Unblended espresso

Forgive the ugliness of the title, but I think talking about SO (Single Origin) espresso does a great disservice 1 to what people are beginning to achieve and push for.  I am aware that in a way every lot of coffee is a blend on some level but that isn’t what I want to talk about.

Nick Cho highlights the potential advantage of the simplicity of using a single estate or lot in competition over on Portafilter but what is most interesting about all this is that I think we can acknowledge how far we’ve come in coffee recently.

I think for a long time conventional wisdom said espresso was bad for anything but blends, and I think for a long time it was right.  There weren’t a great deal of incredible coffees around then, our understanding of espresso was limited as was our understanding of roasting.

More recently – and I haven’t been in coffee long enough to know the chronology – lots of coffee have become increasingly traceable and increasingly delicious.  I’ve said it before and I am sure I will say it again but coffee has never been as good as it is today and it will only get better.  Add to that our increased understanding of espresso and of roasting coffee to work well as espresso and I think that unblended espressos can be great.

Perhaps they still don’t fulfil certain criteria that people have for espresso that blends do fulfil.  However, I used to see bad single estate or bad single origin espresso as a failure of the espresso machine or our barista skills.  The coffee itself was certainly good and yielded a great cup very simply and cheaply. Yet through our incredibly expensive machinery the result was disappointing – so we (quite incorrectly I believe) blamed the coffee and not the process.  Mike Philips’ win was particularly interesting because he showed an understanding of his coffee and of espresso brewing to deliver a range of great drinks from a single lot of coffee.

Mike Philips coffee (stolen from Brent Fortunes flickr)
Mike Phillips' coffee (stolen from Brent Fortune's flickr)

What I am trying to say is that I think it is time to let go of the notion that SO espresso is any different from blended espresso when it comes to expecting and delicious, nuanced and balanced cup of coffee.  I don’t think we’ve reached any kind of pinnacle, but I think we are definitely getting making some good headway.  As producers continue to craft ever better lots of coffee, and we learn to roast them better I think now more than ever espresso is a suitable and good way to brew them to celebrate the flavours, aromas, tastes and textures that make that particular coffee so special.

  1. as well as diverts away from the traceability we often want to highlight  ↩︎

21 Comments

  1. The process of brewing espresso is like taking a critically focused macro lens, tack sharp, and pointing it at the subject at hand. Where other brewing methods may be analogous to taking a wide angle lens or even a traditional 50mm and soaking up the scene, blending in elements that may present a nice overall picture without too much attention to the individual details, highlights and flaws, the macro’s going to expose it all – the best, and the worst. It may expose and highlight exquisite detail, but it’s also going to highlight all the flaws in the scene.

    And to carry on the photography analogy a bit more, all the things your eye doesn’t normally see in a “scene” will be vividly, maybe starkly exposed – particles of dust, stray hairs, smudges, oily gunk deposits, you name it.

    Espresso for me is the same. It’s a macro-focused look into what the beans or blends have to offer. And just as in photography, I want my espresso ‘picture’ to be equisite, flawless, interesting, and varied. I expect good things to be highlighted. I expect to be surprised by what’s been built (or “shot” (or shot pulled) I also expect flaws to be magnified, and want those flaws minimized as much as possible.

    I fully get why people are gung ho on single origin, or unblended (like that!) espresso. I fully get that some seek clarity and magnification of specific flavours, and love that a shot can be so focused on solitary flavours, sometimes start to finish (aroma, fragrance, taste, finish, aftertaste). I fully get that some see different flavours in unblended espresso. Their palattes are better than mine, and they can detect nuances and changes I cannot.

    My constant complaint about unblended espresso has a few layers. Part of it comes from the macro lens analogy above. Espresso is a magnifying glass, and it will expose the best *and* the worst from a bean. This isn’t me saying this. This is dearly departed Dr. Ernesto Illy talking up the importance of 50 beans making up that single shot, and if one bean is off, the shot quality and taste is ruined. I’m of the opinion that all coffee is flawed in some way – all coffee has desirable taste elements, and undesirable ones. In a cupping, some coffees are so minimal in their flaw side, these flaws are invisible. Put the same coffee through the espresso process, and the flaws become evident. It’s like finding out your mentor is actually human and has his or her own failings. Disappointing.

