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Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
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MarkPrince
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Posted Sat Aug 14, 2010, 12:00am
Subject: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

Espresso 2010
by Mark Prince

Mark Prince takes a look at the state of espresso and espresso brewing in 2010, with a long look back to how espresso has developed in the last fifteen years. First of a two part article.
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jesseraub
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 4:31am
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

Mark - I'm sad to say, but I think you've wrong on four points here in your article. I think you're spot on in other places, but these are the four main things that I take issue with from your article:

  1. The correlation of single origin espresso with manual brew methods / ease of single origin espresso.

  2. The assessment of single origin espresso's merits in the World Barista Championship.

  3. The idea of espresso blends being forever locked in on the same profile.

  4. The notion that single origin espresso is something to dismiss, instead of just something you have issues with.

In order to be scientific about this, and to not delve into good ol' troll country, I want to tackle each of these points individually. Let's do these suckers in order.

  1. The correlation of single origin espresso with manual brew methods / ease of single origin espresso.

In your piece, you state that the common movement is from frustration with blends onto single origin espresso and then a trip down Manual Brew Method Ln. One problem is that I'm not too sure if you're speaking entirely in terms of a home brewing or retail environment. Coming from a retail point of view, I'm just not sure this holds any weight.

Let's assume we're speaking about retail, because otherwise I'm not really at liberty to discuss. Your assumption, too, is that these folks came up cutting their teeth on espresso preparation. I can tell you right now that that might be the case, but not in the way you think. Let's examine the common coffee worker.

Most pro baristas I know fall in the age range of 22-28 right now. A good deal of them have been working coffee jobs for a while, but there's a good chance their were introduced by a job at a Starbucks in their hometown, or at some other small town style coffee shop. They're also of the age where most big chains that they might have worked at had already transitioned into the super-auto espresso machines, or their shop just didn't have much knowledge on high quality espresso preparation. What does this mean?

Well, it means that a good deal of today's pro baristas started out drinking lattes. Even if they weren't a Starbucks worker, as soon as they came of age, there's a much better chance that they went straight for a flavored milk based beverage, rather than a macchiato or traditional cappuccino.

This seems a little tangential, but I think I know how to wrap it up if you can bare with me. What I mean to say, is that a good deal of coffee training at Starbucks puts a huge emphasis on tasting coffee from press pots and no emphasis on tasting the espresso. Espresso is dialed in at Starbucks with a timer and a timer alone. So the introduction to the wonderful world of coffee flavors is coming straight from a manual brew method first.

That's half my story, right there. I started out drinking tea. Bad, horrible quality green tea from the grocery store, but after a trip to visit my brother in Japan, I wanted tea, and I wanted it badly. Shortly after that exposure to a somewhat different flavor profile, I was intrigued by coffee. My parents, from Minnesota, constantly had a pot of coffee going in the morning or for guests, and they generally bought good coffee (and were in possession, at one time, of a Zassenhaus hand mill and Chemex, with which my dad up until 1991 or so still hand ground his coffee every morning). In any case, my first mistress, like other peers of mine, was the brewed coffee. So that's what I pursued.

As a college kid, the only economical choice was to purchase brewed coffee when I visited a shop, because you couldn't take espresso with you, and you got so much less for the same price. Also? I'd never tried it. A trip to Prague changed that, and eventually I got my job at Starbucks and wound up where I am today.

Ahem. That became much longer than I expected. But the point? Most pro baristas these days are focused on manual brew methods not because espresso blends befuddle them, but because their first exposure to high quality coffee was much more likely via a manual brew method than espresso. And single origin espresso? It's just another way of tasting the great qualities of a single origin coffee.

My peers and I are very focused on exploring the depths that our single origin coffees have to offer. As soon as there's a new coffee in the shop, we throw some in a Cafe Solo and a Chemex and if we get a chance to, the siphon and V60. It's only after that that we might get curious as to how it performs as espresso, and then into the second hopper it goes. It's never a replacement for the proprietary blend it's another way of tasting that single origin coffee.

