"So what is the big deal?" - I hear this frequently - "It's just a small cup of very strong coffee". There is no use trying to explain in these instances, those who understand espresso learn from taste and until the palate is converted the mind will not accept the truth. Espresso is the ‘essence' of coffee, when it is very good it is a delight to the senses of taste and smell, a complex and refined beverage.
Espresso and the coffees created with it have become increasingly popular in the last decade. In the not too distant past these tiny cups of crema topped coffee were favoured mostly by those whose cultural heritage had infused in them an appreciation of espresso. Recently espresso drinks have become popular almost everywhere, often in the form of mild milky drinks that bear little resemblance to the original beverage. When it comes to the straight shot there is much more there than ‘just a small cup of strong coffee', those who follow the CoffeeGeek site will recognise the extreme enthusiasm, bordering on fanaticism, displayed by many who regard espresso as the ultimate coffee. In espresso preparation all aspects must be done to very exacting standards if the beverage is to excel but you would never know this by watching a professional barista at work as expertise will make complex tasks seem simple and smooth. Two essential components, the equipment and the operator, have to work together flawlessly in espresso preparation. Both of these are the topics of ongoing articles and discussions and the subject of many interesting books. The vast number of references to espresso machines and espresso techniques on the internet will give an indication of the prominence espresso amongst the coffee community. As this article deals with the third essential component of espresso making, I will discuss basics of roasting and blending for espresso.
Possibly the greatest challenge to the roastmaster is creating good espresso blends. Being a very concentrated coffee, espresso is able to deliver the true taste of fresh coffee but if even one element of it's production is incorrect it will also amplify the flaw. A small variance in machine function or a temporary lapse of proper technique by the barista can ruin the shot of coffee and similarly a few bad beans in a blend might go unnoticed in drip coffee but un espresso they can spell disaster. This is not to suggest that it is almost impossible to produce good espresso but rather that it can only be done consistently when all the elements are understood and respected. In roasting and blending for espresso it is necessary to carefully choose quality coffee beans, to roast them to the proper point to develop the desired character. Espresso is almost always produced from a blend of coffees, the challenge is to blend them for refinement with strength and having harmony while allowing individual notes to sing out.
Roasting for espresso is the same as roasting other coffees, part 2, but not all degrees of roast are suitable. There is a common misconception that espresso is a very dark coffee. This might have come from the practice of some roasters using low quality green beans and over-roasting to cover up the flaws in the beans. Good espresso needs good green beans and the roast should bring out the better flavours inherent in the bean. The lighter espresso blends are a medium roast taken into the second crack but cooled before any oil is on the beans, any lighter than that and the espresso will taste sour. Darker espresso can be roasted until there is a bit of oil spotting on the surface of the beans. This gives a less bright shot and enhances the caramel and spice notes. Taking the beans to a full dark or a black roast will result in an unsuitable thin and bitter coffee when extracted as espresso.
Beans can be roasted individually and then blended to produce an espresso blend. This allows the use of beans with much different roast profiles to be blended. Post-blended espresso seems to retain much of the distinctive notes from the individual beans. Coffee can also be pre- blended before roasting. This seems to mute the individual character of each type of bean a bit and make for a more harmonious espresso. Pre-blending makes the process of roasting more efficient but the disadvantage is that the blend is limited to coffees that have similar roast profiles. It can be very difficult and time consuming to develop a good pre-blended espresso.
In general, most washed arabica coffee beans have a clean bright taste while dry processed ‘natural' coffees are valued for their sweetness and body. Coffee made from only washed beans might be delicious for vac pot or press coffees but the same blend concentrated to a one ounce espresso might come across as sour or acidic. A single variety natural coffee might produce an espresso on the other end of the spectrum, rather heavy and lifeless. Exotic and assertive coffees might be extraordinary but when used in espresso can overpower the tastebuds unless used in moderation.
Also as espresso is used in blended beverages as café latté it might need to be strong enough to allow its ‘coffee taste' to survive the dilution with milk. Blending seems to be full of contradictions, to create the very strong coffee it is necessary to have a complex balance, so...espresso to be drank straight and strong needs to be delicate and refined, when drank mild and milky it must be strong and assertive. Most roasters have more than one blend they use for espresso and it is possible that all roasters are still working on that one last blend that when achieved will match their ‘mental tastebuds' , the elusive perfect espresso that exists in the imagination but is so real it seems more a memory than a fantasy. Can this all be achieved in one blend, one roast? Yes and no... possibly... I think...
In my efforts to blend for espresso I have had the best success with using a ‘natural' bean for a base, a heavier bodied coffee to give the weight to carry through milk and for brightness usually a washed arabica. To this there can be another coffee added to give a ‘grace note', something special that stands out but not enough to play its own tune. The natural coffee is the most difficult to find.
Many espresso blends are based on Brazilian coffees, this can work very well but it is difficult to acquire the better Brazilians and generic Santos serves only as a filler, contributing little on its own. I prefer Monte Carmello or a good Cerrado but of course there are other quality coffees from this country. Haitian naturals work very well as espresso base and having good body they can be used on a high proportion contributing a low acid sweetness as well as the necessary weight, unfortunately these coffees can be difficult to locate. Ethiopia produces very good natural coffees and my preference of those would be Longberry Harrar which is readily available and delicious. For body and weight the coffees that come to mind are of course Indonesian. Javas give a sweet buttery finish, Celebes coffees are rich and clean and Sumatrans are very spicy. It is common that Sumatran coffees are quite ‘funky' with many imperfect beans. This can lead to a mustiness and earthy taste that some people like but I do not. Other Sumatrans are just ugly looking and the taste is more spicy, surprisingly this can contribute a taste similar to cumin that can be pleasing in espresso. The cleaner triple picked Sumatra coffees, the Lintongs and the Celebes coffee will work well in an espresso blend, more refined but lacking the spice notes of grade 1 Sumatra.
Brightness is another important quality of espresso, this it to make the coffee ‘dance' on the palate, to make it alive. This is easy as there are so many good Central American beans. Good Guatemalans are hard to beat but Costa Rican coffees and the better Nicaraguan beans are also excellent Finally to lend a special taste one might add a bit of one coffee to give a specific character. This is usually not necessary but can be very nice. A small amount of Yemen can give hints of chocolate or a bit of Kenyan will increase the brightness of the blend, monsooned malabar also works well for this. Too much of a good thing can spoil the balance.
Some people think that more beans make a better espresso but I do not believe that at all. There are very few coffees that by themselves have a good enough balance to make a single origin espresso, the exceptions that come to mind might be good Hawaiian or Haitian coffees. I find it usually takes three beans to make a good blend and one more if you want an extra note of distinction. Five beans in the blend might work well but more than that seems unnecessary. The proportion of each bean in the blend is crucial, each component must be tasted separately to understand its character so that it can be identified in the blend and adjusted accordingly.
Coming from a background as a chef, I put more faith in the senses of taste and smell than in technical procedure. Taste and adjust instead of quantify and analyse. I do not do this work with super accurate scales and laboratory equipment, that seems to me like cooking a sauce and finding it does not have enough spice - ‘Quick bring the gram scale and the beakers, we need more oregano here'. These things take time and experience, a little more of this and a bit less of that, all the time keeping detailed notes. There are so many variables just in the selection of beans and the proportions. Taste it as a straight shot, then americano, will it hold up to milk as cappuccino or café latté? Things just keep getting more complicated, what started out as ‘just a small cup of very strong coffee' has become the object of innumerable combinations and permutations. Again, can one blend do it all? Yes and no...possibly...I think...