    Another layer for me is complexity. I’ve often stated I expect espresso to surprise me. There’s a lot of layers to this as well. One part involves wanting (and expecting) espresso to offer up pleasing flavours, including cacophonies that only come through *this specific process* – taste merges that only come from the espresso brewing process and a combination of different origins that result in the poster child for the phrase definition ‘the sum is greater than the parts’. Another part of this layer is how to present this to consumers as their epiphany moment, realising espresso isn’t a bitter black swill, but something unique, special, and culinary.

    My own introduction to quality espresso happened this way. A series of epiphany moments taught me espresso is / can be unique, complex, surprising, and pleasing. Take a sample of Black Cat, circa 2004, and brew it as drip or press. Then take that same Black Cat and brew as espresso. Moving. Epiphany moment. Complex. A meld of flavours that produce something new.

    Yet take that 2007 Esmeralda Speciale, brew it as drip or press or cup it, and get some amazing tastes. Then tune it into your espresso machine and… for me at least, major disappointment. Dull. solitary. flat. flaws exposed.

    BTW, it’s easy to just think that someone like me and with all that I write on the subject, that I’m anti unblended espresso. I just discount it and will forever “blow it off”. That I’m ignorant. Fair enough, but to be very clear, I see myself as someone who hasn’t met a SO espresso he’s fell in love with yet.

    Not a week goes by when I don’t try at minimum two unblended espressos or more. Sometimes its once a day if I have a particular bounty of exquisite single origins to try. I’ll put 200, 300g of a coffee through a blender, tuning it in and dialing things up to try and make something of it. I prefer to think of my predicament as being on a single origin quest, and not a hater.

    So far, the best I can claim, either via my own hand or tasting someone else’s wares, is that I’ve tasted a low 80s, high 70s single origin espresso. That was the cream of the crop. In my scoring book, that equates “good”.

    Meanwhile, I’ve had blends that score routinely in the mid 80s (“very good”, more rarely in the high 80s (‘excellent”). A couple of nights ago I had a shot at the local JJ Bean by one of the best baristas (yet unknown to most outside of Vancouver) in town that took a typically 75-80pt espresso blend and delivered a 90 point shot that I’m going to remember for some time to come. No SO has done that for my palatte, at least so far.

  2. I would agree on the macro level thing. I think for a long time this was why unblended coffees were generally a bit rubbish. Greens weren’t up to that level of scrutiny, nor was the roasting, nor was the brewing (in an odd sort of way – the way you can taste the handiwork of an unskilled barista).

    I think that is changing. I really enjoyed the bag of La Maravilla that Tim brought back – the coffee used by Ryan and Nick in the USBC finals – and I thought it was a very delicious espresso. (I will be ordering some of the roast Mike P used too). I thought the shots Tim pulled me were a fair representation of the coffee, that it was sweet and balanced and if someone had told me that this was a blend they had created in order to get meyer lemon, sherry and jasmine in there with a tonne of sweetness then I would have considered it a success.

    I am not the world’s biggest espresso fan. Espresso frustrates me, eludes me and gets way too much hype. That said I think unblended espresso is now more accessible than ever.

  3. Can you please identify and credit the photographer who created the espresso drip in your first image? It’s outstanding; that person deserves credit, and I would like to go find more.

  4. James, I wonder if “unblended” is the right nomenclature; after all, most– if not all– of the “single estate/single origin” espressos that I saw this year were blends of roast levels and even roast dates. “Unblended” seems to confuse things. How about espressos that blur the lines even deeper, like Sara Peterson’s USBC blend of washed and unwashed Worka Mill Yirg?

    As I’ve been talking to some very savvy people about coffee recently, I keep on coming back to one simple fact: the coffees at the upper end of the scale just keep getting better and better. I think that there is a corollary: it makes sense that as more lots lend themselves to use as single origin espresso, the roasting and roast-blending of these single origin coffees will also become more nuanced and sophisticated. While I agree completely with Nick that SO espresso might offer a slight competitive advantage within the specific parameters gaining points in a barista competition, I also think that the groundswell of amazingly complex and, well, tasty espresso that I was lucky enough to try over the last few months bodes well for the state of espresso– multi-origin blend or not.

