What makes good espresso

Recently I visited a new coffee bar just opened by a local up-and-coming roaster. It was everything one would expect from a third wave coffee bar: a pour over bar in lieu of a coffee brewer, a paddle operated espresso machine, and your choice of a couple of different espresso offerings. Both espresso offerings were single origin, one being described as their "princess" espresso, the other was touted as a bigger espresso. I opted for the bigger one and was presented with a perfectly prepared, thin, biting, one-dimensional espresso.

This reminded me of a quote from Antony Wild's Coffee, a Dark History. He said, "espresso is a wonderful way to make good coffee, but not a good way to make wonderful coffee." This statement may seem like a slam on espresso but Antony is pointing out a fact that seems to have been lost of late, espresso machines make espresso coffee. What makes for a good coffee, or even a wonderful coffee, does not make for a good or wonderful espresso. I love Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee, it is one of those iconic great coffees. It has this incredible Jasmine like perfuming and an almost tea-like aftertaste. Put it in an espresso machine and you will get a thin bodied, acidic, almost flavorless shot. It's very delicate nature makes it completely unsuitable as an espresso coffee, especially on its own.

Many years ago, just after we had opened our second store in Alaska, I was working behind the espresso machine when a little old Italian lady came up and ordered a double espresso. I made the espresso and she disappeared around the corner. A short time later she returned the demitasse and saucer and said, "Your blender, he is a genius." It was, and still is, the highest praise from the best authority I could ever have.

Notice that she praised the blender of the espresso; not the Roaster, the Coffee Buyer, or even the Barista. The Blender, to her, was the craftsman.

In the early days of the espresso revolution here in America, there was a concept brought over from Italy known as the 4 M's. The 4 M's were Italian words that corresponded to the 4 necessary ingredients of a properly prepared espresso. They are, the Mano: the person making the espresso; Macinazione, the correct grind; Macchina, the espresso machine; and finally, Miscela, the coffee. Literally, the blend.

When we first began roasting we could only afford a few different varietal coffees. As the business grew, we were able to expand our offering. Armed with a simple sample coffee roaster, I began feverishly searching for unique coffees. I was excited at the time to try my hand at new blends, and since we were principally an espresso roasting company, these were espresso blends. But a funny thing happened with the espresso blend. The "better" the coffee used in the blend, the worse the espresso tasted. Now, better here means more uniquely tasting coffee beans. I found these unique flavors did not translate well in the blend, assuming they translated at all.

The thing about espresso machines is that they amplify certain flavors and mute others. Moreover, each brand of espresso machine has its own particular taste. The breakthrough for me was when I finally figured out that what I was trying to do was wrongheaded in its approach. Instead of trying to blend in new coffees what I needed to do was work backwards from what was, to me at least, an ideal espresso flavor. I needed to have an end in mind and utilize the components to reach that end.

For many, I think,the assumption was that espresso is just strong coffee, and so they went about a creating a strong espresso blend. Sort of like saying if brewed coffee is like wine, then espresso coffee is the liquor. In this case the end was more like a strong whiskey resulting in something akin to a distilled spirit, not entirely enjoyable, but gets the job done. For me, what I had in mind was more of a liqueur, a top shelf Cognac, something that was complete in and of itself. Paying as much attention to the mouthfeel as to the aromatics and taste. It should be a complete package, a complete experience in one serving. The espresso should affect everypart of the mouth.

Over the years I have spent the majority of my time working on just this one blend. I find it best to break the blend down to component parts, in a way that each component has a part to play. In time I realized that there were only so many parts one could feasably work in the blend. Its important to remember that it is only about 18 grams of coffee that can fit into a typical Marzocco basket. Too many components not only means the blend becomes muddled, but also creates variations from shot to shot. For me this meant a blend of 3 or 4 components max. Some have argued for more, Dr. Illy famously stated that 11 was too many, 9 was about right, but I find too many makes the blend unwieldy.

The challenge, of course, is not so much creating that ideal flavor, but maintaining it consistently. Developing a reliable supply chain is the first step. More important, though, is this idea of component parts. How does one keep the same mouthfeel? What about the body? What is the overall impression the espresso should have? How do I adjust through the year? I now keep samples of past blends going back some ten years just for when I get so lost I can go back and get my bearings again. I have tried on a few occasions to create a second blend without much success, admittedly. Seems as if I have only one good espresso blend in me.

Now, I love a great cup of coffee . . . right after I have had my espresso. When I visit other coffee roaster's clients or their own coffee bar, I tend to judge the roaster by their ability to get their espresso right. If the blend is lackluster, I become suspect of their other coffee offerings. I have known coffee bars that offer more than one espresso at a time, sometimes it is simply a variety of blends, other times it is a "seasonal" offering. I don't have any beef with that, other than espresso machines need to be temperature calibrated to the blend profile and it is difficult to do it for more than one blend. But that is different from a roaster saying that their espresso blend itself is seasonal, that it is going to change from year to year, or season to season, or simply a combination of whatever is on hand. Seems a bit of a cop out to me. Its one thing to pull off a great tasting blend, but it takes a professional to keep it consistent.

