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.
One Nation, Under the Super Big Gulp®
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.
“You’ve got robusta in my espresso!”
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.
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