Date: August 2003

Column/Title: Not Your Ordinary Espressos

Author: Kenneth Davids and Willem Boot

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Common coffee wisdom argues that the only way to fully exploit the flavor-intensifying potential of the espresso brewing system is by brewing with blends. Because the espresso pressure-extraction brewing system is so efficient, the argument runs, it emphasizes the singularity and imbalance of single-origin coffees, turning their simple melodies into over-amplified cacophonies. Thus only a blend of coffees can provide the combination of complexity and balance, the deep-toned, sweet restraint, that marks a good espresso coffee experience. We decided to test this wisdom to by preparing a range of single-origin coffees brought to moderately dark to dark roasts as espresso. I asked a range of roasting companies to choose a selection of their coffees might make good single-origin espresso, and invited Willem Boot, a well-known U.S.-based coffee consultant, to co-taste them with me.

Would these distinguished single-origin coffees fall on their monotoned faces when brewed as espresso, revealing themselves as shallow and one-sided, or thin and acidy?

Not at all. In fact, if this sampling is any indication aficionados may be missing some interesting coffee experiences if they limit themselves solely to blended espressos. Willem and I sampled a total of fourteen single-origin coffees as espresso. As always with Coffee Review espresso tastings, they were sampled both as straight shots and in hot milk (two parts milk to one part coffee). The average score was an impressive 85, and four of the eighteen attracted ratings of 89 or higher.

The best of these coffees achieved a remarkable and perhaps paradoxical synthesis of distinctiveness and round, sweet balance. True, I felt that most will work better as straight shots or in short milk drinks rather than in tall milk drinks like caffe latte, where they may lack milk-mastering presence and body. But there were exceptions here as well; in particular the highest ranking Bartlett's Yemen Mocha and Supreme Bean Timor handled milk very well.

Success pretty much extended across coffee geography. Coffee insiders will not be surprised to learn that two of the four Brazils performed particularly well as espresso. Traditional "natural" or dry-processed Brazils, low in acidity owing to medium growing altitudes, dried inside the coffee fruit and ripened to sweetness during long days of dry, sunny weather, have long been traditional favorites for espresso brewing, and form the backbone of many of the world's most distinguished espresso blends.

However, it may be surprising that three of the five wet-processed coffees from Latin-American origins farther north - a Mexico, Panama, and Colombia - also did well. True, the samples from two origins most associated with high growing altitudes and high acidity - Guatemala and Costa Rica - proved to be rather sharp tasting. But the Colombia was a softer, rounder, fruitier style of this normally acidy origin, and it and the Panama and Mexico all produced balanced and subtly distinctive espressos.

Among more exotic origins, the one India we sampled (India arabicas also are traditionally prized for espresso owing to their sweetness and low acidity) did relatively well. The East Timor and Yemen did more than well - they both scored over 90.

Both displayed mild processing taints - meaning flavor characteristics not intrinsic to the coffee itself, but introduced by unconventional methods of fruit removal and drying. In the case of the Timor the taint was an earth-toned bouquet associated with a mild mustiness probably picked up during rain-interrupted drying. Yemens are one of the world's most traditional coffees, dried inside the fruit on rooftops. Somewhere along in this simple process the drying fruit imparts to Yemens their characteristic overripe, edge-of-fermented fruitiness. It also can impart a lush, sweet roundness and depth of sensation that, in the case of the Bartlett's Yemen reviewed here, generated an almost startlingly fine espresso that carried its fruity complexity straight through from aroma to milk.

I am not alone in feeling that, as espresso in the United States moves from shots of over-roasted high-grown coffee drowned in hot milk to a more restrained, urbane menu of straight shots and short milk drinks produced from naturally sweet coffees, a culture of connoisseurship will develop around espresso, a culture keyed not only to more distinctive and varied espresso blends, but to single origin coffees as well.

Those purists who argue that espresso roasting and brewing desecrate single origins should try the Supreme Bean Timor Maubesse or the Bartlett's Yemen reviewed here as straight shots. The distinctive character of both of these exotic origins seems suavely tamed yet subtly magnified by the espresso format.

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