I also resent the fact that you imply that single origin espresso is easy to get a hold of. Any day I'm on bar, it takes me the same amount of time to dial each espresso in, and reigning in some aspects of those single origins is much more nuanced than striking a great balanced in the blend. But that part is just my two cents.

  1. The assessment of single origin espresso's merits in the World Barista Championship.

I understand your point of view that single origin espresso is much easier to describe, but discounting it so much is insulting to the judges of the World Barista Championship. If the shots weren't delicious, the judges wouldn't rank them so high. If there's anything I've learned about WBC scoring in last year's competition, the most important thing for high marks is simply a delicious espresso. It may not be your cup of tea (wakka wakka wakka), but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have merit outside of being easy to call.

  1. The idea of espresso blends being forever locked in on the same profile.

I've been speaking vaguely so far in this piece, but for anyone reading this now who doesn't know, yes I work at an Intelligentsia, and being able to address this issue means that I have to come out in the open so I can discuss the merits of the Black Cat Classic Espresso. Black Cat didn't make the list, because part of our goal is to always take the seasonality of coffee into effect.

We could lock in a singular profile for the Black Cat it's easy. Buy a few huge lots from Brazil. Ration them out for the year along with a few single origin coffees that are added for sweetness, and Bob's your uncle, a singular profile. Only at some point in time, that coffee has aged quite a bit. And that's antithetical to our mission.

We've received some criticism in the past for some of our coffees being "too green," namely, the Finca Matalapa lots from El Salvador this year, the Honduras from Finca La Tina, but aside from people calling foul, those coffees were some of the most intensive, amazing flavors I've ever had. The coffees might have shocked some folks, but just because they're not used to coffee having that amazing depth, brightness, and explosive flavors doesn't mean that coffee isn't supposed to have those flavors. If you think about, this is the condition that most lot samples come from when they are cupped. These are the flavors being promised when a decision is made to purchase that coffee.

So putting that aside, slightly, I think what I'm trying to get at is that the best coffees I've had are generally the freshest, and that trying to maintain the quality of an espresso blend and match it to seasonality means there is going to be some shifting in the profile of the Black Cat. That doesn't mean we're allowing it to go rampantly off course, but, as an example, the Brazil we currently have is an Ipanema that tends to go more savory over nutty. In order to maintain that great balance with sweetness, we've pushed for some of our more stellar coffees as its counterpart Finca La Maravilla from Guatemala, and Finca La Tina from Honduras. The way it has rounded out has been pretty fantastic lately. But no, it's not going to be the exact same as it was last year when we were working with an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe.

While I respect the notion that an espresso blend should maintain a solid profile, I believe in the power of seasonal coffee, and greatly respect the work Square Mile does and very interested in Counter Culture's Apollo. I think those two have realized that maintaining a single profile for a blend is sort of a strange notion, and that it's much more logical to advertise the seasonality of your blend.

And finally,

  1. The notion that single origin espresso is something to dismiss, instead of just something you have issues with.

This is really what I'm most worried about. Anytime I've ever seen anyone or have myself dismissed an idea completely, there's a really strong chance I or whoever I witnessed will end up eating their words. I completely understand that single origin espresso might not be something you enjoy, and have issues with its principle, but to outright dismiss it sets up the possibility to be wrong in the future.  

One of the things I love about your article is that you're talking of what is to come what coffee will be like in 2015. And I think there's a good chance that you might have to re-evaluate your position on this.

Not to make a comparison directly (since that would be horribly mean in my opinion), but we've all recently seen this happen with the Todd Carmichael articles for Esquire's food blog. He flat out condemns anything that isn't a 7 gram single espresso, advocates an auto-drip Cuisinart or cheap model Krups for any sort of brewed coffee, and rants and raves like a silly old man who is resistant to all change. We already know Todd Carmichael is wrong, because he's taken a hardline stance on subjects we've all figured out in 1994. I don't think anyone can argue that you're not going to get a better coffee out of a press pot than a consumer auto-drip.

