Espresso, espresso, endless espresso…

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?

18 Comments

  1. Interesting. I don’t think the industry is ready for serious critics until the industry as a whole develops more.

    Do you agree with Mark’s estimation or do you believe in Davids’ retort?

  2. This is exactly what I have been thinking recently. To me there seem to be to many seeking to find an absolute truth and many others ever so willing to claim they have found it. I think one only gets better and eveolves through challenging oneself and those truths that are so easy to subscribe to and try new things, be it new SOs or blends or methods of brewing etc.

    Ola

  3. Jaime – I am not really sure how I feel about Davids’ retort/brewing protocol/reviews to be honest. I have read his books, and have assumed he has continued to move forwards. Perhaps if I had tasted more of the coffees he’d scored then it would make more sense. Ultimately I believe all roasters should supply brew recipes and a taster should so his best to attain them when reviewing.

    Luca – this is a great question, and a tricky one I guess. I think in a lot of producing countries – certainly South and Central America – this is a pretty easy question to answer with the estate encompassing coffee from the specific owned plot of land. I agree that it does get fuzzy in other countries where you can only really get down to a mill grade and there can be little communication between buyer and grower. Origins like Ethiopia and Indonesia spring quickly to mind. Here the lack of farms large enough to merit their own separate lot milling. That blurred boundary does make it difficult to talk in the absolutes above but I was really just trying make a distinction between well grown, very traceable coffee and lots like Brazilian Santos or Colombian Excelso. This isn’t to say you can’t find good lots within the generic grades – it is just a lot, lot harder, and results in no real dialogue which will help more quality along even further in the future. Again, that said I know people are working hard with different washing stations and mills – the stuff people are bringing out of Idido Misty valley is an interesting example. We have to keep asking the questions that make us um and err, and I look forward to seeing how relationships between roasters and grower develop in those types of producing countries.

    The point I was really trying to make is that I’ve never had a good shot from a lot where all I’ve known is the country of origin and nothing more. I see less and less of those type of lots (outside of supermarket shelves) which is a good thing. Add to that that the advice of single origin espresso being bad really comes from a time when those lots were a great deal more common.

  4. I never said SO espresso was “bad” as its own qualifier with nothing else – if I did, it was a mistake on my part.

    I have said, repeatedly, that SO espresso is boring, and that it seems, at times, with some people espousing it (and I don’t mean you) there’s a certain amount of disrespect, or at least disregard shown towards the incredible lengths that master roasters go through to achieve a superior blend. And I still stand by that.

    Also, I assume you’re not lumping me in with whoever is confusing SO espresso with generic, off the shelf, “here’s a country and region espresso” James. I know the difference between a Guatemala San Jose Ocaña and a Guat Huehuetenango.

    Speaking of the San Jose, I had this coffee, from two different roasters in the past week, brewing it in a variety of methods including as espresso, and to be honest, just as I felt I was doing a disservice to last month’s Esmeralda offerings by pulling them as shots, I felt the same this time around with these three superb offerings that, in a press or vac pot, were extremely impressive.

  5. Personally speaking, I really don’t “get” any of this. A reviewer “reviews” a product, such as coffee and the reader decides through experience whether or not he/she agrees with that reviewer. It seems obvious to me that many people within “the wave” don’t agree with Davids or his methodologies.

    With this being the case, I don’t understand all the gnashing of the teeth and argument. As someone from within the motion picture industry, I don’t get worked up because I disagree with Roger Ebert.

    What I’m most concerned about is whether much of this recent discussion is fueled merely because one of the “Third Wave Sacred Cows” was ranked lower than Segafreddo. If that’s the case, then perhaps we’re a sad lot indeed…

    However, I noted in the image that the Coffee Collective is not only releasing their blend information but also the ratios – that’s something very new and exciting. How many of these “Third Wave” companies would be willing to offer that level of disclosure?

  6. I too am excited to see Coffee Collective offer some transparency in their business. Roasters generally will gladly reference the farmer for single origin but an espresso blend is strangely such a deep dark secret. Fantastic and forward thinking on their part and hopefully it will spread.

    Robert

  7. Just thought I shoud add that Tim Wendelboe has done the same with his blend since he started. I think it’s a great idea. If anyone decides to copy it they can’t get a hold of the exact same coffees and their blends would just be sad ripoffs anyway.

    Ola

  8. Ola, you are so right. And furthermore there is also SO much in the roasting profile. People tend to think it’s just about the blend composition and that’s it. But if someone took the exact same percentages of for example Tim’s beans, and roasted it their way, I bet it wouldn’t taste similar at all.

