Coffee Review - Single-Origin Espressos

May 2013

Lighter and Brighter: Single-Origin Espressos
by Kenneth Davids

Coffees from a single farm or cooperative roasted for espresso preparation – aka “single-origin” or simply “SO” espressos – are now a familiar presence on high-end coffee menus and counters in North America, and in many East Asian countries as well. But it was not so long ago that the argument ran that a single coffee from a single origin would always be too limited in its sensory properties to produce fine espresso, given the tendency of the espresso method to concentrate and exaggerate those properties. Supposedly one needed a top-note coffee to deliver aromatic vivacity, other coffees to intensify body and viscosity and round acidity, and so on. In other words, one needed a blend. Coffee Review first took issue with the blends-are-best position about ten years ago. It seemed to me at the time that this position limited the potential of specialty coffee to fully explore what coffee can be, what it can understand about itself, and what it can deliver to an aficionado consumer. When my first review article on single-origin espressos appeared in August 2003 (with Willem Boot as co-taster), I made the following prediction:

I am not alone in feeling that, as espresso in the United States moves from shots of over-roasted high-grown coffee drowned in hot milk to a more restrained, urbane menu of straight shots and short milk drinks produced from naturally sweet coffees [this was written in 2003, recall] a culture of connoisseurship will develop around espresso, a culture keyed not only to more distinctive and varied espresso blends, but to single origin coffees as well.

Today that culture of espresso connoisseurship appears to be fully developed, and very much focused on single-origin espressos. This month we make our third report on single-origin espressos since that first article appeared ten years ago. We sampled twenty-eight samples from twenty-eight roasting companies in North America and Taiwan. We conducted the tasting at Verve Coffee Roaster’s airy and spacious product development lab in Santa Cruz, California with the assistance and support of Jesse Crouse, Product Development Director for Verve, Cole Billings, Verve trainer, and Devin Eiring, Production Roaster. Our deepest thanks to Verve for generously sharing its facility and expert personnel.

A Co-Taster and a Clarification

As usual with Coffee Review espresso tastings, I enlisted an experienced co-taster to help me capture the often daunting sensory subtlety of espresso production. This time around, however, the taster asked not to be identified. His ratings and observations appear integrated with mine in the eleven reviews associated with this article, however, and I hope the clarity and incisiveness he brought to the tasting is apparent in the context of the reviews. Careful readers also should note that in this month’s reviews there is often a discrepancy between the published overall rating and the overall rating implied by ratings for individual categories like aroma, body, etc. This discrepancy was occasioned by the need to average upward to resolve discrepancies in both category and overall ratings between the two tasters.

The Scorecard

Of the twenty-eight espressos we sampled, about half scored 90 or better. Linked to this article are reviews of the eleven highest rated, all 91 or over. Most of the samples rating less than 90 clustered in the 87 to 89 range. Obviously this overall outcome suggests that the practice of offering single-origin espressos appears to be serving consumers well.

Light and Bright

It was striking how many of the single-origin espressos nominated by roasters consisted of a style of coffee traditionally associated with drip brewing rather than with espresso: green coffees from regions with high growing altitudes processed by the wet or “washed” method and brought to a light-to-medium roast. Such coffees tend, in general, to display an acidy brightness (owing to high growing altitude and lightish roast) and relatively low viscosity (owing to processing method), both tendencies that would seem to promote undesirable sharpness and reduce body in straight-shot espresso. However, many roasters pride themselves on their ability to reduce acidity and fatten mouthfeel for espresso brewing through roast profiling strategies, and I assume that they also select high-grown washed lots that appear to have a particular potential for espresso.

The highest rated of the high-grown washed, light-to-medium-roasted nominations was a sweetly bright, classically lemony and floral Ethiopia Yirgacheffe from Victrola Coffee Roasters (92) that at a medium roast succeeded in coming across as zesty rather than sharp, with the elegant aromatic vivacity of the Yirgacheffe washed type mostly intact. Interestingly, both my co-taster and I were willing to forgive its very light mouthfeel as an appropriate extension of its lively aromatics. The Conduit Coffee Guatemala Finca La Perla (91), also a classic high-grown washed coffee with clear origin character, was roasted considerably lighter than the Victrola Yirgacheffe, at the far light end of medium, but like the Victrola Yirgacheffe managed to soften the acidy brightness just enough to allow us to enjoy its lively, distinctive flavor and aroma in an espresso format.

In other words, both of these coffees successfully managed the balancing act of bringing the brightness and high-toned aromatic intensity of a distinctive single-origin washed high-grown coffee into an espresso sensory space without allowing it to come across as too sharp, astringent or thin-bodied. A handful of other high-grown washed samples did not quite manage to stay on the tightrope, however, displaying as either a bit too sharp and acidy as espresso, or a little too dull, suggesting perhaps that the roastmaster in pursuing his or her strategies to mute acidity also managed to mute flavor and aroma.

