Saturday, May 14, 2011

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.

Miscela.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Coffee Acidity

One thing was painfully clear at the SCAA show in Houston, acidy coffee is in! Really! I even heard one coffee described as having "aggressive acidity." Dark Roasts are out, Light Roasts are in. Light Roasts are complex, refined, have good acidity. Dark Roasts, well, Dark Roasts just aren't cool anymore. I mean, Starbucks over roasts their coffee. And we all know that Starbucks is not cool. Light Roasts are Third Wave and Third Wave is in.

Along with the trend towards Light Roast is this new found appreciation for Acidity. Acidity is what gives a coffee its brightness, its liveliness. Good Acidity can be likened to carbonation in a soda, without it the beverage is flat. Something I heard repeated time and again was the necessity of educating the customer about coffee acidity. But not all acidity is good, and a lot of what I tasted was acids due to defects in the coffee.

Of the plus 1000 different chemical compounds identified in coffee about 50 or so are acids. Many of these are volatile compounds and diminish in roasting. Light Roasts tend to emphasize these acidic compounds and bring them to the fore. This is why coffee tasters in the import/export trade roast their samples very light to expose these particular defects. Trade Cupping or Defect Cupping is a necessary skill for any coffee professional but one would be remiss into assuming that this is some higher form of taste.

Coffee's acidity comes from a combination of its inherent acidity along with the coffee bean's production cycle: growing, processing, and roasting. Coffee's inherent acidity is chlorogenic acid, which, along with caffeine, is part of the plant's defense against insects. Chlorogenic acid breaks down in roasting into quinic and caffetic acids depending on the amount of time the coffee is exposed to heat. Roasting machines with poor heat transference produce more of these acids resulting in a tinny, bitter taste. I have written more extensively on this acid in "Bitterness and Acidity in Coffee."

One of the more oft quoted acids is Citric Acid. This acid is usually associated with fresh crop coffee and indicates new harvest. Experienced cuppers will tend to opt away from these lots and wait for later deliveries, giving the coffee a chance to mature. If the flavor persists it is an indication that too many immature green coffee cherries are making their way through. I have notice in my own travels that first time cuppers often take a liking to this taste largely due to the fact that it is the first taste that they learn to identify. This acid is less volatile than other acids and so cannot be "roasted" out. Its easy to identify, since most of us are familiar with citric acid from citrus fruits.

Another common acid is malic. I have noticed an increase in this acid over the years as sun grown coffee has become more commonplace. It is due to excessive day/night time temperature deviations. Shaded coffee farms have more stable temperatures which benefits the plants night time expiration. This acid has a distinct tart apple peel taste that lingers on the palette.

Acetic acids come about from the just pulped coffee beans sitting in the fermentation tank. The time in the fermentation tank is critical since the enzymes break down the silver skin on the coffee beans. Too much time, or if the temperature is too high, however, results in a vinegar like taste. Sometimes this is confused with wineyness.

Most of these acids will decrease in roasting, aside from the Quinic, but as more roasters opt for a Light Roast these acids come to define the coffee's flavor. I hear a lot of pontificating about this coffee's blueberry taste, or apricot, plum, or jammy, as if they are talking about their favorite wine. The one thing that these acids have in common is that they invariably lead to a soury cup. You can mask some of these flavors by increasing the brew temperature, but as the cup cools so returns the sour. What's more, these acids tend affect a person's body, resulting in an edgy, uncomfortable feeling. Some assume it is caffeine, but it is these acids.

In my years of roasting I have never had a customer come in and ask for an acidic coffee: you know, something that tastes like fresh squeezed lemons? Something that will sour my stomach and make me feel all jittery?

Maybe its time the customer educated us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

SCAA 2011 Houston

For the first time in a number of years I decided to attend the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Annual Conference and Exhibition, billed as "The Event" in Houston, Texas. Last year I had attended the World Conference on Coffee put on by the International Coffee Association in Guatemala and since so much has changed in the intervening year of the coffee market I was curious as to how the SCAA would be dealing with the new market reality. The SCAA presented a Symposium for coffee professionals two days prior to the Conference proper, and it was that offering that attracted me most.
Well, okay, if I were really honest, the Symposium was a waste of time and money on my part, with the exception of being able to spend a lot of time with some old industry friends that I haven't seen in some time. The content of the Symposium, though, was lacking, especially when compared to what was presented in Guatemala. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this trade association, and I doubt that any trade association is capable of real dialogue on global matters.

What trade associations do well, however, is show new equipment and there was new equipment a plenty on display in the exhibition hall.

First up for me was the La Marzocco booth. Marzocco is enjoying a sort of renaissance of late after an abysmal year due to the economic crash. They had just moved into a new factory in Florence and it was a real struggle. Despite the perception in the SCAA as being a manufacturer heavy weight, Marzocco is a tiny company. This year, even with sales rebounded, they produce 10% of what a mainstream espresso manufacturers like La Cimbali and CMA produce.

They have been clearly busy in the development department as they were displaying a number of very cool machines, most notably the new Strada. The Strada represents their top of the line, displacing the GB5. So now there are currently four lines on offer, the venerable Linea, the FB80, the GB5 and the Strada.

The Linea gets the addition of the mechanic paddles to have three variations: the MP, mechanical paddle; the EE a semi-automatic rocker switch; and the AV, our favorite, with volumetric dosing. All of the machines will now be PID controlled for brew temperature, replacing the old mechanical thermostat.

The poor GB5 and FB80's are sort of the forgotten middle children in the line, and to be honest I barely looked at them. The principal difference, that I can see, between these and the Linea are the addition of preheaters for the brew boiler. Customers can choose the same variations as the Linea.

The Strada was the star of the show. This machine comes in two variations, the MP and the new EP. The MP being the same mechanical paddle arrangement as on the Linea, the EP being an electronic version. Instead of the mechanical rotary pump, the EP uses an internal gear driven pump that allows for infinite pressure profiling while brewing. What's more, one can program a brew pressure map and the machine will reproduce this profile on the fly. Very cool!

Aside from geeking out over the new stuff, what really made my heart happy was seeing the Linea respected again. For a long time we have loved these machines. Many of our clients use rescued ex-Starbucks 3 and 4 groupers in their bars and to see these machines recognized as classics is long overdue. They are rock solid reliable and make great espresso.

Also at the Marzocco booth was a lot of new stuff from Marco. This is equipment made for the growing Pour-over Bar market. On hand was the new Uberboiler with electronic scale, and special grinders. A lot of activity around this stuff as Pour-over Bars are the new rage.

However, on the other side of the exhibition hall at the Baratza booth there was a prototype machine on display that pretty much makes Pour-over Bars obsolete. A fully programmable hot water delivery machine for use in pour over brewers such as the Chemex. The water sprayer rotates around the top of the brew funnel and can be programmed for any determined pulse brew. The designer has yet to decide whether to target the commercial or home market yet but the device easily out performs any manual operator. So much for the Brewers Cup!

Speaking of pour over brewers, an old friend, Kevin Knox, was attending and strongly suggested I check out a just introduced brewer called the Sowden Softbrew. This device essentially renders the Press Pot and the Chemex obsolete in every respect. Easier to use than a Press Pot and the Chemex, but with the best attributes of both. Outstanding flavor clarity and no sediment. I didn't take any pictures but I bought three cases!