So here's my standpoint: single origin espresso as a concept is really new to coffee. Our other ideas of coffee have been around for about a hundred years or so, and in the past fifty, we've radically changed the way we do espresso blends and manual brews. So give it five years. It's only going to improve, and keeping an open mind about it will only help foster and start a dialogue.

And if there's anything I learned from the first part of your piece, it's that an open dialogue may be the most important thing that pushes forward our pursuit of excellence in coffee.
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tek
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 7:31am
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

It strikes me that selling single origin coffee entails more profit for roaster than selling blends. With single origin you get everything from one place, you roast it and you sell it as it is. You hype it as greatest thing since sliced bread.

Blends are more complicated. It takes more time to create great blend and to maintain it thus it costs more. Profit margin erode and that is why single origins are pushed forward. They are more profitable...

To my taste, single origins are nothing special, certainly not something I would drink as espresso every single day.

@jesseraub I have not had great shots with Black Cat in years...

 
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wogaut
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 9:50am
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

So that part of your Espresso 2010 article should really be titled "Why Mark Price doesn't like Single Origin espresso"...

Don't get me wrong, I generally do like your writing, but to start off an ambitious topic like "Espresso 2010"  with ranting about SO and the issues you have with it for most of that article (neglecting your curriculum section, which might be explanatory about the author but insignificant for the state of Espresso in 2010), is just not doing "Espresso 2010" any justice.

W.
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jesseraub
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 10:20am
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

It's a bit hasty to say that single origins cost less than blends blends take more man hours, but let's consider the overall price of the coffee. If it's going to be blended, then you're not really looking to spend the most you can, but the sheer cost of some of the higher quality coffees (especially in Africa and Ethiopia, due to the auction systems in place there), can easily eclipse the costs of coffees set to be blended.

So really you can't tout that as a standpoint. There's no readily available public data that figures into declaring profit margins greatly from one over the other. There's just as much man hours and time devoted to single origin coffees.

You may not know this, but I'd say, at least in the 90% range, that most single origin offerings are a blend of lots, even from a single section of a single farm.

You may have lots separated by sub-section of that one hill, or lots separated by date of harvest from that same hill, but in order to achieve a great single origin offering, what you're really doing is blending pre-roast a selection of lots even for a single origin.

This is where a micro-lot differs from a single origin offerings something truly labeled as a micro-lot won't be a blend of sub-lots.

Also, sorry that you haven't had great experiences with Black Cat. I have a great experience with Black Cat almost every day!
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MarkPrince
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 1:48pm
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

wogaut Said:

So that part of your Espresso 2010 article should really be titled "Why Mark Price doesn't like Single Origin espresso"...

Don't get me wrong, I generally do like your writing, but to start off an ambitious topic like "Espresso 2010"  with ranting about SO and the issues you have with it for most of that article (neglecting your curriculum section, which might be explanatory about the author but insignificant for the state of Espresso in 2010), is just not doing "Espresso 2010" any justice.

W.

Posted August 15, 2010 link

Wait for part two. It'll all come together. This was originally written as a single article, but I broke it up in to two parts (and then expanded upon it).

Mark

 
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Wolfredo
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 2:42pm
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

Hi Mark,

I don't agree with what you are saying about blends. Blends are nice for the average cup, maybe a pleasent cup as well. But why would I like to drink the same thing all over again? Why is it good to have a blend that never changes it profile? Is it preferable to have someone working on keeping a certain average blend taste instead of getting the most out of a certain coffee?

Sure, a single origin might lack some things but it will showcase other aspects even more. For me, the value comes with "not available at all times". If you can have something anyday, anytime, is is of lesser value. Like some wines of good production years, the number of bottles is limited.

Great single origin coffees (only the great ones) deserve to be showcased for what they are. Imperfect, maybe. Drinking Whisky? Single Malt or blends? Even the best Single Malt would lack something if you try to find it hard enough. So what? It is a unique experience you couldn't get otherwise (and a good one).

