Espressos for Cappuccino and Caffé Latte
Espresso is the most demanding of all systems for brewing coffee. Not only does the slightest error in brewing doom the cup, but this system, which extracts the flavor elements of a serving of coffee in 15 to 20 intense seconds, exaggerates any flaw or imbalance in the coffee itself. So an espresso blend must be subtle and balanced. On the other hand, espresso coffee in the United States is asked to carry its rich, bittersweet message through large, sometimes enormous, quantities of milk, not to mention assorted sweeteners and syrups. Thus, North American espresso blends need to be powerful as well as subtle. This paradox -- balance and subtlety combined with power -- is best achieved with blends of several different coffee origins, although occasional coffees from a single origin, in the hands of a skillful roaster, can manage the job nicely (witness this month's Brazil Esteve "Safira" from Flying Goat Coffee).
A Milky Protocol
So here are the results of a systematic tasting of 20 espresso coffees (of which I report on 12) designed by roast masters and blenders to be particularly suitable for milk-heavy espresso drinks like cappuccino and caffé latte. Although my tasting protocol for espresso has always involved tasting espresso both as a straight shot and in milk, I elaborated the milk element of the protocol for this tasting. I sampled these coffees in three stages: first as a single, straight shot (1.25-ounces including crema, 17-20 seconds after the first drop), next as a single shot mixed with one part hot (not frothed) milk, and finally as a single shot mixed with three parts hot milk. North American caffé lattes may add as much as six or eight parts milk to coffee, but at that extreme level of dilution I find it difficult to determine anything at all about the coffee itself. Readers who take their espresso in very large quantities of milk should find the coffees I identify as effective in "big milk" good candidates for home brewing regardless of the exact proportions of milk to coffee in their final drinks.
Perhaps I was just lucky, or perhaps American roasters do better with espresso blends than with single-origin drip coffees. For whatever reason, I found considerably less to complain about with this set of coffees than with the typical set of drip coffees I cup. There were no thin-bodied, burned coffees, no rubbery or faded coffees. The most common failings were either an excessive sharpness in the small cup or a loss of authority in large quantities of milk. Seldom did a single blend fail in both respects, which only suggests that the perfect balance of power and subtlety is, as we might expect, difficult to achieve. In a straight shot I looked for smooth, full body, enough sweetness to balance the usually dominant bitterness of the coffee, plus some complexity or intrigue. In cappuccino-sized milk, I hoped to experience a continuity of balance and complexity. In larger volumes of milk I mainly looked for continued power and authority despite the rounding dilution of the milk. I didn't expect much complexity in big milk, but, surprisingly, I occasionally got it.
The Chocolate Factor
Not as in chocolate added to coffee, but as in the sweet, natural, delicately voluptuous chocolate tones that virtually all good espresso blends achieve when mixed with hot milk. It is possible for sharp, over-roasted espresso blends to miss the chocolate boat, but virtually none of these blends did.
Admirable Blender Strategies
These blends pursued a variety of often overlapping strategies to achieve a balance of power and subtlety. Some relied on roasting high-grown, acidy coffees dark enough to achieve a sharp bittersweetness. Others pursued body and authority by utilizing full-bodied, low-acid Brazils brought to a moderate roast. In a handful of cases I thought I tasted (or felt) the heavy-bodied, neutral presence of washed robustas. Several blends clearly used musty, rough-bottomed, often mildly fermented coffees like Sumatras or Sulawesis to achieve body, persistence, and a milk- penetrating nuance. At least one, probably more, used the depth- and body-enhancing effect of India Monsooned Malabars, those India coffees that have been systematically exposed to moisture-laden winds. Finally, I often detected the floral and fruit high notes gotten from the discreet use of African coffees. The fact that these blends pursued a variety of largely successful strategies to achieve power and complexity, rather than simply roasting the oils out of high-grown, acidy Central American coffees as was the common practice in American specialty some years ago, shows how far American roasters have come in their understanding of espresso, and in their capacity to produce a true American blend that neither imitates the languidly low-key espressos of Northern Italy nor sears the palate with over-roasted bitterness, but is simultaneously expansive, subtle, and powerful.