Tomorrow’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution nails it with this article headline: Espresso done right is intense — a full-bodied, stop-time moment to savor | ajc.com. Somewhat surprisingly, what follows the headline isn’t half bad either.
The author, John Kessler, goes on to note how rare a decent espresso is in this country — and in fancy restaurants in particular. But rather than merely lament the sorry state of American espresso, he makes a legitimate attempt at an explanation. He attributes this sorry state to a variety of factors, including a cultural preference for the 30-minute indulgence rather than the three-sip shot, insufficient steam pressure from many commercial machines, and an avoidance of robusta beans. It’s a noble attempt worthy of examination.
America’s culture of indulgence is dismissive of the “small tasting”. The small tasting typically makes an acceptable appearance only where physical constraints make it absolutely necessary — such as part of a lavish seven-course meal. (As celeb chef Anthony Bourdain is quick to point out, after the first few bites of anything, our taste buds progressively deaden with the same stimulus. Beyond those first tastes, you’re no longer satisfying your taste buds; rather, you are trying to satisfy something else entirely.) Combine this with our cultural obsession over all-you-can-eat “value”, and its no wonder that our espresso is over-extracted, poured in copious amounts, and almost always washed away in a sea of steamed milk.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom in this country suggests that espresso is a “hot, bitter brew” — with the maximum caffeinated effect. This reflects just how poor the American cultural standard for espresso really is. I would argue that if it’s hot and bitter, you’re not drinking espresso — you’re drinking something else. In a country where our beverage choices are either “freezing” or “scalding”, espresso should be served a touch closer to room temperature. And if it’s bitter, whoever made it likely over-extracted the shot, and it should be sent back like a corked wine.
But — as Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee, is quoted in the article — “I hate it when people use a wine analogy for coffee.” Lately, I have caught myself using a balsamic vinegar of Modena analogy. Acidic vinegar doesn’t sound like the kind of appetizing thing you might, say, pour over ice cream. But if you’ve ever had aged balsamic vinegar of Modena, you know just how sweet and syrupy — and so unlike its wine-based American counterpart — it can be. The same is true when comparing a true espresso with the typical American version.
Back to Mr. Kessler’s explanation, I also have to agree that the American espresso is almost universally over-extracted and brewed at the wrong temperature. The general state of espresso equipment tuning and maintenance is sorry and sad. But training plays a huge role too. Machines tuned to perfection could be rendered irrelevant in untrained hands. All it takes is someone to leave the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray.
However, I am in less agreement with his “aversion to robusta” argument. Sure, robusta is generally a cheaper grade coffee that many American retailers tend to avoid on this criteria alone. And the right percentage of good-quality robusta in an espresso blend can make a huge difference in an espresso’s volume of crema, the richness of its aroma, and the breadth of its flavor profile. But I’ve also had astounding single-bean espresso shots that have blown blends out of the water.
Speaking of ever-tiresome wine analogies… On a semi-related note, today’s The Washington Post today published an article where the author learned how to evaluate different bean stocks through a weekly public cupping at D.C.’s Murky Coffee: Wake Up and Cup the Coffee – washingtonpost.com.
This café is part of the Segafredo Zanetti chain, and it has been located in the deepest bowels of a downtown SF shopping mall, the San Francisco Centre, for a number of years. It’s less of an espresso bar than its neighborhood sisters (e.g., the Segafredo Zanetti at Powell) and more of a counter café serving sandwiches, pastries, and coffee to hungry mall-walkers. Located at the bottom of a tall atrium, it still carries the Segafredo-branded red & black tables and chairs. However, their bland, overpriced, and reheated food makes your high school cafeteria seem like a step up.
Their more modern, three-group La San Marco machine still shows the dent from when a jumper leapt from the escalator onto it — twice — and lived, back in June 2003. With this machine, they produce a very dark brown crema that rapidly thins. Its over-roasted, burnt, and somewhat bitter flavor is primarily ashy — although it does have a full mouthfeel and a more pleasant aftertaste. S.F.’s Coffeemax services their machine and could do much better.
