Moving away from espresso

This one will doubtless cause a little debate.

In some ways I have been relieved to speak to people like Steve Leighton, Stephen Morrissey and read on Pulling Shots about a kind of movement away from espresso when it comes to coffee for our own pleasure. I think if you truly get excited about coffee itself, as well as the process of serving it, then you are often looking for a more honest coffee experience than an espresso.

It seems odd not to use honest for espresso, as everything seems very much emphasised, clear if not even laid bare. But all too often it isn’t the coffee that is left open to scruntiny but the barista. I think I’ve used the phrase before but I just want to taste the coffee in the cup and not the person tasting it. The more we obsess and learn about espresso the less we are able to simply enjoy it, and the greater our capacity to pick it to pieces and to look for the faults. Often, especially even, when it is our own shot.

With more traditional methods (french press, drip, cupping bowl) and their newer little twists (Clover, Aeropress etc) I think it is a little easier to let go and just taste the coffee. Espresso so often falls below expectation (of course it can dazzle and amaze and be thrilling, I am not debating that!) but I would gladly accept a cup of brewed coffee from a barista and give them an honest opinion because it would not be their cup of Colombian CoE, in same way that it would be their shot of espresso.

Drinking brewed coffee like this allows me to take great pleasure in the bean, and all that surrounds it, influences it and makes the cup what it is. It allows me to stop worrying what I am doing, and to explore in a more genuine manner. Which is a good thing.

[tags]espresso, opinion, coffee, barista, clover, aeropress, brewed coffee, coffee brewing[/tags]

15 Comments

  1. I think we share the same thoughts on this one James and are both from the same school of coffee. A while back I posted something much the same, from which I got some strange emails. Thats something for you to look forward too :)

    I love coffee, not barista’s or espresso machines or grinders, just coffee.

  2. Edited the post as you deserve credit for pushing my mind in this direction which I think is ultimately a positive one.

    Loving the La Fany – got some orders to place this week to lots of place around the world!

  3. I love coffee, and barista’s and espresso machines, and grinders :) I am a geek though. I get as much out of pulling a fantastic shot of someone else’s blend, as I do enjoying via french press something I have painstakingly roasted myself.

    I enjoy roasting and blending, sharing and discussing, testing and tasting, dialing and pulling, marketing and selling, promoting and of course drinking coffee :)

    Could it be that instead of ‘moving away’ from espresso, it is just that other aspects of coffee have captured more of your attention for a while?

  4. Apples and oranges. Some people like espresso, some people like drip.
    Some people are too quick to label espresso as elitist or say what it should be when we simply haven’t put the time into exploring it enough yet.

    jim,
    I’m just lost to respond to this line of thought. It almost counters the discussion you were having about subtle flavors being so hard to ‘cup out’ in coffee earlier.
    I love espresso AND I love breaking crust on a fresh new coffee(I hate aeropress tho;). Neither brewing method is truly better for me… but for a customer, I could always promise that the espresso would likely impress them because if I say ‘nuts and fruit’ they will likely get it and taste that. ‘Drip’ it’s subtle and you really need to struggle to pick out those delicate notes…
    That’s my personal bias as a barista though.
    Sometimes I am lost in these discussions because we can’t just sit around the same table and taste the same things…

  5. definitely in the “love coffee” camp — if it’s good enough. frequently, espresso is simply the winning option, hands down. i can’t afford a clover, though when i have access to one … well, then “the coffee” wins over a particular brewing method.

    i would take issue with one phrase, however:
    “The more we obsess and learn about espresso the less we are able to simply enjoy it.”

    i believe this may be true for you. but i don’t think this HAS to be true. one can maintain a simple love of the pursuit, i believe, without getting frustrated that one will never “attain.” i think its possible to enjoy the vast and flummoxing variables in espresso — taste-wise — even as one pursues something better.

  6. I’ve heard people in Vancouver talk about espresso and say that a shot was good but they don’t want another. Or that whether they want another or not is a good indication of how good it was. I rarely want two espresso’s in a row. Call me prissy, but i often find espresso, especially over here, just intense. I just don’t enjoy the experience enough.

    I do however find myself drinking a press or a clover and feeling very much that I want more. Sometimes I want more of that coffee, other times I want to get that familiar with another coffee. I love how much time I have with drip coffee, and how it changes in that time.

    Yes I’ve had good espresso, but even when its great, I generally don’t want another one right away. I’ll keep tasting espresso, and I’ll keep buying espresso paraphernalia, but my focus is now on roasting, cupping and varietals.