More wrongheaded, I believe, is simply taking a varietal coffee and making that the espresso offering. While I was out of town, a friend and I visited a local coffee bar. It was a great little store with a just-installed three group La Marzocco Paddle machine. I ordered an espresso and the Barista asked if I would like the Guatemala or the Brazil, Which one is better? I asked. He said to get the Guatemala. I did, and it was just as disappointing as I expected a single origin espresso to be. I decided to try again and asked about the Brazil. Get the Guatemala, he said, strongly indicating that the Brazil was not so good.

Pretty bad for the Barista to lack confidence in what he/she is serving, but I fear a more long term negative effect on customer's appreciation for espresso. Single origin espressos cement old stereotypes on espresso that took a long time to overcome here in the States.

While in Houston at the Specialty Coffee Conference I had dinner with some Italian friends who complained they couldn't find a decent espresso at the show. "Nobody knows how to blend, here," they lamented.



Unknown said...

Thank you for posting such a useful, impressive and a wicked article./Wow.. looking good!

Coffee Equipment

Sam Smith said...

I am thinking of getting my very own espresso machine, thanks for the great article.

Unknown said...

Impressed. I'd love to start really know what I'm doing with coffee but I don't have the caffeine tolerance for the tasting. That means I mostly drink when I'm caffeine hungry so the first cup tastes much better the second. Makes it hard to do objective head to heads. You have any tips?

0s0-Pa said...

Now you need to write one about what makes a good cup of coffee!

Unknown said...

How do you know who will be a good site equipment for you?you should know which is your best for equipment distributors,
I have never needed the services of one as of yet, but I have always been curious what makes a good about equipment distributors.I would say about this topics.
Talk about something out of the part.

Coffee & Espresso Machines

Mark Overly said...

Your bring up a very good question, Stove. I will have to put on my thinking cap for that one!

Unknown said...

The "www.gvshopfit.com" is the high quality equipment concept and a venerable reputation as one of the most financial equipment in existence.
they services and can serve you the best equipment,This site they are announce the best price of equipment concepts, And they are 100% financing for the coustomers need.

Coffee & Espresso Machines

Unknown said...

Ameritalia provides commercial espresso machines sales, repair and service in Cameron Park, California.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with this,and in fact I was about to mention some importance of top performence of foodservices of equipment servicers in my comment below.
It’s certainly a fact that helps makes us work more and faster.see more

Coffee & Espresso Machines

Unknown said...

Hi Great Blog, Very informative information about Coffee espresso machines UK

Abdul Malek said...

Thanks for sharing with us a great article its really impressive for a best coffee maker list i personally recommend you.

Tom Cashman said...

There are loads of factors that makes a good espresso, I also find mainly its the type of coffee beans you use, I have always been a big fan of using Italian coffee beans for my espresso, and also I make sure that I have one of the best espresso's machines, even though they can be pricey!

NANCY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NANCY said...

It is remarkable blog. I wanted to learn such type of the things that I have got from here at one platform. Thanks. Christopher R. Robinson

Unknown said...

Hi I was searching for the blogs for many times, now I have reached at the right
allthingscoffee.info place.

RSA CBD College Sydney said...

Learn How To Make Espresso Coffee course in Sydney, Brisbane & Melbourne at CBD College

Our aim is simple : to teach espresso using the national framework whilst maintaining the Italian espresso roots. Whether you are looking for an immediate job or simply searching for espresso excellence, this course is for you.

1300 659 361
1300 723 056
1300 653 029

CBD College is the leading training organisation that offers Barista and Coffee courses in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Newcastle. We are 100% Australian owned and operate vocational education and training classes in the Australia.

Unknown said...

I'm a coffee drinker and this makes a very good espresso.

Unknown said...

Love my espresso maker. Super easy to use and clean. When you do wash it, it is better to dry it right away or else you will get dried on water spots and discoloration in the inside. But, if you don't mind it, then it will not be an issue.

Unknown said...

I've seen these around and now own one. Perfect for one cup of strong coffee, if you want more, order the larger sizes. A good alternative for morning coffee over starting the RV generator best 18650 battery to run a coffee maker.

Unknown said...

Coffee machine UAE
Coffee Maker UAE
coffee Vending Machine

Sajid said...

hank you for posting such a useful, impressive and a wicked article. coffee roaster review & budget espresso machine

reena said...

It is very useful information. Thank you. For more information related to this Click here

Ariyan said...

thanks for sharing great tips Espresso Beans Review

SamPep87 said...

As coffee beans matters a lot in making the good espresso coffee so for having the Surrey office coffee machine taste like cafe you need to roasts the coffee beans and grind it properly and shake it well and by this you get your coffee ready.

Mark Frost said...

You have provided a very good guide on the coffee maker machine and I hope that

whoever comes to this post will like it very much and will get all the help that

they need. In case if anyone want more detials on best espresso machines in India

then you must refer to the guide where we have discussed in detial about the Top 10

Best Espresso Machine
in India. Just go through the website and get all the

necessary information of best espresso machine on what you should be knowing.

For Your Home said...

You have shared a very informative blog. Thanks for sharing.

For Your Home

Automatic coffee machine india 2019

Cheermap foods pvt ltd said...

Share wonderful details concerning your blog site, Blog truly useful for us. Commercial Tea Machine