Yesterday’s Sunday Times (London) ran a story concerning McDonald’s UK’s announcement of a coffee supply partnership with the Rainforest Alliance: McDonald’s brews up £1m fair trade deal – Sunday Times – Times Online. At first read, I opted not to add a blog entry on how the Rainforest Alliance served as another alternative example to Fair Trade certification — to which some have errantly afforded an ethical monopoly status. I didn’t feel the need to add to what’s becoming a tedious Fair Trade debate. (Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade differ, for example, in that the former does not attempt to guarantee minimum wages for growers.)
But then the news really caught on in the U.S. today, and with a different competitive twist with regards to Starbucks: Marketplace: McDonald’s coffee one-ups Starbucks. McDonald’s UK is putting forth a nearly $1 million advertising campaign for their coffee supplies, highlighting that “our coffee doesn’t cost the earth”.
This seems like another evolutionary stage in what many have considered the market perversion of Fair Trade coffee. Back in the 1980s, Fair Trade was envisioned as a means of protecting the small grower from big business interests who would steamroll over them faster than you can say “16¢-a-pound robusta”. After years of stiff resistance, many purveyors of Big Coffee changed their position and soon embraced Fair Trade. While some argued this was a positive step for the coffee trade overall, others would eventually go on to say that Big Coffee has since co-opted Fair Trade for their own purposes: using it to shield their corporate entities from unfair practice claims and ultimately altering its mission to support larger corporate goals.
For example, Kraft, one of coffee’s Big Four, began buying Rainforest Alliance Certified beans in 2003 for worldwide use in their consumer coffees, including Yuban — a mass-produced coffee that CoffeeReview.com’s Kenneth Davids recently described as, “steamed to remove the sewery taints these coffees acquire through being dried inside the fruit in rotting heaps.” Mmmm, mmmm. Nothing says “good morning” like a steaming cup of sewery, rotting coffee. And a year ago, we also reported on Kraft’s Big Four brother, Nestlé, and their investments in sustainable coffee farming.
The quantum leap here? McDonald’s is now wielding their newly acquired badge of ethical behavior as a marketing weapon against the likes of Starbucks. “My coffee is more ethical than yours, and I’ve got friends to back me up. Nyeah.”
John Walker, a freelance gaming journalist in the UK, wrote in his blog today about his experiences giving up coffee — on doctor’s orders to relieve anxiety symptoms: bothererblog » Diary Of A Coffee Addict. I commented in his blog about my own experiences of giving up all caffeine for a couple of years back in 2000. Clearly, from the looks of CoffeeRatings.com, I have been what you might call “off the wagon” (or is that “off the Swiss water”?) for years now. But because the story is relevant enough, I felt it worth repeating here — with a bit of my own personal coffee history.
Not trying to sound like this month’s Barista Magazine interview with David Schomer, my first memories of drinking coffee go back to when I was about eight-years-old during the 1970s. This was in an era when corporate America was not yet savvy enough to squeeze every penny of profit out of customers. Retailers, from the local A&P to the neighborhood savings & loan, frequently offered free coffee to their customers. (Contrast with today, where a recent trip to BMW of San Francisco revealed that even a potential $40,000 car buyer must carry quarters to pay for their own cup of coffee.)
From then on, I had coffee off and on, but I still didn’t quite buy into the adult mystique of it. Then in 1989, while living and working in Maryland, I visited U.C. Berkeley as a potential grad student. I was easily impressed when a professor nonchalantly invited me to talk shop over a cappuccino (“heard about them, never had one”) from one of the many espresso kiosks along Bancroft Way. It was coffee like I never had before; though by today’s standards, Starbucks was likely a step up. That year, I moved to California to start graduate school at a joint Berkeley-UCSF program. And although it wasn’t the West Coast espresso that brought me here, it was occasionally a nice convenience compared with the one-dimensional coffee served in much of the rest of the country at the time.
It slowly evolved into a regular habit, with my awareness of better coffee growing over time. But after several years of being a daily drinker of good coffee, drip as well as the occasional espresso, some evil voice of a modern temperance movement got into my head. Noticing the caffeine headaches I would get if I went a day without coffee, I started to think that giving up the stuff — and all caffeine for that matter — might be personally purifying and a healthier alternative. (Of course, I am also a former vegetarian who gave up meat for a couple of years during grad school, so perhaps there’s a pattern in this.)
