Exploring “Classic” Espresso Blends: North American Roasters

Once a year, we ask roasters to submit coffees roasted for espresso for a special tasting with an outside lab partner, always focused around a specific theme. In recent years, we’ve covered natural-process and single-origin espresso from the Americas; in 2015, we reported on “open-source” espresso blends, documenting the growing trend of openly revealing blend components to consumers, rather than withholding them as proprietary secrets.

What is clear is that good blending has always been a genuine art, and this year we decided to visit the notion of “classic” espresso blends. Of course, as soon as the word “classic” is uttered, controversy ensues. Instead of using the term in any prescriptive way, we decided to let roasters define it. We simply asked for “classic espresso blends” and left the interpretation open to the roasters.

What we got was a range of blends roasted for espresso, from Italian-style recipes to those described as “fourth wave.” We received 54 samples from roasters based in North America and 46 from roasters based in Asia, almost all from Taiwan.

Italy: Where Espresso Was Born

Tasting espressos at the Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room

Tasting espressos, both in the straight shot and in milk, at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room. Photo by Evan Gilman.

In Italy, where espresso was born, the straight shot of pressure-brewed coffee is quotidiana: everyday, inevitable. In fact, while ordering a milk-based espresso drink is fine during the morning hours, doing so in the afternoon — or, God forbid, the evening — will guarantee you more than one sideways glance and peg you as a tourist a presto.

The Challenging Practicalities

Even though we limited submissions to one per roaster, we received exactly 100 samples, far too many to test with this year’s lab partner, The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room in Oakland, California. We decided to rather arbitrarily divide the samples into two groups, one consisting of coffees roasted in North America and another of coffees roasted in Asia. This decision provided almost perfect symmetry in terms of sample numbers but also may end by suggesting some hypotheses about the culture of espresso in the two regions. (This report will cover only coffees submitted by North American roasters, while the Asia Classic Espresso report will come out next month.)

Barista Elise Becker, of The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room, at work.

Barista Elise Becker, of The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room, at work.
Photo by Evan Gilman.

My co-taster for the North American espresso samples was Evan Gilman, a Licensed Arabica Q-grader, musician, coffee-lover, and self-described avid generalist. He was also a most agreeable tasting partner: attentive, precise, and broadly conversational. We spent two days together with barista Ruthie Knudsen on day one and Elise Becker on day two, both talented baristas at The Crown, assisted by Coffee Review’s Jason Sarley, also a Licensed Arabica Q-Grader and multifaceted coffee pro.

Before we could set up shop for this event at The Crown, we still needed to whittle down the group of 54 coffees to a number we knew we could manage in two days. So, Jason and I spent a full week screening all the samples and ending up with 20 finalists to take to our tasting with Evan and crew.

Two Classic Italian Espresso Blends, as Interpreted by Their Roasters

While espresso as a brewing method continues to evolve, it is still based on technologies developed in Italy late in the last century. The machine we used at The Crown is a La Marzocco Linea PB, and Jason (our resident shot-puller) discussed with Ruthie and Elise our typical parameters: 19 grams in, 38 grams out over 27-28 seconds, while suggesting that the day’s barista had license to tweak that formula, as necessary. While this protocol might not be optimal for each and every coffee, it ensures consistency, and that’s important for fairness. We also taste blind, of course, just as we do when reviewing coffees year-round.

Ruthie Knudsen, a barista at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room.

Ruthie Knudsen, a barista at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab and Tasting Room. Photo by Kim Westerman

But what about describing and evaluating the coffees selected for tasting following this protocol? Here is where it gets interesting, and the sensory experience of these coffees was the domain of my tasting with Evan.

We review here seven coffees that scored 93 and 94. Six additional coffees scored 90-91 (none scored 92), and seven others scored between 86 and 89. Not too shabby when you go to consider all the challenges that come into play when developing an espresso blend.

