Date: August 2000

Column/Title: Classic Espresso Blends

Author: Ken Davids

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In an American context, a classic espresso blend is one that achieves the heavy body and natural sweetness required of espresso brewing by skillful combining of naturally sweet, full-bodied coffees, rather than by trying to subdue acidy coffees through aggressive dark roasting. In these terms, all nine of the blends in this month's espresso tasting can be said to honorably aspire to the classic.

Nevertheless, these blends structure their aspiration in divergent ways and arrive at divergent ends. I think of them as the subtle, the bold, and the idiosyncratic.

Both the Mr. Espresso Gold Medal Blend and the Illy Espresso reviewed here clearly define the subtle category. Both are high toned with a hint of acidity, and elegantly balance sweetness and bitterness. Both can be taken in the small cup with little or no sugar and make a superb if gentle cappuccino, though they tend to fade away when drowned in caffe latte volumes of milk.

This month's bolder aspirations toward the classic -- Café Society's Espresso Sessuale, the Mr. Espresso Organic Neapolitan, the Jeremiah's Pick Espresso, and La Colombe Torrefaction's Nizza Blend -- are more characteristic of the best American espresso practice. To varying degrees they lean toward the bitter side of the bittersweet equation, but are expansively and robustly bitter, not irritatingly so. They often require at least a touch of sugar in the demitasse to offset their bitterness, but can hold their own in caffe latte quantities of hot milk. The most impressive of these versatile blends represented in this month's tasting was La Colombe's Nizza Blend, a coffee remarkably complete and complex in both demitasse and milk.

Finally, the idiosyncratic: Two of this month's nine blends displayed overt musty tones, which I characterize as the taste of old, damp leather. Mustiness in coffee derives either from delayed or interrupted drying of the freshly harvested coffee or from deliberate exposure of the coffee after drying to humidity, as happens with Indian Monsooned Malabar and most aged coffees of Indonesia. Both monsooning and current aging practices produce coffees with heavy, syrupy body and a musty sharpness.

Although I generally dislike mustiness in coffees because it tends to dampen competing aromatics and dominates the cup, I enjoyed and admired both of these blends. The mustiness was backgrounded in the Coffee Bean Trading Espresso Classico. In Espresso Vivace's Espresso Vita the musty sharpness was more prominent, and I found that I needed to pace the shot rather quickly to allow the mustiness its natural turn toward cocoa and spice.

Finally, the Espresso Vita probably included coffees from the neutral but heavy-bodied robusta species, which is used in many Italian blends to promote body and crema, the essential golden froth produced by espresso brewing. Espresso Vita produced a truly formidable crema. During brewing it gathered in the shot glass like seething golden clouds from which the dark pool of espresso gradually precipitated. Those aficionados who judge espresso mainly on the spectacle of the crema undoubtedly will admire Espresso Vita.

I need to point out to readers that evaluating espresso coffees is a particularly nerve-racking and demanding undertaking, presenting many more difficulties than evaluating coffees intended for other brewing methods.

In particular, the details of how espresso is brewed dramatically affect the character of the demitasse. For example, a slow, prolonged extraction increases body but tends to burn out aromatics, whereas a quicker extraction reduces body but preserves aromatics. Some espresso blends are forgiving, and taste about the same regardless of whether a 1 1/4-ounce shot runs out in 15 seconds from first drop to last or 25 seconds. Other blends are more demanding, and change dramatically in cup character depending on the pace of the shot.

Second, there is a particularly wide spectrum of consuming habits among espresso drinkers, ranging from those who take a short shot without sugar, to others who add sugar to a straight shot, to still others who prefer the balance of coffee and milk achieved in a classic cappuccino, to others again who drown the coffee in caffe latte quantities of milk. All of these practices influence not only what one prefers in a blend, but also approach to brewing. Those who habitually dump a couple of spoonfuls of sugar into their demitasse or cappuccino, for example, may prefer long extractions that accentuate body and bitterness. Those purists who, like me, prefer to take their espresso without sugar, may favor extractions that are quicker and allow more natural sweetness and aromatic complexity to survive the heat of the brewing.

I spent approximately one-and-one-half hours with each one of the nine coffees reviewed here, repeatedly pulling shots until I achieved what I felt represented the blend at its best.

When brewing espresso for evaluation I follow the guidelines published by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (7.5 grams of coffee per serving tamped at approximately 30 pounds pressure, servings of 1 1/4 ounces each extracted in 20 to 25 seconds from the appearance of the first drop).

However, if I concluded that a given blend changed dramatically in character depending on the timing of the shot, I formally tasted it as many as three times, once at a pour that ran as short as 15 seconds from the first drop, to another that ran as long as 25 or more seconds. In general, I based my review on the shot pacing that produced what I felt was the most flavorful result for a particular coffee.

For reviews like this one, I taste espresso three ways: as a straight shot, mixed with an equal volume of hot water, and mixed with an equal volume of heated but not frothed milk.

In the "Who Should Drink It" paragraph I note blends that seem particularly forgiving in terms of how they are brewed, and one that seems particularly demanding, Espresso Vita from Espresso Vivace.

Those consumers who own a sophisticated pump or piston machine and know how to use it will get good results with any of the blends reviewed here. Beginners and those who own a steam-pressure brewer (without either pump or piston) or an inexpensive pump machine (one that sold for less than $250, for example) probably will be happier with one of the more forgiving blends.

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