Date: May 2006

Column/Title: Better than Ever: Boutique Espressos

Author: Kenneth Davids

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What's a boutique espresso? How about a coffee designed for espresso brewing produced by a very small roasting company for local customers ranging from neighbors to nearby cafes and kiosks.

In my most rigorously Platonic version of this definition, the people doing the roasting are ex-baristas (professional espresso machine operators) who got fed up with brewing someone else's coffee and decided to start blending and roasting their own with a passion fueled by membership in a community of similar espresso aficionados. My hypothesis is that these new, tiny to small roasting companies and their young leaders are quietly bringing the roasting and blending of espresso coffee to a new level of originality and excellence in America.

I'm relieved to report that this month's array of espressos from these new small companies nicely support my hypothesis. We sourced about forty espressos, of which I tested about thirty. Of those thirty, eleven attracted a rating of 90 or over, an exceptional showing. And immediately behind those eleven were several more netting ratings of 88 and 89.

A couple of trends were apparent among the thirteen coffees we chose for review.

Most espressos consumed in the world today consist of blends of various green coffees. The justification for presenting only blended coffees as espresso is the premise that the intense, concentrated nature of the espresso brewing method so exaggerates the idiosyncrasies of individual coffees that only a blend of various coffees can provide the requisite balance of syrupy body and complex but understated aromatics.

However, many of us have been feeling for some years now that the only-blends-for-espresso premise is overstated, if not flat-out wrong, and that the finest coffees from single origins, sourced and roasted with tact and intelligence, can produce superb espresso.

Furthermore, a slight imbalance may be part of their charm, since I would assume that espresso drinkers enjoy variety and sensory adventure as much as do lovers of brewed coffee and other beverages. The marvelous single-origin India washed robusta from Paradise Roasters (94) gives us superb body, mouthfeel and depth, with a surprising shimmer of flowers. On the other hand, the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe from the same company (92) is by comparison light-bodied but compensates with exciting aromatics, including a quietly dazzling display of lemon, flowers and chocolate working over a cedary pungency. The single-origin Nicaragua Madriz from Terroir Coffee (92) and the Brazil Fazenda Cachoeria from Ecco Caffe (90) are arguably more balanced than the two Paradise offerings, but still distinctive, combining full body and a variety of low-acid fruit and chocolate notes characteristic of their origins.

On the other hand, those companies that continue to blend appear to be blending better.

Everyone seems to have caught on that naturally sweet, low-acid coffees brought to medium to medium-dark roasts produce smoother-bodied, more aromatically complex espressos than acidy coffees brought to an aggressive dark roast. However, the range of style and expression in these blends continues to expand as roasters wean themselves from routine reliance on Sumatras, Brazils and wet-processed Latin American coffees as the mainstays of their blends. I tasted monsooned coffees from India, wet-processed robustas (probably also from India) and dry-processed Ethiopia coffees in these blends as well as the more familiar dry-processed Brazils, low-acid wet-processed Latin American coffees and traditionally processed Sumatras.

In many respects, the new Belle Espresso blend from Coffee Klatch (94) typifies these new blends, with coffees from five different origins stretching the sensory range in a balanced but complex matrix. On the other hand, some impressive blends are themed blends with a focus on certain coffee profiles; Novo Coffee's impressive Tawar Rouge, for example, and Stone Cup's Full Natural Blend make use of sweetly fermented Ethiopia dry-processed coffees to help achieve an exotic brandy-toned character.

Many of the companies producing top-rated coffees in this month's reviews are classic up-from-barista enterprises. Others are the dreams of young enthusiasts who simply plunged right from some other unsatisfactory career into caffe-owning and coffee roasting. (Although one, Terroir Coffee, is the latest creation of George Howell, one of specialty coffee's founding innovators who is still innovating, in this case with an exquisitely refined new small roasting company and a new line of single-origin espressos.)

A good giveaway that the roastmaster is an ex-barista is the tendency to send instructions along with the coffee stipulating optimal length and volume of shot, water temperature down to the degree, gram weight per shot, etc. Baristas properly see espresso coffee as an element in the larger drama of drink production. This is the premise behind the international barista movement and its regional, national and world championships, where contestants are judged on the basis of the quality of their espresso and espresso-based drinks as well as the flair and competence of their performance.

Here at Coffee Review we run a different sort of competition, however. Here espressos are expected to walk alone into the kitchens of connoisseurs and consumers and stand up to at least a little variation and abuse.

I feel that all of these high-rated espressos will do just that: Despite (modest, we hope) variations in brewing time, water temperature and machine quality, all should acquit themselves quite well; I expect startlingly well.

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