Mr. Who?

Chances are that the name “Mr. Espresso” doesn’t exactly hit you over the head as a symbol of the Bay Area’s finest espresso — but it should. They were recently ranked 6th in CitySearch.com’s 2005 Best San Francisco Coffee. At first, this may seem like a pretty good feat. You might even recognize Mr. Espresso as the only winner in the top ten that isn’t in San Francisco. But what if I told you that they don’t sell a single cup of coffee?

Mr. Espresso is a Bay Area espresso institution — as a roaster and as a provider of espresso equipment, service, consulting, and training for a large swath of the Bay Area’s world-renowned gourmet food industry. The Bay Area’s nouveau roasters like Blue Bottle Coffee and Ritual Coffee Roasters garner all the local (and some national) press these days — and deservingly so. Yet Mr. Espresso was advancing the art and science of great espresso in the Bay Area back when the owners of these newcomers were still in diapers.

Originally an electrical engineer by trade, Carlo di Ruocco founded this family business in 1978 by selling and servicing imported espresso machines. He also drew upon the coffee roasting experience he developed since he was a boy in Salerno, Italy. His love for his native Italian coffee was shared by those who had the priviledge of sampling it, and the resulting interest and demand quickly grew into a family business.

Carlo’s son, Luigi di Ruocco, recently contacted me via e-mail as a fan of CoffeeRatings.com. He invited me to take a look around the place, and I finally got to take him up on his generous offer this past Friday (December 16).

The nearby Port of Oakland: America's largest specialty coffee import port Mr. Espresso headquarters on East 3rd Street in Oakland

Employee Perks

Mr. Espresso is located just north of Jack London Square, along the coffee-rich Port of Oakland (the biggest speciality coffee import port in the nation). It’s an industrial office in an industrial location, marked by espresso machines, a long service bench, pallets of coffee piled high, roasting equipment, and a variety of industrial machines for processing and packing.

Yet when Luigi first walked me into the employee-only area, I came face-to-face with beautiful espresso machines on showroom display in the employee espresso bar. And when I say “employee espresso bar,” I don’t mean the trendy, wannabe espresso stations you find as employee perks at dot-coms (see: Yahoo!). I’m talking a serious two-group Faema E91 Diplomat that employees regularly use to connect with the lifeblood of their business.

With walls covered in coffee-themed vintage poster art, a mirrored back wall behind the bar, and bar sinks filled with empty cups and sampled macchiatos, Luigi stepped behind the bar and offered me an espresso made with their Neapolitan Espresso roast. He asked me how I wanted it — long, short, single, double, etc. Luigi remarked how confusing it has become since more and more places started offering naked shots (Ritual Roasters being a more recent example). Naked shots, or shots made with bottomless portafilters, are something of an invention by Seattle’s Zoka, where a double shot is more like a long single shot with conventional portafilter spouts. (We’ll save the discussion of naked shots for another time.)

Luigi’s “with spouts” doppio was a good example of some of the best espresso I’ve had in the Bay Area. (Read the review.) While the crema wasn’t terribly thick, it was the darker, reddish brown that you expect to find in textbooks. Flavorwise, the espresso didn’t have a heavy reliance on a dark roast for body — as is typical in the Bay Area. The result was a rich, potent, and yet very balanced cup where no flavor component seemed to overpower the others. You could taste the wide variety in the blend.

While Luigi was just being a gracious host, his espresso shot also served as an indicator of the potential for Mr. Espresso coffee and equipment that is rarely realized out in the field. Through no real fault of Mr. Espresso, many of their customers are often too preoccupied with other priorities to get the training the need, to use the freshest beans, and to ensure the highest standards (e.g., the “restaurant disease”). Luigi had previously mentioned his concern over their many customers with low ranks on CoffeeRatings.com, and he was looking for ways to close the gap between what was possible (e.g., what was in my cup) and what was the reality. Just getting their customers into one-hour training sessions is a challenge for them.

Mr. Espresso's employee espresso bar, complete with Faema E91 Diplomat The posters and high art of Mr. Espresso's employee bar

Luigi di Ruocco preps me a shot of their Neapolitan Espresso blend at the employee bar Luigi's work from the Mr. Espresso employee bar

Welcome to the Machines

Looking at the many espresso machines and grinders in their showroom, there was a slight museum element to it all — not unlike SF’s Thomas E. Cara, Ltd. One of the machines on display is a four-group Rancilio, an IMO decent line which Mr. Espresso no longer offers. Luigi said that they used to offer Rancilio machines as an economical option for their customers, but today they deal almost exclusively with Faema and Iberital — the latter of which was a new discovery for me.

The Spanish-made Iberital machines are a prime example from latest new wave of high-quality machine suppliers: using tried and true components such as the E-61 group head, many of these upcoming businesses are more assemblers of quality parts than outright manufacturers per se.

