In the 60s we used to talk about instant karma, meaning one minute you're criticizing someone's taste in bellbottoms and the next you're walking into the adjoining room and finding someone else knocking your flower-print shirt. My current episode of foot-in-the-mouth karma took a month, not quite instant, but definitely a quick turnaround from a karmic perspective.
Last issue I noted a trend for medium-sized, regionally dominant roasters to produce higher rated coffees than either very small roasting companies or very large ones. Along the way I cited a whole paragraphful of likely reasons for the presumed better performance of these medium-sized companies, including better access to green coffees and better roasting technologies than small companies, and more manageable roast volumes than the giant companies. This Time Smaller is Better
I had better come up with some different reasons, because this month's collection of espresso blends from very small boutique roasters - some very, very small - suggest something else entirely. It suggests that smaller really is better, and that these little companies with their (I presume) hands-on approach to roasting and 20-bag lots of green coffee produce espresso blends as good or better than competing blends produced by any roasting company in the country, small, medium or gigantic. These blends were thoughtfully designed, tactfully roasted, and as subtly individualistic as their often quirky bag copy and websites. It revives one's faith in the original democratic vision of specialty coffee: a roasting machine in the back of the store, an individualistic roaster/owner in front, and all of it built around a love for coffee rather than a marketing plan.
An Average of 88
I tasted fifteen espresso blends from thirteen small to tiny boutique roasting companies. As informal controls, I threw in one blend from a well-known mega-national company and one from a medium-sized, regionally dominant company of the kind I touted last issue, in this case Neighbors Coffee of Oklahoma City.
The Neighbors espresso emerged quite well at 89, the espresso from the well-known mega-national company did about as well as it usually does, in the mid-80s, but the boutique espressos as a group did extremely well. The fifteen I tasted averaged a rather extraordinary 88. There was not a gagger or loser in the bunch, and five out of fifteen ended with ratings of 90 or higher.
The Espresso Blending Paradox
As coffee insiders know, sophisticated espresso blends may be the ultimate test of coffee blending and roasting expertise. The espresso brewing method extracts flavor components from coffee so efficiently that any imbalance or sharpness in the blend is enormously amplified, particularly when the coffee is taken as a straight shot. On the other hand, any weak-kneed lack of body and power will leave the blend overwhelmed and under flavored in milk drinks. Thus the American espresso roaster-blender must walk a narrow creative line, simultaneously muting sharpness and acidity while maximizing sweetness and milk-mastering body and complexity.
Espresso blends also make daunting demands on coffee reviewers because their strengths and defects are so dramatic yet so subtle. I found myself using the same limited complement of words - chocolate, crisp, balanced, lean - to attempt to get at sensory events that may all fit the same basic category of experience, yet differ greatly in their capacity to deliver complex, pleasurable versions of that experience.
All of the blends reviewed here appear to rely on skillful selection of green coffees to achieve the sweetness and restraint coupled with quiet power that a successful American-style espresso blend demands. Some appear to intensify body and mute sharpness by making discreet use of coffees that are unorthodox by American specialty standards: high-quality wet-processed robustas, for example, which are naturally big in body and neutral in acidity, or Indian monsooned coffees, which rely on exposure to monsoon winds after processing to increase body and reduce acidity. Other blends seem to rely on more conventional choices: round, low-acid dry-processed Brazilian coffees; rich, gently musty traditionally processed Sumatras; the sweeter, fuller style of Latin American wet-processed coffees; deeply fruity dry-processed Ethiopia Harrars.
Ironically, only the Neighbors espresso, the sole entry from a larger roasting company, was roasted extremely dark. The other blends ranged from medium-roasted to dark. But no matter how dark some were roasted, none exhibited the overbearingly bitter, sharp character that once was typical of American espresso blends, a regrettable effect gotten by roasting high-grown, acidy coffees too dark too fast.
And so, allow me to take my foot out of my mouth and return, for one issue at least, to praising the efforts of these small roasters who seem to have revived the original tradition of American specialty coffee.
This latest revival of fine small-batch roasting may be fueled by a related new development in American specialty coffee history, the emergence of the barista culture. A barista, of course, is a fancy name for someone who operates an espresso machine and assembles espresso drinks. While larger companies like Starbucks may be on the way to replacing the skills of the barista with automatic machines, other independent, smaller cafes and chains have fueled a worldwide movement to dignify and professionalize the job of barista by instituting barista competitions, informal barista "jams," and by the recent establishment of the Barista Guild, now under the auspices of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. These barista competitions not only encourage skill in producing espresso and espresso drinks and an elegance and economy of gesture, but also - and more to the point here - an appreciation of fine and distinctive espresso blends. Those interested in the contemporary barista movement will find information on the Barista Guild at www.scaa.org/related_organizations.asp
Most of the baristas driving this movement are relatively young in years and counterculture in attitude and affiliation. The combination of irreverence and passion that animates the bags and websites of many of the roasting companies highlighted in this month's review certainly derives from this new, espresso-and-youth centered coffee culture. And I suspect that the elegance and sophistication of the blends reviewed here may rise from their creators' direct, hands-on engagement with espresso, starting with the experience of pulling a perfect espresso shot and working from there back into the subtleties of roasting, blending and green coffee sourcing.
A Grassroots Movement
The grassroots nature of the new sophisticated wing of the American espresso movement is best demonstrated by the fact that virtually all of the coffees that I review so favorably here were nominated by readers. Furthermore, they were roasted by small companies scattered in smallish towns all over the country.
I wrote those last few paragraphs fired up by two lovely shots pressed from the Doma Coffee Ruby's Organic Espresso. And also fired up by the evidence that the roots of specialty coffee may not be as strangled by formula-driven commerce as they recently appeared to be.