Round and Chocolaty

A second category among the samples – high-grown washed coffees brought to a moderately dark roast, poised just at the edge of the “second crack” – produced this month’s highest-rated sample, the 93-rated Conscious Coffee Organic Colombia SOS Espresso Roast. For readers not familiar with the strategies of roast style, coffees like this one are not “dark” roasted like Starbucks and Peet’s are dark roasted. In this case the roast is terminated just before, or occasionally just at, the point that the pungent, roasty sensation begins to develop. The goal is to maximize caramelly sweetness without introducing any burned flavor whatsoever, round acidity, fatten body, and turn the fruit notes gently toward chocolate and pungently sweet stone fruit like apricot.

The Conscious Coffee Colombia achieved this tricky move close to perfectly with a roast that managed to maintain the crisp berry and sweet floral notes associated with medium roasts while promoting deeper, more raisiny fruit and chocolate. The Revel Coffee Guatemala Santa Sofia (92) pulled off a roughly parallel outcome with an almost identical roast color, simultaneously promoting a bright, refreshing fruit note (“strawberry” for the co-taster) rounded by a fudgy chocolate sensation.

Espresso-izing the New Naturals

Some of the classic origins associated with espresso, especially natural Brazils and traditionally processed Sumatras, were missing from roaster nominations for this article, perhaps owing to lack of availability (we are nearing the end of the current crop year for Brazils) or perhaps owing to changing tastes favoring brighter, more acidy coffees. We did, however, find ourselves tasting a considerable number of what I like to call the “new naturals,” a coffee type in which the coffee beans or seeds are allowed to dry inside the ripe coffee fruit rather than after the fruit residue has been removed, as it is in the “washed” or wet process. Regular readers of Coffee Review are familiar with descriptions of the characteristics imparted to coffee by the ripe, drying fruit: sweetness, a mild to intense fruit ferment that may provoke associations ranging from brandy to fruit cider, and often (though not always) a more syrupy than usual mouthfeel.

Coffee purists and some traditionalists consider any fermented note in coffee a negative taint and grounds for dismissing the coffee, but most of us have found a way to value sweet ferment in this style of coffee, and have established criteria for judging when we feel it is balanced and successful or when it strikes us as too luridly lush or bitter-finishing.

Pure Expectations

My co-taster turned out to be a bit more of a purist than me in respect to the dried-in-the-fruit samples we tasted, although many of our judgments did overlap. A bitterish finish characteristic of mediocre samples of the dried-in-the-fruit type led us both to dismiss one sample with identical low ratings. On the other hand, the Seattle Coffee Works Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Guji Natural (92) and the Café Est Ninety Plus Nekisse SO Espresso (92), both dried-in-the-fruit samples with a ferment-toned flavor complex but a clean finish, attracted high ratings from both of us, although in both cases my score was two points higher than my co-taster’s. We differed more dramatically, however, in respect to the big-bodied Bacca Café El Salvador Natural Finca Malacara (91) in which an intense sweet fruit and brandy character was complemented by a slightly savory, herby note that I considered a legitimate and satisfying complication whereas my co-taster apparently did not.

Some roasters have argued that dried-in-the-fruit types are particularly well-suited to espresso because they tend in general to display a fuller, more viscous mouthfeel and a rounder, more backgrounded acidity than do wet-processed coffees, both tendencies traditionally considered positive in espresso cuisine.

However, having finished this latest exercise, I had the feeling that I might have actually preferred the best and cleanest of the dried-in-the-fruit coffees had they been roasted and offered for brewed application. I occasionally felt while tasting that a coffee’s full promise was being held down just a little, its potential for soaring top notes and full range of expression muted by the espresso method and perhaps whatever roast-profiling strategies the roastmaster applied to better suit the coffee for espresso brewing.

On the other hand, some quieter wet-processed coffees that I have tested earlier this year for brewed application rated higher in espresso application than they did when cupped. My regular cupping partner Jason Sarley and I rated the Just Love Peruvian Café Feminino Cecanor Coop at 89 in a recent cupping, but it emerged at a close-to-consensus 91 in this espresso tasting. Similarly, we rated the Conscious Coffee Colombia Fondo Paez 91 when we cupped it at a medium roast about three or four months ago, but roasted a bit darker and brewed as espresso (and perhaps quieted by further resting as a green coffee) it came out a top-rated 93 in this month’s tasting.

Blind-Tasting Espresso

This month’s espresso samples were tasted blind; in other words, the identities of the coffees were revealed to us tasters only after we had determined our ratings and sketched out our descriptions. Which brings me to Coffee Review’s oft-repeated defense of the practice of blind-tasting espressos using standardized preparation protocols. (Skip this if you’ve read it before, which is likely if you are a regular reader.)

Some espresso aficionados and professionals question us whenever we run another such standardized 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.

Very likely there were some espressos in this month’s tasting that might have attracted higher ratings had they been extracted at, for example, higher water temperatures or lower temperatures. Or using one of many brewing nuances available to skilled baristas.

However, coffees that do well at standard brewing parameters using standard protocols carry at least some reassurance that they are versatile enough to perform well in home equipment with its typically very limited control of brewing variables. Which is, again, the main point here: We want our readers to be happy with their coffee.