Passing through the employee break room, with walls decorated in photos of Italian cyclists, we approached the workbench where all Mr. Espresso machines pass through final quality control checkouts before being shipped out.

Inside the Mr. Espresso machine showroom and employee espresso bar Inside a single-group Mr. Espresso Iberital Contols to ensure an even 25-minute roast time

Mr. E’s Secret Sauce

Luigi noted that today everyone has pretty much the same access to the same grade or quality of coffee beans. (This is, of course, good news for coffee lovers.) One of the things that differentiates Mr. Espresso is their commitment to wood fire roasting using seasoned oak — a tradition Carlo picked up in Salerno. This specialty process is rumored to produce roasts with a higher lipid content (critical for capturing flavor elements) and a lower acidic content.

Using stacked pallets of chopped oak in the back, they heat their custom roasters with fires stoked at the bottom. Near this wood “oven” are flexible metal vents used to control air flow and temperature. The entire system is hooked up to sophisticated process controls to ensure even, controlled roasts of a lenghty 25 minutes or so.

One of two main wood-fired roasters at Mr. Espresso Stacks of chopped oak used to fire Mr. Espresso's roasters Inside the oak fire of a Mr. Espresso roaster

Hills of Beans

The resulting roasts produce even, beautiful beans that generally run a touch lighter than what you find at your typical Bay Area roaster. They often venture towards a Viennese or Full City roast (an Agtron/SCAA #45), with generally lighter amounts of oil on the surface of the beans. This echoed the characteristics I tasted in Luigi’s espresso just minutes before. A lot of the oak wood roasting would probably be lost in darker blends.

They keep these roasted beans in large plastic bags stored in sealed lids, resting the beans for a minimum of 3-4 days to dispel any CO2 gas bubbles that might otherwise detract from a good espresso.

Next to a fine batch of dry-processed Ethiopian Sidamo (which made an very good single-bean espresso later on), Luigi showed me their robusta stock. Mr. Espresso has also tapped into the higher quality Indian robusta that has come to prominence in recent years, and it had only a slight bit of the classic “rubber” smell. Luigi said they use about 7-8% of this robusta in their espresso blends to bring out the crema and some of the brighter flavors. (This is lower than the ratio I use with the Indian robusta I roast for my own espresso blends at home — I’m definitely going to try this!)

In their warehouse, they keep about six months of green coffee bean stock. Luigi’s brother, John, learned much of the bean buying trade from their father, but he has since advanced his own skills even further through SCAA courses, certifications, and other accreditations. (While both their father and mother are active in the business, both founding parents are slowly stepping back for the next generation to take charge.)

They exclusively blend their beans after roasting. And they spend a lot of effort trying to keep their blends consistent over the years, despite the natural vagaries of any international crop.

A resting drum of Mr. Espresso Ethiopian Coffee stocks in the Mr. Espresso warehouse

Attack of the Pod People

In a world that’s ever more automated, the pains it takes to make a truly great espresso often don’t seem to fit in. While hand-crafting and an attention to detail have made quite a comeback in the gourment restaurant trade, coffee and espresso just hasn’t followed its lead.

Enter the pod: those single-serving, prepackaged puffs of pre-ground coffee that are inserted into, and discarded from, pod-compliant espresso machines like rifle ammunition. Low mess, low fuss, low labor. Low flavor? I’ve long been a pod skeptic myself, thinking that it merely represented repackaging of the same inferior product…another marketing brainchild run astray. (Not coincidentally, some manufacturers of pod systems instead call them disks. Anyone remember the Kodak Disc format, the Sony MiniDisc, etc.? Do we sense a theme here from failed MBA students?)

However, Luigi informed me that pods are growing significantly in popularity back in Italy — particularly in low-volume establishments (small restaurants and cafés, etc.) A section of Mr. Espresso’s floorspace is dedicated to two machines that crank out prepackaged pods of their coffee.

Back in the employee espresso bar, he demonstrated their pod espresso with a single-group Iberital machine. In Luigi’s words, the resulting product is rather consistent and pretty good, although some tasters will definitely notice something missing in the cup.

He was right. Perhaps a bit of the oils and lipids trap some flavors as the espresso is pulled through the surrounding paper filter. While it makes a relatively honest espresso, there is a noticeably narrower spectrum of flavors in the cup — flavors that also seem somewhat muted.

At the end of my tour, Luigi left me with a package of their Neapolitan Espresso blend (call it the “home version” as a lovely parting gift). I’m not about to succumb to the generation of pod people just yet, and this package was evidence why not.

Array of bins for sorting and packing Mr. Espresso coffee U.S.-made machine for packaging pod coffee