    At our shop, we’ve been alternating between Intelli’s Maravilla and the Panama Finca Santa Teresa for the last few months as our second espresso. For the sheer pleasure of drinking a shot, I’d probably take either over any blend that we’ve had at the shop. Of the shots that I evaluated this year, I have a short list that I’d like to revisit: Danielle Glasky’s CCC-roasted Kenya Thunguri. Ritual’s Colombia Finca Mariana that Chris Owens roasted for Renee Teichen. Sara’s Worka espresso was lovely; if I remember correctly, it was roasted by Verve. Intelli’s Kurimi Yirg produced a stunningly good cap. The Anjilanaka that I tried over the summer was a bit untamed and long in the tooth by the time I got my sample, but I’m really looking forward to the new crop that roasts and ships Monday. Honestly, I have not been this excited about espresso in a long time.

  5. i think all of us who feel that “really good coffee is like drinking rock ‘n roll” have their weird little things — weird only because many within the community disagree with our little things. mark doesn’t care for single origin espresso, and others like james don’t see espresso as the ultimate brewing method. and while we’re meandering down the confessional path. . .

    i like both blends and single origins (in various brewing methods), but i usually don’t crave straight shots. i’ve had many fellow “geeks” turn their nose up at this. i like double capps, in the 5-7 total ounce by volume range, but i’ve had many baristas refuse to pour me their single origin espresso as a cappuccino. and i like press. . . way more than clover. fine tuning a press can be just as complicated as a clover or a vac pot, imo.

    imo, some single origins taste great as a press and only so-so when roasted for espresso (and visa versa). imo, black cat espresso is overrated (there, i said it). a nice warm chocolate note, but not much else. i get more complexity out of a good batch of misty valley than i do black cat. also, as someone who’s roasted coffee for a little while now, i disagree with the notion that each single origin has an ideal roast profile. just 20 seconds this way or that can dramatically change flavors, body, acidity; but quite often there’s more than one “great” combination.

    but i think that variation is welcome within our community. i applaud mark for pounding his head against the grinder a couple of times a week to revist “am i missing something?” maybe our various biases arise from where we started out on our individual coffee journeys? i don’t know. but i think as long we’re all in the same ballpark, we can enjoy different subtleties of the game.

    anyone else feel the need to confess?

    harry.

  6. Another good thread James. I too have been one who has not been a real fan of SO espresso, or unblended espresso as you have coined it. I typically find them stark, or too acidic, or too something to be enjoyable, much like Mark’s take on SO espresso. I too am not overly enamored with espresso. Too often it is that elusive drink, which slides sideways, or hides or darts, whereas brewed coffee is a bit more consistent, and more dependable. Having said all of that, we were having a little party at Transcend last night, celebrating Andrew’s next phase in his life, and saying goodbye. Chad was pulling shots of Aceh (our new and surprisingly good Sumatra). Yes, the same guy that has been railing and wondering out loud if there are any good coffees coming out of Sumatra, it is true, I now have to back peddle, or more accurately admit that I have now tasted a coffee that I actually enjoy from Sumatra. But I digress, back to the SO espresso… Chad was pulling shots of the Aceh, and it in a trad capp, it was like drinking dark chocolate milk. I was surprised by the simplicity and enjoyability of the espresso. It wasn’t mind blowing, but it was really good, and for me, that was eye opening. Not only to have a SO espresso taste that good, but to have it be a Sumatra coffee to boot. So I think you are on to something James, I think that we need to open our minds and palates up to the undiscovered world of “unblended espresso”, and allow our tongues do the walking. Single Origin espresso is a bit of a leap, although nothing like Jay’s lobster bisque espresso. But it is a leap the folk at Transcend will likely be more willing to take in the future.

  7. I prefer single malt scotch over blended scotch, generally because they are so singular in their identity. They tell you more about the origin and the process than any blend ever can. That is not to say some single malts aren’t missing elements to make them more complete, but even with those “gaps” in their flavour, they are more interesting.

