The Aficionado's Pacific Northwest Espressos
If the Pacific Northwest has become identified with coffee generally, it has become even more identified with espresso. Though the espresso machine and its culture first romanced America via the Italian neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco, it only became fully Americanized in the Northwest in the 1980s. The basic Italian vocabulary of frothed milk, well-brewed espresso and a single dash of unsweetened chocolate powder atop a cappuccino exploded into a baroque extravagance of flavored syrups, an arsenal of various kinds of milk and milk substitutes, whipped cream, ten or twenty options of garnish, and, ultimately, chai, the ingenious adaptation of traditional Asian spiced black tea to the espresso machine.
Although some of these innovations originated in Berkeley and San Francisco (the caffe latte and the mocha, neither of which are standard Italian caffe offerings, and the white chocolate mocha), everything else on that vast and proliferating menu appears to have bubbled up out of a ferment of grass roots exuberance in either Seattle or Portland. At the height of this palate-staggering explosion I recall visiting espresso carts and kiosks in Seattle in the 1980s and finding drinks on the menu that used as many as three flavorings - one mixed with the espresso, one in the frothed milk and one flavoring a final topping of whipped cream.
The most excessive of these innovations have pretty much vanished from the scene of their caloric crime, leaving behind a core of now almost classic-sounding options: chai, the depth charge, the soy latte, etc.
The Strident Old Days
But, more importantly for the aficionado, some quiet innovation was simultaneously taking place in the Northwest in regard to the coffee itself. Rather than erupting from outside tradition, this innovation worked inside it, bringing nuance and sophistication to a previously rather naive approach to espresso roasting and blending.
The original Italian-American espresso blends, the kind I first tasted in Manhattan and San Francisco's North Beach in the early 1960s, were an intense but not particularly subtle or complete experience. They were composed of intensely acidy, high-grown coffees brought to a very dark roast, transforming the acidity into a sharp, often burned, pungency. This strident beverage was then run out of the machine in quantities of two or more ounces (as opposed to the concentrated one-ounce serving typical of true Italian practice), producing a screechingly bitter, acidic, thin-bodied beverage. No wonder Americans started taking their espresso with milk.
Innovating Inside Tradition
However, as their Seattle colleagues were busy proliferating menu options while standing pat on the coffee, others in the Seattle area were simultaneously occupied developing a more refined espresso, using naturally sweet, low-acid coffees brought to a moderate roast designed to caramelize the sugars in the bean rather than burning them, maximizing body in the cup rather than sending it up the chimney in the roasting smoke.
Some of those from the Seattle area who helped bring tradition back into American espresso blending and roasting are represented with coffees in this review: Mauro Cipolla at Caffe D'arte, David Schomer at Espresso Vivace, Tim McCormack and relative latecomer Jeff Babcock at Zoka Coffee Roasters, and whatever remains of the original, founding influence at Torrefazione Italia. Starbucks also deserves considerable credit on the refinement front, since its more restrained interpretation of the baroque innovations of the grassroots Seattle espresso culture helped give that creative proliferation a more reasonable and comprehensible direction. The Starbucks' espresso blend (reviewed here) takes a sort of middle ground between the sharply bitter, often burned espresso blends still typical among many small American specialty roasters and the lighter roasted, sweet-coffee blends of the best Seattle boutique roasters. Tully's blend, also reviewed, takes a similar middle position.
Coffee Review Protocol
At Coffee Review we review espresso both as straight shot and in a volume of two parts milk to one freshly pulled shot of espresso. Willem and I tasted the espressos reviewed here together on the same day, prepared on Willem's La Marzocco machine. Because the act of brewing is so crucial to refined evaluation of espresso coffees, following a precise, replicable brewing and preparation protocol is essential to any credible review.
Not Many Surprises
At any rate, once the crema had settled and the ratings were matched with the coffees, there were only a couple of surprises. The blends that, in general, scored best were blends produced by smaller Seattle roasters already celebrated for their espresso production: Zoka, Espresso Vivace, Caffe Vita, Caffe D'arte. (Admirers of these companies should keep in mind that we arbitrarily selected one blend from each roasting company for testing. It well could be that other espresso blends from the same roaster might attract higher - or lower - ratings than the specific blends we chose to test.)
On the other hand, samples from the larger companies, like Starbucks, Tully's and Millstone (the specialty division of Proctor & Gamble) came across as solid blends but not particularly complex or exciting. One surprise was the relatively ordinary showing of the Torrefazione Perugia blend, which has a wide following among espresso aficionados and which scored ratings of as high as 90 in previous Coffee Review tastings. It is easy to blame this apparent fall from excellence on the fact that Torrefazione is now owned by Starbucks, but given that Starbucks has held ownership of Torrefazione for only a relatively short period of time, it is more likely that either we had the bad luck to source an aging or sub-standard bag of this blend, or that the deterioration in quality preceded the Starbucks purchase, during the time Torrefazione was undergoing an earlier series of ownership changes.
Two blends from widely admired small roasting companies, Caffe Vita in Seattle and Stumptown in Portland, were complex and intriguing, though they provoked inconsistent response from Willem and me. Upon studying our tasting notes after the event it is easy to see that we were registering similar aspects of the same coffee, but assigning different value to them. In general, it appears that I was placing more importance on sheer complexity and character than on overall balance, whereas Willem was placing more emphasis on balance, defined as an espresso that is neither too bitter nor too acidy nor too thin in body nor watery in mouthfeel.
A Touch Too Bitter
Both Willem and I were disappointed by an overall lack of natural sweetness in these blends. If this were a tasting of espressos from other parts of the country, I might expect the excessive bitterness or sharpness to come from acidy coffees brought to too dark a roast, but this was not the case in most of these samples. My own suspicion is that some of these blends rely too heavily on coffees like traditionally processed Sumatras or other coffee types that are low in acidity but often sharply musty or mildewed. The musty notes, handled right in a blend and coupled with sweetness in the coffee, can add depth, character, and a sort of spicy chocolate to espresso blends, but some of these blends appeared to express a little too much of the bitter side of these creatively musty components.
Finally, it was surprising to me that none of the blends we sampled from elite roasters like Espresso Vivace, Zoka or Caffe D'Arte attracted even higher ratings. Perhaps if we had surveyed all of the blends from these companies we might have found one or two that achieved this sort of top-end agreement. But, though none of these blends took us on consensus trips to crema nirvana, we did sample some fine, distinctive espressos very much worthy of fussing over at home.