double split into 2 one-oz singles, through Nuova Simonelli competition double-baskets. All shots were pulled on the same machine with all groups tested for temperature at brew head at 200F, and all coffees were ground on one of two Roburs (both with new burrs). All were tasted (and pulled) blind; in other words, they were identified by number and neither Ken nor me knew the roaster or blend name until we had completely finished our ratings and notes.
I must admit that I, like most, have a 'God-Shot' profile in my head, which is probably based on the best espressos I've had. My order of importance in rating a shot is this: 1) aftertaste 2) body 3) flavor and aroma tie 4) persistence in milk. A good shot is typically only a few sips; hence most of the espresso experience is the aftertaste. I think the highest compliment to a good shot is not to want water afterwards. If the body isn't attention grabbing or a pleasant experience, forget it. When describing espresso to new espresso drinkers I refer to it as a Super-Hero version of the same coffee tasted as drip, be it a blend or single origin. This is why I put flavor and aroma third on my list of priorities: They are the shortest lived and play only supporting roles in this cartoon analogy. For example, if the finish, body and aroma are awesome and the flavor only OK, the espresso can still be Super. I feel the same about persistence in milk. While very important, it is a completely different category. I can think of a blend very close to my heart (and paycheck): Counter Culture's Toscano. I have had several mind-bendingly good cappuccinos from this blend but only a handful of straight shots that equaled that level of experience. I think it is one of the very best espressos in milk to leave the blending station. (No, we didn't test it.)
I am currently in the wake of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)'s 2009 event in Atlanta. Since Counter Culture is my employer I was able to host many a World Barista Competition competitor in our Atlanta Training Center. Therefore, I had the distinct honor to taste many of their espressos. Some were light, floral and balanced. Some were so bright they made me pucker and my mouth water. How would I rate those? The same as I rated the similar espressos in this test. I love acidic coffee as long as it fits the coffee's structure. Acidity is one factor of the whole. That is only to say it ain't easy being an espresso judge because they are all such different Super-Heroes with different Super-Skills.