    I find the same is often true for espresso. Whether or not for you interesting = good or not is another question. For me, “interesting” fuels my passion.

  8. I am relatively new to the espresso game (Discovery Coffee, Victoria BC), but I thought I would quickly say that I have had some remarkable SO ‘spro experiences.

    (Ethiopian Sidamo [Natural Process]: Strawberry Cheescake, Blueberry, Cocoa (even root beer!), and a few Brazil Daterra Res. shots: Plummy, Nutty, Chocolate.)

    SO can be remarkably fun. When they hit their peak, it is just heaven.

    I have just found it incredibly ‘spromantic (thank you!) to have many different espresso’s at your finger tips at Discovery. I love being able to surprise regulars with an explosively fruity Sidamo….I love how perplexed, yet, enthralled they are by it.

  9. Guys, if you ever have the chance to go to Australia, go to Byron Bay, to the local farmers’ market on thursday mornings and try an espresso made from a single origin coffee, called Bangalow. It comes from a pesticide-free plantation and Michelle, the owner, makes wonders with her roasted coffee beans in a manual home espresso machine.

  10. I first got in to coffee through espresso and a great passion for working with espresso machines, in fact this way of brewing coffee seemed more important than the coffee itself. However as the years have gone by I have become less interested (relatively) in espresso and more interested in coffee this has resulted in me using filter, press and vacuum brewers a whole lot more.

    Getting to the point; during this process I have been pushed away from blends and drawn to SO coffees. When you blend coffee you are creating something unique, it might tick boxes in making a blend or a balanced coffee but at the same time taking away what that coffee is and where it is from.

    James, you mention traceability and a few other comments have mentioned individual farms, estate coffees and micro lots…. By drinking this coffee you are creating a partnership between yourself, the producer and all the other people in the chain getting those green beans in to your cup. If that coffee is no good you look at those links in the chain from harvesting, processing, transporting and storage, roasting and then brewing to see where it can be improved. By making improvements through blending you are merely taking shortcuts.

    These shortcuts are perfect for high volume ‘commercial’ coffees/offerings for obvious reasons. In the long run if coffee is going to continue getting better with superbly differing and delicious SO coffees this is only going to happen through building partnerships between the drinker and the grower.

    Espresso is all about brewing coffee, if we want more delicious espresso coffee whilst still paying our dues to all the people that helped make it we need to stop focusing on creating blends to manipulate the taste but focus on the links in the chain from seed to cup. It might be the long way around but it is better for the coffee farmers and in the end better for your taste buds…

  11. I can just smell it from in here where I sit in front of my computer. Oh my, James my saliva is just starting to…. I can’t stand this, I gotta have one tonight.

  12. It looks like it tastes good, but I use coffee for keeping me going in the morning just as much as I do for the taste.

  13. Hey james, great to read your articulate posts. you have many kindred souls here in Portland, assuredly. Just finished some cupping, including Beloya and Aricha microlot and a couple of Sumatras I’ve weighed as green contenders (both from Mercanta, and as you know offerings in the US tend to differ from the UK/Europe portfolio). Curious to know if you get to sample these offerings….currently liking the Sidikalang estate. All coffees I like seem to just reek of coffee above all else. …other assets a boon on top.
    I’ve begun to wonder if there’s a speciousness to the rating systems for anything. I’ve tasted a lot of super-pricey CoE offerings here in town and am beginning to think there’s a good measure of lunacy in the cuvee coffee-ing.
    But admittedly the microlot national winner Bolivian I carry makes just amazing coffee, shots or drip..I had it way before the USBC this year and it cups very close to the SO Boliv Anjilanaka offered by Sr. Philips in his majesterial performance this year. And didn’t even make it to the CoE comp, a crime.
    Do you gents ever read the coffeereview.com offerings? Curious because there’s a question of advertising there…so far the reviews I’ve garnered have generated exactly zero interest in buyers.
    keep up the good work. If you do indeed ever run into Grant Rattray, send regards from me in Portland…justin

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