David Lebovitz is a fairly well-known pastry chef and foodie who launched his career through a long tour of duty at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Lately he’s taken on a great interest in making the kind of espresso he can get in Italy — but not in the U.S. as easily. Following his pursuit of perfection, today he wrote about his recent training at Illy‘s Università del caffè in Trieste, Italy: David Lebovitz: Making Perfect Espresso at Illy.

At l’università, they compared for him espresso made with 100% Arabica beans and with a 50/50 Arabica/robusta blend. Illy openly disdains robusta coffee as a cheaper coffee stock, so it’s not surprising that they went for the full “cheap beans” effect. Yet there are others who argue that the American outright avoidance of robusta in quality espresso is a major problem. In any case, I find an espresso blend of 90/10 makes a nicely balanced espresso — particularly with some of the high-end, carefully processed robusta stocks now available from places like India.

The Illy preachers also sound a bit reactionary to the trend towards single-origin products. It’s a bit like the Johnny Walkers making their case against the single malt scotch trend. While there is a definite art and mastery to making a well-balanced espresso from a variety of blended coffee sources, single-origin espressos can often be excellent for their singularly strong, albeit imbalanced, flavor profiles.

Mr. Lebovitz appears to finally strike good espresso gospel when he writes:

So a good espresso isn’t bitter (or burnt-tasting) and should be a thin syrup, 25 ml (about 2 tablespoons) and should have a layer of crema on top, a bit of foam which barista Michele told me was marked with what he called a “tiger’s stripes”, because of the wavy lines and mottled marks in the foam.

Definitely not, as the Illy guys said, “like your Starbucks in California“…

UPDATE: March 23, 2007
David replied to this post in an e-mail, which I will quote here:

Hi Greg:

This is a great site, full of lots of good information. I linked to it twice in responses to comments on my site!

I know far more about chocolate than coffee, although I’m excited by all I’m learning, I think that people get obsessed with terms like single-origin, or percentages, at the expense of taste. I like forestero chocolates sometimes, but wouldn’t use them for dipping. There’s likely lots of badly-processed Arabica beans out there, but it was interesting to sample the 2 offered side-by-side. (When I asked why they didn’t offer us cups of pure Robusta for sample, they said, “We didn’t want to do that to you.”)

Unfortunately where I live, there is a lots of robusta, or poorly-prepared Arabica coffee and it’s frustrating not to be able to get a decent cup of espresso anywhere. So I’m trying to learn more about it at home. I’ve got a good machine, although I think my next purchase is a burr grinder.

Glad you found my post interesting and thanks for your feedback.