Then in early 2000, I stumbled upon the most convenient timing: I decided to quit caffeine the day I scheduled my elective sinus surgery. Oh sure, I would have a massive pounding headache for a while. But would I really notice the difference between that and having my sinuses packed with gauze during my recovery? My doc even prescribed all the Vicodin I would ever need to get through it. (Not that I was worried about going down the road of a Brett Favre or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m a bit of a masochist who prefers to endure the pain unless I really need the meds. And on the theme of personal purification, ultimately I took none of it.)
I was coffee-free for the longest time; I missed the flavor, but not immensely. And while the purification thing seemed like a nice purge, it truly had little effect on my quality of life. The caffeine never had much effect on me, other than my withdrawl headache symptoms; I could always down a couple of double-espressos an hour before bed and still sleep like it was a glass of milk. Unfortunately, I believe some people are genetically/biologically predisposed to heightened chemical sensitivity to caffeine — not unlike the way some people can fall violently ill with just the smell of perfume.
Then came a 2002 return trip to Italy, and, as with my prior vegetarianism stint, the whole denial thing suddenly seemed absurd. And while Italian espresso suffers from a sort of sameness, their baseline was (is) so far and away better than the U.S. baseline, I revelled in the convenience of being able to go anywhere and have good espresso. I decided then that I was born to be a coffee drinker, and I was only betraying my true nature as a human being. Who am I to defy God’s gift of my caffeine insensitivity?
Of course, the rest is history. A familiar story to anyone who has caught the good coffee disease, my death spiral into the pursuit of better and better coffee only accelerated. Italy was my gateway drug to the hard stuff of home espresso, home roasting, and cries for help that lead to CoffeeRatings.com.
In the end, the caffeine angle is an amusing one — given that espresso, my coffee beverage of choice, is one of your better options. Culturally, at least in America, we errantly behold espresso as if it were an intravenous drip of pure caffeine. Writers and editors constantly riff on espresso as a euphemism for the most potent infusion of caffeine your veins can handle. Pulling an all-nighter? Six cups of coffee won’t do, but six espressos will keep you awake from now until Christ’s second coming. (For example, last year, San Francisco magazine even resorted to calling me a “caffeinista”.) Yet if made properly — i.e., without all the water-soluble muck that comes tumbling out into your typical over-extracted American espresso — it has less caffeine than your average drip coffee.
Today’s Edmonton Journal published a primer on the more sophisticated home espresso setup: Getting Serious About Coffee. In other words, what do you do when your $100 home Krups machine isn’t cutting it — because the espresso it produces belongs in the same landfill where your machine will deservedly rot its final days?
There’s an avalanche of articles, and dedicated Web sites, on the topic. However, I will briefly point out my own Rules of Home Espresso Engagement from my own years of home espresso-making:
The official Copenhagen tourism Web site has taken advantage of their recent World Barista Championship (WBC) successes to publish an article on some of the fair city’s coffee highlights: Copenhagen – World Coffee Champion – Official tourist-site about Copenhagen. Klaus Thomsen of Estate Coffee in Copenhagen recently won the 2006 WBC in Bern, Switzerland last May. Klaus represents the city’s fourth WBC champion.
Included in the article are descriptions of several cafés, including Estate Coffee, Baresso, Café Europa (home of three other WBC champions), Verdens Mindste Kaffebar, Riccos Kaffebar, Dag H, and a lot more information about tea houses than could ever make sense in a coffee article.
According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, Green Beans Coffee Co. is planning to open their first U.S.-based location in Fairfield, CA — on the more military-friendly outskirts of the Bay Area: Green Beans Comes Marching Home – Enterprise – WSJ.com. The Larkspur-based company, with roasting facilities in San Francisco, established a number of cafés in Iraq and Afghanistan to supply overseas U.S. troops. As the coffee retail market continues to overheat in the U.S., Green Beans Coffee hopes to bring over some of their military loyalty to stateside cafés.
According to an article today published by the CBC News, more than one million pounds of coffee sold in Canada with “Fair Trade” labels last year were fakes: Fair trade supporters seek federal regulation. Lacking certification from the Canadian organization that independently audits and certifies Fair Trade goods, many of these certification labels on the market are bogus. Some supporters of Fair Trade products are calling for federal regulation of the certification; the Canadian government currently has no such plans.
Before consumers can even question whether Fair Trade is an ethical, socially responsible, and effective solution to the global coffee problem, they currently have to question whether their coffee is correctly labelled Fair Trade to begin with.