The art of a great espresso

Coffee culture 18-03-2015

Is there ‘art’ in a great coffee? Or “what makes a great espresso”?

You know I get asked a lot to talk about and write about what makes a great coffee. And of course I have thought about it a lot myself in the 10 years that I have been involved with coffee. I have supped and cupped coffee in a few pretty amazing places, including far off coffee growing places like Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil, Kenya; as well as lots of pretty near and ordinary places.

I have had hand-crafted, just roasted coffee straight from my own roastery; I have had it made by world champion baristas and ordinary baristas; I have listened and watched and discussed all elements of the journey of the bean from harvesting to drinking ( “crop to cup”); been shown the ‘art’ of blending and roasting; had emphasized to me the importance of grinding profiles and water pressure and extraction times.

And the honest answer is: there is no ‘one’ answer – it is such a wonderful combination and constellation of ideas, theories, climate, care, skill, passion, art, science and all things in between – that truthfully it comes down to what you like….and we all like something different.

But at least let me tell you what I like in a great coffee…and why when I find one it makes me smile.

Firstly, you should know that I am an espresso man. I didn’t always like it, but when I first started in the coffee industry I trained myself to at least understand it – the enjoyment bit came later. I remember debates with my team at the time about crema consistency and colour; acidity and strength; body and mouthfeel; aroma and flavour notes; bitter and sweet aftertastes. And I didn’t get any of that. Just a really strong, bitter, punch in the face type of hot drink!

Now of course, after years of ‘training’, I at least know what I am looking for in appearance, flavour, feel and aftertaste. I’m no Roastmaster or expert Barista but I know what I like. Let me share that with you.

From an appearance point of view with my espresso, I like to see a very creamy caramel coloured top layer (called the ‘crema’), not too light and not too dark, which when you stir it in (always stir it in!) should stick to the back of your spoon and to the sides of the cup. And the crema should remain there for the whole drink not just evaporate after 30seconds.

Then I am testing the temperature. The word ‘espresso’ implies a fast (or “express”) drink and this means you should be able to drink it straight away without lacerating the inside of your mouth and removing the top layer of your tongue. So many baristas make their espresso too hot. It’s a mistake and really spoils the experience. The espresso develops more flavours as it cools so either way, you should (after you have stirred it!) wait a little bit before drinking it.

I admit that I do go through a little ritual with my espresso drinking – but that’s just so that I can get a fuller experience from what is essentially a short drink. And short is important. Too much water in there and you end up with a very diluted flavour, or no flavour at all. So much of what we get served is just a muddy brown water. If you want value for money from a longer drink, then drink something else! A single espresso should have no more than 25ml-35ml of water (depending a little on the quantity of ground coffee used); and a double espresso should definitely have no more than 60ml of water. You see, it is all about ratios – too much or too little of either the coffee or the water and the drink is wasted. And that to me is a shame when those beans have worked so had just to get to your cup!

So let’s talk flavour and body. Now this is a very personal experience I find and everybody will have a different view. But I like my espresso to be strong, smooth, creamy (yes, creamy!) and ultimately, sweet at the end. Seems impossible from such a little drink right? Well, this is where savouring the drink is important. Don’t glug it down in one hit. Each espresso should be an event. So enjoy the moment…one little sip to awaken your senses and then drink it in, in full, let it coat the inside of your mouth and slip down your throat in a very pleasureable way. A bit too sexy? Well these emotions are possible from a well-made espresso I promise you.

You should be looking for a bold flavour hit at the beginning of the drink (often referred to as “acidity”), a nice slightly heavy feel to the drink in the middle (referred to as “mouthfeel”!), with a touch of sweetness at the end and a lingering aftertaste. You should still taste the coffee for a few minutes after it is finished. And it should be a nice feeling, not one where you are scrunching up your face and saying “oh no, that was so bitter!” I like ‘acidity’ in my espresso, it is the coffee hit you want, but it should then be rounded off by pleasant hints of sweetness and other mild flavour notes (this is according to the origin of the beans of course).

And there you have it – a perfect espresso moment. Bold. Full bodied. Sweet. Long aftertaste. Oh, and if you even dare to put sugar in your espresso, I will personally stick my espresso spoon right in your eye!

One other point to note. A lot of ‘coffee people’ are in pursuit of the perfect bean or the most unusual location to find them, but sometimes this is just to satisfy the purists or enlarge an ego. You do not have to go to the ends of the earth to find a perfect espresso bean or a great blend. We already have access to a lot of great coffees although we don’t always get served them – a lot can, and does, go wrong between the farm and the cup. Mostly in fact in my opinion it is the ‘last 2 minutes’ of the process from the time you ask your barista for your drink to the time he hands you your cup – this is where it goes wrong the most often. Not enough consistent care and love. And an acceptance from your coffee maker that “it will be good enough”. Well it’s not. My advice – don’t accept it – ask them to do it again, tell them what you are expecting in the way that it looks and feels. Don’t be embarrassed. You wouldn’t eat something you are not happy with it. They will do it right if they know what to do.

Once you are satisfied, or if you have gone around the corner to another more caring barista, sip it slowly to really enjoy that acidity first and the sweetness at the end. Nothing better.

I hope you find that at the very least interesting and maybe a little useful. No need to be a snob about your coffee drink, but don’t accept anything less than what you should get in your cup!

I am still finding my way around my new home city in Amsterdam but so far I have come across quite a few excellent expresso makers….I will tell you about them in the next blog.

But for now…ciao!

Love what we brew!

The Bean Team

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