Here are three things you need to understand to fully appreciate the achievement embodied in the exceptional espresso blends reviewed this month:
First, the espresso brewing system produces its best results from coffees that are balanced but complex. Typically, it takes a minimum of three different coffees, often as many as five, to produce an espresso blend that is both complete enough and complex enough to produce a consistently good espresso shot. This challenge is even more daunting in the United States, where an espresso blend needs to be versatile enough to taste good with a lot of milk, with a little milk, and with no milk at all.
Second, all of which means that the more coffees a blender has to choose from, the easier it will be to produce a good espresso blend.
And, third, organic and Fair-Trade certification tends to limit the number of coffees available for blending. Such certifications are relatively expensive for producers, are not yet understood in many parts of the coffee-growing world, and, in the case of Fair-Trade, only apply to certain categories of coffee producer (small holders organized into democratically run cooperatives).
Hence this month’s challenge: produce an espresso blend as big as the world with coffees that still only come from relatively small pockets of the world.
Blenders and Producers Meet the Challenge
Given that challenge, the success of the organic and organic/fair-trade blends we sourced for this review is a tribute both to the skill of the blenders and to the determination of the organic and Fair-Trade coffee communities to improve quality and widen the geographical scope of their programs.
We sourced eighteen blends. None of the eighteen scored below 80, and most scored 85 or above. Most managed to impress both when sampled as a straight shot without milk and in two parts of hot (not frothed) milk. None displayed the sort of fingernails-on-the-blackboard bitter astringency that once marked many American espresso blends.
The Roasting Side of the Challenge
The blends reviewed this month extended across the roast spectrum, from extremely dark (in other words, darker than Starbucks) to a rather lightish medium roast (the splendid blend from The Roasterie in Kansas City). Most situated themselves near the middle of the roast spectrum, like the outstanding blend from Thanksgiving Coffee and the very good ones from Taylor Maid Farms and Ecco Caffe. In way of reference, the fine blend from Barefoot Coffee Roasters was roasted to almost the same degree of “darkness” as the standard Starbucks espresso blend.
Espresso also rewards sensitive roasting; in other words, a roast in which the coffee, particularly near the end of the roast cycle, is nursed with lower heat rather than blasted with high heat. Deliberate roasting maximizes sweetness, body and complexity, all qualities essential to fine espresso. Even the incredibly dark-roasted Sierra Organic blend from Allegro coffee managed to avoid tasting carbonized and retained enough solubles in the bean to plump out the body in an espresso shot.
A Victory for the Progressive Hedonist
Those for whom espresso has become a sensory adventure in itself rather than a caffeine pill injected into sweetened milk, and who want to feel that their every act has some small positive impact on environment or society, have some rather impressive options to contemplate among the blends reviewed this month.
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