  7. I also agree with you Jim and Stephen. As i dive further into the battle of espresso I find myself getting more and more picky about what the blend consists of, taking me back to cupping the components as veriatals. When i do get that close to perfect shot and crave for another I always seem to be disapointed with the outcome. But i have to say i enjoy the challange and I enjoy seeing others fight with the countless factors espresso lays out for us.

  8. hmmm…. I understand entirely what you are saying but I’m not sure about this. I like the artistic accent or “the flair” that each individual barista can show in the preparation of a coffee. Finding a great barista that makes coffee just the way you like it is a really personal experience. I enjoy the romance of watching a barista work their craft (as opposed to pressing a button on a clover) – for me its more than a great coffee, it’s the ceremony around the preparation as well. I love the contribution of passion made by all participants in production to the finished cup.

  9. I hear you Nathan but I must admit I think the contribution gets diluted in espresso as it all focuses on one person, the barista. As soon as a personality gets in the way it becomes owned. The only personality that should be imposed for me is the farmer.

    I agree the ceremony around the preparation is awesome, but most important for me is the joy delivered to the senses.

  10. There can be great ceremony in non espresso brewing. There are definitely barista’s whose flair is an added charm to the beverage, but it’s just as possible to add charm when operating a clover or press. Ideally I’d like as a customer to see a sample of the greens, followed by the roasted beans, a chance to smell the ground coffee just before brewing, and then talk to the barista on what they like about it. In addition to this, both press and clover require a certain level of attention to be brewed correct. It is not as difficult to master as espresso but there is more to it than pressing a button.

    What I’d like might not be overly practical in a high volume bar but thankfully I don’t yet own a cafe and so I can still be idealistic. I’d point out too that not all high end baristas are interesting to watch and not all bars are easily visible to the customer.

    I worry I focus too much on the ceremony of espresso preperation as opposed to the final cup.

    Then again I worry a lot.

  11. let’s face it: any person who serves a coffee or espresso is going to get a grossly inordinate amount of attention relative to everyone else in the chain. because there’s no way to change that, i don’t have a problem with the espresso barista getting credit for their mad skills…if they have them. and if the espresso is good. yes, too many baristas nowadays want to be rock stars. that is sad. but, as someone mentioned above, the espresso, like the barista who created it, are fleeting in comparison with the time around which you unfold with a beautiful coffee. you just can’t linger over an espresso like you can coffee (though i’ve seen some folks contemplating life for half an hour as they nurse a single espresso).

    for that reason alone i like coffee over espresso.

    but also because not every coffee is suited well for espresso…yet every coffee is, ostensibly, suited well for coffee–and in a range of prep methods.

  12. OK – I think I need to clarify my very clumsily written post.

    What I did NOT mean to say:

    Espresso is rubbish
    I don’t like espresso
    Drip/Clover/Brewed is better than espresso.

    I would like to illustrate my frustrations in two different examples.

    I go to see Klaus’ coffee shop and I have an espresso. In this espresso am I judging the coffee or the barista?
    To take this further – I recieve a bag of coffee in the post. It has nothing more than a roast date, and it is nice and fresh. I start to brew it in my espresso machine. It is a bit sour, so I up the temp, or I slow the brew. I fight and fight this coffee to create a balanced shot, and at different temps I get different characteristics showing through. Sometimes it is sweeter than others, but also at other times it has better body or a cleaner and more pleasing finish. I don’t really like any of the shots.
    Why?
    Is it me? Is it the equipment? Is it the coffee?

    What I was trying to say is that I find espresso difficult when exploring different coffees (though great when playing with one coffee) because I am never sure when I am tasting the bean and when I am tasting the barista. More traditional brewing often gives a clearer picture of how the coffee tastes and ten different people could brew it yet all will probably agree on its major characteristics.

    When I said “The more we obsess and learn about espresso the less we are able to simply enjoy it.” I suppose I meant that the more aware I am of the pitfalls and problems in espresso brewing the more I look for them. I find it very hard to switch that part of me off. I really shouldn’t have used “we” there, though I know I am not alone in this.

    I hope this helps make more sense of the post. Why I didn’t write this in the first place is beyond me!

  13. All interesting comments. Mine’s not as interesting I suppose but I mentioned on the “Pulling Shots” blogsite mentioned in this thread that I would also comment here. Keep in mind I personally know Peter – “Pulling Shots”, and so my comments are based on having pulled shots for him and him having pulled shots for me. Peter is a great barista, if he served me an espresso I would drink it. I mention all this as I feel it is pertinent to my opinion, which is…

    For Jim, what is “a more honest coffee experience”? No answer required, its a rhetorical question.

    I don’t really know anyone here, so please don’t misinterpret my comments, I’m making them in a non-confrontational manner and really only hope to express an alternate definition.