According to the "young guns", repeating grandmas coffee preparation: maybe writing this causes the risk of being interpreted as the old outdated guy. Why should brewing be wrong? Maybe a young gun finds something new to it and changes things drastically. The Aero Press is one such thing. The truth is within the process, not within any state that anyone thinks has been achieved. Question things over and over again never take things for granted.


Wolfram
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 3:43pm
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

It's an interesting read, thanks for putting it together.  We'll take the view that it's more your opinion than fact, but there's a point we'd like to make regarding the retailer experience and how to promote SOs.

First, we'll qualify ourselves. We've offered SOs and they were once a regular feature on bar.  Right now they're not.

The buzz on SOs is driven by a very small segment of professionals and a miniscule slice of consumers.  The press and WOM SOs have received are way out of proportion to the number of SO cups consumed.  Fact is that Jesse's point about baristas having been mostly accustomed to Starbucks applies just as well, if not more, to the general population of consumers.  

The industry in general is years away from the point where even 5% of the coffee-drinking population will seek out a straight espresso, let alone a good one, let alone an SO.  If we get to 5% by 2015, that would be a huge win. Baristas within the SO bubble probably have a difficult time understanding and accepting this as their experiences are far different.

Our experience is that to succeed with SOs on bar, you've got to have the following:
1) a staff that loves espresso - which is amazingly rare when you think of the total # of coffeehouses out there
2) a decent sized segment of your customer base that likes straight espresso
3) enough of (2) to allow you to turnover a hopper of an SO within the window where the coffee can actually make a decent espresso

We found we're not yet at point 3.  The only time we were able to really burn through an SO was with the Burundi we used in competition this year as people were interested in trying it more because of the comp than the actual espresso.

It's taken us almost six years to get to the point where straight shots are more than 2% of our business.   Not for lack of trying, either.  

Many of our espresso regulars seem to enjoy the comfort of having a consistent taste.  We want to lock those folks into habit before pushing further.  There are maybe a dozen others who are wiling to try (and pay for) whatever SO we want to put into the hopper.  That's just not enough to succeed with.

We think the time will come when there are many more espresso drinkers and more bars offering second and third choices for espresso.  But as to where we're at right now, there is a HUGE chasm between the shops doing the most tweeting on SOs and the average coffeehouse - even some of those we'd consider "better" shops, not just on SO espresso, but on any espresso, and even any small, traditional drink.  Crawl before walking, etc.

Will close with a personal note that I've never had a bad shot of Epic. Ever.  Can't say that about any other coffee, blend or SO.
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alanfrew
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 4:00pm
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

I find myself in rare partial agreement with Mark. There are many, many single origin coffees out there that should never be brewed straight as espressos. The flavour extraction and concentration involved simply overwhelms the finer taste sensations that may be present when other brewing methods are used. On the other hand, there are a very, very few single origins that make exceptional espresso coffees; Yemen and Haiti come to mind.

As far as blends and blending are concerned, my personal opinion is that the ability to produce and maintain a superior blend is the measure of the quality of the people at any coffee roaster, large or small.

We could lock in a singular profile for the Black Cat it's easy.



Oh no it's not! Maybe, just maybe for a year ... but try holding the same profile for a decade and see how easy it is. Compared to "one-off" single origin coffees it requires much more effort from everyone involved in the supply and production chain to make it taste exactly the same, year after year. And while familiarity may be anathema to "professional" palates, it is what the majority of customers, the people that keep us in business, want.

Alan
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Posted Sun Aug 15, 2010, 4:31pm
Subject: Re: Espresso 2010 by Mark Prince
 

Mark, I really enjoyed the article!  Thanks, I'm eager to read part II.  I also enjoyed the "any machine, any time" article - good stuff!  


@ everyone else - I love all coffee's, blends and SO's! see signature:p


~j

 
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