Or: A Good Espresso Is Hard to Find

After voluntarily drinking so many overextracted, weak, bitter, and unacceptably poor cups of espresso around the U.S., let alone the world, a few people who know me and my coffee have questioned my sanity. Meanwhile, I have often questioned why anyone should need a site like CoffeeRatings.com in the first place.

It’s not a ridiculous question. Since Starbucks took over city streets and suburban strip malls like a metastasizing cancer, you’d think that consumers’ standards for good coffee could only continue to rise from its 1980s Dark Ages — back when quality coffee meant dirt-in-a-can and Joe DiMaggio was its ambassador of good taste. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

So what’s the problem? Whole bean supplies of quality coffee have gotten better and more plentiful. Espresso equipment technology has improved and proliferated. Customers now regularly ask for “non-fat vanilla lattes” when ordering coffee, and, even stranger, nobody seems to laugh in response anymore.

Then why is bad espresso the norm — particularly in the face of so many reasons why the average espresso should instead be quite good? To give this phenomenon a name for discussion, for now let’s just call it Sherwin’s Paradox. I’ve always wanted my very own paradox.

The Optimist Theory

First of all, the optimist in me likes to believe in a sort of enlightenment explanation. While Starbucks helped raise the bar for the average cup of coffee for the average coffee drinker, it hasn’t introduced middle America to the possibilities of the even higher standards that have existed for decades. Therefore, despite the proliferation of better coffee, equipment, and public access to it all, a truly great espresso remains a very rare thing that few have had the opportunity to experience.

Not to equate bad espresso with an abusive home, but I’d like to believe that many of the people who make bad espresso really don’t know any better … that they cannot draw upon experience to have the expectation that things could be any different. Once enlightened to a true quality espresso — say, a visit to Victrola in Seattle, Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver, or Sant’Eustachio il caffè in Rome — it would change everything about their assumptions about what a good espresso could be.

“An espresso that’s not bitter, but rather — naturally sweet? Rich and flavorful, rather than watered down? Impossible!”

It’s always been my hope that this rude awakening would create at least a personal intolerance for what bitter swill many espresso peddlers have been passing for years under the name of “espresso”.

And yet the most renowned chefs and restaurants, the tastemakers of America, are notorious for serving some of the worst espresso available as your last memory of their exquisite meals. It’s as if a conductor, following his brilliant rendition of a Prokofiev symphony, willingly closed with the theme song to TV’s BJ & The Bear — on kazoos — as his finale.

Which brings me to an alternate, more cynical theory…

The Pessimist Theory

But countering this theory is a sort of disillusionment explanation. I make an analogy between society’s expectations for espresso quality and those for another Italian staple: the pizza. (Should I ever find a way to combine the two, I may need to propose it as my “Unified Pizza Theory.”) Like espresso, a good pizza requires the right equipment, right ingredients, and the right training. But why is it that so many places still suck so badly at pizza, making chewy cardboard disks slathered with inferior cheese and sickly toppings?

Once anyone has tasted a truly great pizza from Chicago, New York, or Napoli (for example), the mountains of bad pizza served by various shacks, huts, high school cafeterias, and national delivery chains with uniformed drivers should be rendered unnecessary, irrelevant, and a waste of calories. How could anyone go back to such rubbish on a regular basis when they’ve seen the light?

And yet, millions do — every day. Millions who have clearly had better pizza in their day, and yet they still frequent franchises that have made billions of dollars on the foundation of inferior pizza that tastes little better than anything you can get out of a supermarket freezer. And as the cash continues to roll in for the mass production of these pizza atrocities, competitors have little incentive to really improve their product. Pizza consumers are voting with their pocketbooks, and the votes are saying, “More cardboard, please.”

How might this apply to espresso? We’ve seen restaurant wine lists go from “red or white?” to “Santa Lucia Highlands pinor noir or Sonoma Valley chardonnay?” We’ve seen supermarket cheese go from “orange or white?” to “Swiss Emmental or Port Salut?” But even if Starbucks helped raise the bar, people are still willing to accept bad espresso.

We Sell No Espresso Before Its Time

Are we doomed to standards no better than the fast food approach to quality coffee known as “Starbucks”? Not exactly. For example, investors regularly pressure Peet’s Coffee CEO, Patrick J. O’Dea, to grow big … and to do it rapidly. Yet Peet’s is making a conscious, strategic decision to expand their operations without sacrificing any of their high quality standards. If their coffee and roasting supply chain, or the availability of trained and skilled employees, cannot support a newly planned outlet with the same quality standards, they just won’t do it until they can ensure those standards.

Ultimately, I think the truth behind Sherwin’s Paradox involves a little of both theories — and it is far more complicated than either. In the meantime, I will keep drinking the bad espresso … and writing about it here to help you avoid making the same mistakes. But who knows? I might even be able to tell you about a good espresso worth seeking out once in a while. But I’ll save the discussion of Sherwin’s Folly for another time.