    Whatever extraction process you currently favour is merely a means to an end – enjoying coffee. Whether you pull a shot, or you drip it, or you Aeropress it etc, it’s still coffee. It came from the same product, a bean. Currently I don’t think there is now, or ever will be a true definition of what a coffee is supposed to taste like as noted by xyz extraction process. That is simply your/a persons opinion. No process has a claim on what coffee should honestly taste like.

    Now, taking it one step back from the extraction process, no single roaster has a claim on “the honesty” of coffee. That chosen roast is merely an opinion. We can debate about things like the product was affected by this and that the moment it was removed from the tree and on its way to the roaster, but certainly a large influence in what that coffee will become in the cup is at the roaster’s influence. At that point “the honesty” has been removed, someone else (even if extremely skilled, full to the top of their head with passion, daring, swashbuckling and a moonlighting secret agent) has influenced that bean and imprinted upon it their opinion. I’m ok with that. But “the honesty” has shifted left or right. And so it goes for the extraction device (you doing something with something to something) you apply an opinion in subtle ways on the coffee that manipulate it towards your definition of what is true to you.

    I think your post really raises two different concepts:

    Point #1 – By taking your current frame of reference, state of palate, expectations and the sometimes fickle day to day “would love to taste…” notions and applying them against that first, second or third coffee of the day you make a decision on “was it good or not”.

    Point #2 – A Cirque du Soleil barista with associated cafe paraphenalia versus an inside-out tshirt and bedhead barista; either may produce a good or bad shot as related to point #1.

    Looking at point #1, you and I may or may not agree on if that coffee is good, regardless of extraction process. Whether it is your much deeper level of exposure to coffee or your head cold, “the honesty” of coffee is a subjective matter.

    Looking at point #1, if you use three different extraction processes on the same coffee, giving each process your best efforts and you like the second extraction the best – great. The guys on either side of you might like the first and the third process.

    I understand your direction with this post. I think these are insightful questions (like pretty much all of your commentaries) though the questions asked allow for different answers from different people – and none of the answers may be wrong.

    Just an opinion.

  14. I like the debate.

    I think what I need to accept is that an espresso is the sum of more parts than any other brewing method (that will still be up for debate of course), for good or for bad.

    Back to the honest brew – I think a cupping bowl has to be the closest we can get because it is the most standardised. Correctly cupped coffee has little room for intereference from the cupper (notice the use of ‘correctly’), hence its use throughout the world and throughout the industry. What I must go to pains to say is that this doesn’t make it a better way to brew coffee, or a way that creates a more enjoyable experience.

    Perhaps we are all talked out on this one, but I am kind of hoping people like Jaime rejoin the debate now I’ve made my point in a vaguely more eloquent manner two posts above.

  15. Called out again…
    Jim,
    When I get a new coffee for espresso I know nothing about, I break crust and cup it. I smell the freshly ground coffee for that aroma. Then I go about finding a way to extract that coffee in such a manner as to get those notes in the cupping and the aroma expressed in as balanced a manner as possible. For me, that is the likely ‘sweet spot’ when it resembles everything in the cupping and has the aromas of the grind with no negatives. That is my usual interpretation of the bean’s proper expression/extraction. Doesn’t mean I am right but that is how I typically go about it. It took me a long time to come to that, but I think it sometimes leads you to some unique experiences at volumes, doses, and temps you didn’t expect to get that at. I can’t argue about a lot of this because I don’t know how many people have brewed a super clean Yirg at 194F and 16grams like we did tonight. Most people are still talking about blueberry fermenty yirgs or harrars as a shot and I feel like I don’t get that anymore. I honestly don’t know how to relate anymore without sitting in the same room and sharing an experience.
    When I hear your line of thought, Jim, I thought of something this morning as I was critiquing a friends shots to help him out. When I do training, I don’t enjoy the espresso. I am a critic. I am judging what the barista has done with the coffee and trying to assess how it could be better. I am a food critic who can no longer appreciate what the chef has prepared for looking at the possible faults, so to speak. Breaking down the cup instead of just experiencing the cup. Trying to define which component is the chef and which part is the ingredients is no longer about the experience but a scientific analysis of the cup contents. Something a consumer will not likely do.
    If you are judging the expression of this coffee as presented by the barista, it may or may not be what you find in the cupping notes. How the barista -consciously- expresses/interprets the coffee is intriguing and detailed discussion that deserves a good debate but then you realize I am not talking about your run of the mill shop/barista in this discussion.

    The ritual of the barista, flare, and all the techie stuff are secondary to cup flavor for me so I can’t comment on any of it meaning much to me. I want to see the barista interact and relate flavors to me and guide me through my experience. Relate what I should be tasting and why they pulled that flavor out!

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