  9. I think they were one of the first, if not the first to do it. Klaus, you’re absolutely right about the roasting profile. It’s pretty hard to nail it even when you’ve done it several times and when you know exactly how it should be done.

  10. Here in Belgium we have mostly a very hard time to trace our beans. Of course it’s nice to know more about the origin, area or estate, but i’m estonished James you never had a top quality bean with only the country name on it and nothing more.
    Last week we had your winning Costa Rica from Has BEan. WE had Mountain Top, Sul De Minas, Two COE, Kopi Luwak, Kenya AA and many more. Some from Has Bean, some from Terroir and others from different high qualified roasters. But what happened : my roaster had some samples from Honduras. No name, no area, no nothing. And what happened with that espresso shot? …. it came out as one of the best, probably even the best of the bunch.
    I ordered directly 20 Kg and it’s fantastic. Now i try to know where it comes from, but till now i have no results. And you know what my roaster said : “Hell Rob, you got a good coffee for a very good price. And maybe you can find another with more information, but you’ll have to pay a whole lot more”. I think he’s right and as long as the beans taste as good as this Honduras, for this price, …. let them come to daddy.
    Rob
    Antwerp Barista
    ps : you want me to send a sample?

  11. James,
    I found your article very insightful. It seems that the very nature of one who is visionary or a pioneer, so to speak, has a desire to explore the perimeters of what is common or acceptable in order to gain a higher or deeper understanding of what has defined it for so long. I appreciate your willingness to challenge the expectations of espresso as it is commonly profiled, and I hope through this that the world of espresso and those who critique it will have a broader base to work from when defining their perameters.
    At the same time, I do believe in the need to respect the tradition of flavor profiling and classification because of our predecessors desire, just as your desires drive you, for a more competent understanding of quality coffee.
    There is yet much to be learned for all of us as we pursue the defining glories of what many call “the third wave of coffee”. You are a pioneer.

  12. Jay, I always admire your unbiased comment and the way of thinking different than the crowd. pretty much in line with the oriental way of thought.

    Rob, that’s absolutely right. Same thing happen to my Sumatra Grade 1 too.

    Love this discussion. Just open up my mind a lot more.

  13. default-
    Thanks for the kind words. However, I don’t know if I would categorize my positioning as “much in line with the oriental way of thought.”

    Mainly because, the “oriental way” is mostly about conformity or not rocking the boat. Growing up Filipino in America, there was always the urging to do better in school, go to college, become a doctor and don’t make too many waves. Whether you’re Filipino or Chinese, Japanese, Thair or any Asian ethnicity, the societal norm is to “go with the flow” and live to the conformity of society.

    Even when I lived in Hawaii and found the local culture much to my taste, there was still the tide of “don’t make A” or “no make hu hu” that promoted general conformation to island norms. My penchant for discussing that which I found “distasteful” usually resulted in me exposing my “haole-ness” of growing up in America, rather than my ethnic background.

    Whether it’s just the coffee industry in general or this “Third Wave Thing Of Ours”, the perversion is that we conform: i.e. we must prefer Intellligentsia over Segafreddo – just because. That we must love Esmeralda. That Starbucks must suck at everything. To my mind, conformity leads to the erosion of our ability to grow and learn. It’s something that we must continually strive against.

    I’d go into more, but right now I’m pondering the best approach towards roasting the Idido Misty Valley…

  14. finally espresso is shaking the world. hope will shake our self destruction too. thank you james for bringing this even higher, thanks to everyone, thanks to tim who actually started first with this in a galaxy fur fur away, thanks to all again. lets start live espresso trip instead of ego trip…
    lets learn more and more

  15. Jim,

    Regardless of origins and oughts, certain profiles such as the classic ‘blueberry’ aroma have a decided downside associated with them, don’t you think? This whole morality of the cup thing often goes a bit far past the reality of where the flavors in a cup come from. We woo the blueberry but tolerate the baggage it brings to the date… Some cups are simple novelty and others are priced on extra prep or special character. We often overlook these realities as barista and I find it to be an interesting debate for those willing to bear it or at least those simply willing to have a strong opinion one way or another.

    I look forward to your review of the Coffee Collective offering.

  16. Sorry not to have responded to the comments here sooner – Moscow left me disconnected for a week and I’ve been very busy since but there is lots of interesting stuff here and I will comment soon I promise!

Submit a comment