We assumed that many roasters would approach the call for “classic” submissions in terms of traditional Italian blending concepts. Generally speaking, this might mean a large percentage of dry-process coffees from Brazil (the sweetly nutty style of natural, not the fruit-forward type), along with a percentage of Colombia to encourage chocolate notes and perhaps an El Salvador or Guatemala to add nuance and balance  acidity. The blend that pretty much nails that formula is Dragonfly Coffee’s Crema de Dolce Espresso (the name obviously paying homage to its lineage), which we rated at 93. Of this blend, owner and roaster Tamas Christman says, “For me, a classic (specifically northern Italian-style) espresso is characterized by balance and texture. Traditionally, acidity or brightness was not a sought-after component in the espresso profile. Sweetness, body and a slight astringency are the goals. Crema Dolce has been designed to emphasize sweetness and body, with a slight drying on the finish, and not focus on acidity, in honor of this traditional style. It highlights dark cherry, brown sugar, caramel and chocolate, with subtle nuances of soft florals and a velvety-smooth texture across the entire mouthfeel.”

Dragonfly Coffee's Crema de Dolce Italian-style espresso blend.

Dragonfly Coffee’s Crema de Dolce Italian-style espresso blend. Courtesy of Dragonfly Coffee Roasters.

Italy is also historically known for including coffees of the Robusta species in espresso blends. Robusta has a bad rap in the North-American specialty world, where it is almost universally associated with cheap supermarket blends. But does it always deserve this reputation?

Here, we have Paradise Roaster’s Espresso Classico (also rated 93), which utilizes Arabica coffees from Brazil and super-clean wet-processed Robustas meticulously sourced from Ecuador by innovative green-buyer Miguel Meza, whose mission it is to find quality microlot coffees from emerging origins. Meza says, “This Classico blend was actually the first coffee I ever sent from Paradise to Coffee Review back in 2004. That coffee also scored 93 points, which was, at the time, the highest score an espresso blend had received and really what helped launch our then-nascent company. Structurally, it isn’t much different today than it was then. It has always included a base of Brazilian coffees alongside washed Robustas.”

The Dragonfly is balanced and richly bittersweet, while the Paradise is cocoa-toned and sweetly tart, and both seemed to me and Evan simultaneously like the most “classic” of the lot in terms of the Italian model. We’d be happy to encounter either of these on the nearest piazza.

So, what other coffees rose to the top in our tasting, and how might these coffees fit into a definition of “classic” espresso?

History Is Not Destiny

At least two espresso blends here include natural-processed coffees of the fashionable fruit-centered style, including Red Rooster’s Old Crow Cupa Joe (93), which combines both washed and natural-processed coffees from Central and South America for a chocolaty, overtly fruit-driven espresso. Roaster Tony Greatorex says the popular blend is designed to have medium acidity and that he pays close attention to the Maillard development phase, which he measures as the beginning of color change (around 300 degrees) to first crack (around 380).  He says, “I’ve found that extending this period accentuates body and creates a mellow, rounded flavor profile, along with a smooth mouthfeel.”

Red Rooster’s Old Crow Cuppa Joe on the bar at the Floyd, Virginia coffee shop. Photo by Tony Greatorex.

“Classic” for Martin Trejo of Amavida Coffee Roasters, whose Espresso Mandarina scored 94, means “persistent crema, heavy body and plenty of sweetness to hold up in milk,” and the Mandarina  delivers on this goal via a post-roast-blending strategy. Trejo says “I roast a washed Congo and natural Ethiopia separately so I can focus on developing each coffee’s distinct profile before blending. This allows me to roast the Congo a little longer than the Ethiopia and focus on bringing out its sweetness to balance the espresso.”

Members of the Congo Muungano Co-op

Members of the Congo Muungano Co-op, where one component of Amavida’s Mandarina blend is produced. Courtesy of Martin Trejo.

Folly Coffee’s SOB Espresso (which Rob Bathe assures me stands for Single-Origin Blend; 94) uses a mélange roasting strategy, which involves bringing an identical coffee (or blend of coffees) to two different degrees of roast before blending them.  The SOB Espresso is a seasonally rotating selection, and this version is comprised of coffees from a variety of smallholder farms in Colombia. Bathe says he aims to “bring forward tasting notes of rich, bold, dark chocolate, with a depth of flavor and enough acidity to balance.” He also acknowledges that “classic” can imply “overwhelming notes of bitter and burnt aromas and flavors.” While some percentage of this blend is darker-roasted, he deftly avoids those negatives in favor of fudge-like chocolate notes and deep florals.

