Espresso, espresso, endless espresso…

October 1st, 2007

There is a lot of interesting talk at the moment on the topic of espresso.  Most of it centres around the back and forth between Ken Davids and Mark Prince.  It started with Mark’s criticism of Ken’s espresso reviewing after an article was published comparing some Italian and North American blends.  Ken has responded and the tit for tat continues with Mark’s prequel to his own comparison of blends in an article where he discusses his own espresso evaluation technique.

For me the whole topic of reviewing is a very interesting one.  Due to the coffee showing being so tied into the brewing espresso is a bit of a pain.  Today I pulled some shots (quite a lot of shots) of the new Coffee Collective espresso.

I was luckily restricted in my expectations by not being able to speak Danish and was very pleased to find my notes matched very closely what was on the bag. (I may post about this in the future, once I’ve finished the precious last bag). But I think expectation is key in all of this – especially the dangers of it.

The more people taste the more, in general, they develop expectations and “oughts”.  Let’s take this away from espresso and back to the cupping table for a second.  There is a coffee on the table that is sweet, fruity and has a wonderfully strong blueberry note.  If this coffee is from Guatemala it is defective, because a cupper thinks Guatemalan coffee ought not to taste like that.  Yet the same cup is revered should it come from Harrar.

One of my frustrations, reading through Mark’s latest article, was not the tasting protocol – this I thought was quite interesting and I look forward to reading how it turned out.  Instead it was his throwaway description of single origin espresso as “cutting corners”, and his fairly constant dismissal of it.

I haven’t ever had a good single origin espresso.  (Stay with me).  I have had some great single estate espresso, and look forward to a lot more.  Let me explain.  The advice against single origin espresso has been around in books and on websites for a long time.  I think it is probably fair because for that long time (certainly in the UK) single origin meant just that.  A generic, non-descript lot from somewhere or somewheres within a country.  Unlikely to be stellar green, unlikely to be stellar brewed coffee and hence pretty poor espresso.

Surely we have to agree that things are changing.  Increased demand for quality and traceability backed up with a willing to pay for it has meant that there are more and more small lots of higher and higher quality that make stellar coffee in all forms.

And so, in a long and slightly winding way, we end up back at what espresso ought to tase like.  Some will argue that blends are a necessity because espresso ought to be full, complex and balanced.  I have tasted a lot of espresso blends and very few really tick that box and that is ok.  Some are light, and have their sweetness balanced by a fresh acidity.  Some are heavier bodied with those chocolate and nut overtones.   A good single estate espresso can be like this.  I think Peter Guiliano once convincingly argue that just about every lot is some sort of blend – be it of varietal, or harvest date or varying terroir within the estate.  Is the blend that is light and fresh invalid as espresso?  No, of course not.  So why then dismiss single estate espresso that can be much the same thing.

My entire reason for using single estate in the WBC was that I am more interested in what espresso can be, rather than what it is supposed to be.  (I can assure you I have no intention of trying to become some sort of Single Estate posterboy)  Oughts do not further progress.  Oughts are useful as quality control, once you know what you are desire to attain – be it a roast profile enhancing certain flavours or cappuccinos maintaining your desired balance of coffee and milk.  However – as Mark points out in his article – green coffee is changing.  Money, time and hard research is going on in every producing country to increase the quality and increase the potential of coffee grown.  We shouldn’t be responding to that by trying to crowbar those coffees into our already formed and rigid definitions.

When it comes to reviewing espresso the consumer reading that review, and reading it the most seriously, is likely to be the one with the least amount of expectation of how espresso should taste.  If they are to get an idea of how the coffee will taste to them, do we slowly invalidate ourselves as appropriate reviewers the more oughts we collect?

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