Folly Coffee Roasters' SOB Espresso Blend

Folly Coffee Roasters’ SOB Espresso Blend. Courtesy of Rob Bathe.

Propeller Ace Espresso (93), roasted in Toronto, Canada, is no stranger to Coffee Review’s virtual pages. We first reviewed a version of this blend in 2014, and it has consistently scored 93 or 94. This year’s blend is caramel-toned and chocolaty, with stone fruit notes and rich nut-butter tones. Evan pegged this coffee a “new-wave classic” espresso for its high-toned balance and success in presenting a big, prominent fruit character that is integrated rather than disorienting in both straight shot and milk.

Pulling a shot of Propeller's Ace Espresso.

Pulling a shot of Propeller’s Ace Espresso. Courtesy of Propeller Coffee.

Our mutual favorite may have been Highwire’s The Core (94), and Evan and I were both thrilled to discover that this blind-tested winner was also a local coffee for us, roasted just down the street in Emeryville, California. A transparently sourced blend of coffees from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Sumatra (all conventionally wet-processed except for the wet-hulled Sumatra), this coffee intrigued us both with its notes of richly tart tangerine zest, earthy-sweet pipe tobacco, and lavish honeysuckle, all enveloped in clear dark chocolate tones. Founder Rich Avella replaces the Robusta in traditional Italian formulas with Sumatra, suggesting that the Lintong coffee in The Core gives “rustic” ballast to the “floral, citric” brightness of the Ethiopia and elegant cocoa of the Guatemala. He sees the PNG as a harmonizing bridge.

Highwire's The Core Espresso.

Highwire’s The Core Espresso. Courtesy of Highwire Coffee.

Avella says, “Our aim is to create an espresso with expressive, high-end heft, balance and complexity through the skills of sourcing, blending, and roasting. What makes The Core classic first is that it’s a blend. It’s not a single-origin expression of one farm. That can be amazing, too, but we’re excited by the chance to create a coffee that doesn’t already exist through thoughtful blending. To me, classic espresso has depth and tension between brightness and syrupy heft and between bitter and sweet. For a classic espresso to interest me, it also has to have sweetness and juiciness.”

In Closing, A New Definition of Style?

I’m not sure how close we’ve come to defining “classic” espresso, but it has been fun trying. Thanks to the roasters who not only sent in interesting coffees but also took the time to articulate their thought processes when approaching the notion of “classic.”

There’s much talk in the specialty coffee industry about “waves,” second and third, and we’re starting to hear buzz about the “fourth wave,” which we are, perhaps, already wading into. I’ll leave you with a thought from Folly Coffee’s Bathe, who mused on this particular time in coffee history.

He says, “To me, third wave is all about getting the most intense, unique, crazy (in a good way) flavors to come out of specialty coffees as a reaction to the simple and homogeneous flavor profiles found in the second wave. In the fourth wave, there is a bit of a swing-back, and we’re asking how we can create these flavors while keeping balance and harmony to create a more enjoyable cup, not just a unique sip.”

This is as good a definition of the “new classic” as I’ve heard, and all of the coffees represented here fit that model in one way or other.

Stay tuned for the July report on “classic espressos” roasted in Asia.

About Co-Taster Evan Gilman, Creative Director at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room.

Evan Gilman’s 17 years in the coffee industry have taken him from barista to trainer to Q-Arabica Grader and SCA-Licensed AST. Evan spent time in Southeast Asia getting to know the specialty coffee supply chain, from Sumatra, Bali, Flores, and Sulawesi in Indonesia, to Northern Luzon in the Philippines. His passions range from Balinese gamelan to heavy metal, from photography to communications design, and from baking to brewing. As Creative Director at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, he manages community events, social media, photo/video production, and graphic design. He is also the chief editor of the blog at royalcoffee.com, and curator of the Gallery at The Crown.

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About the Author:

Kim Westerman is a licensed Q-grader, a longtime food, wine and travel writer and a certified sommelier. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area Bites, and many other publications. She happily brings her sensory training in wine to the evaluation of coffee in Coffee Review’s Berkeley lab. She also handles communication with roasters and review logistics.

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