If you love espresso, live in San Francisco, and don’t know who Thomas E. Cara is, well, shame on you. Although Caffè Trieste may be a historical West Coast espresso landmark, Thomas E. Cara goes back a decade further.

Espresso first enchanted Thomas Cara while he was stationed in Italy during WWII. So much so that when he returned home to SF in 1946, he opened an espresso machine business — with the first espresso machine west of the Mississippi River — and it remains operational to this day in Jackson Square. Entering the Thomas E. Cara shop (which is a little like being allowed into a private home/loft), you encounter a combination espresso machine salesroom (largely classic La Pavoni home espresso machines), repair shop, and historical espresso museum. Last week we made the latent discovery that, after 62 years in the business, Thomas E. Cara has long been dabbling in a little retail coffee using a “secret” recipe he also brought back from the war along with his La Pavoni.

Now we have no intention of infringing upon Kenneth Davids’ roasted-coffee rating gig. And we concur with Mark Prince’s assertion that espresso cannot be rated independent of the barista. (Even if we puzzlingly wonder why few bother to look beyond North America when asking if and how espresso should be rated.) But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to evaluate an expression of espresso from such an “institution” — despite the current vogue of dismissing any contribution to quality espresso that pre-dates the most recent Iraq War.

Bi-Rite Market, a.k.a. Sammy's Loose whole bean coffee selection at Bi-Rite Market, unfortunately oxidizing in open storage

Available at Sammy’s and no other fine stores…

We’ve mentioned Sam Mogannam, owner of the Mission’s Bi-Rite Market since 1998, in a previous post. Among a number of SF locals who grew up with Mr. Mogannam, Bi-Rite is simply known as “Sammy’s” (as in, “I’m going to Sammy’s to pick up some prosciutto”). We may not have grown up with Sam, but we’re close friends with many who did — so apologies for the informal habit. And from what we’ve learned, Sammy’s is the only retail outlet that carries Thomas E. Cara’s Fine Espresso Napoletano beans other than Cara & Sons’ Jackson Square shop.

One-pound bag of Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast Of course, exclusivity does not equal quality. But at a whopping $15.95 a pound — priced up there with neighboring bags of De La Paz and Ritual Coffee Roasters on Sammy’s shelves — expectations have to be elevated somewhat.

Make no mistake: this is an old school coffee. There’s no freshness date posted on the bag (a shame, really). And the roast is decidedly old school, untrendy Southern Italian: a blend, roasted well beyond Full City and even beyond the realm of French Roast charring. (Have all Third Wave zealots run screaming yet?) There’s enough surface oil on the beans to be an aid for combing your hair or putting on lipstick.

We prepped and pulled shots of it using our Gaggia Factory at home. The Gaggia Factory is essentially a mutant La Pavoni Europiccola — and thus should be very familiar target brewing equipment for the likes of Cara & Sons.

The taste test

But as inevitably happens with deep-second-crack roasts, the grinds in our Mazzer Mini came out black, gummy, and seemed to use up a greater volume of beans for an equivalent amount of ground coffee. (This often leaves us with the odd, unscientific impression that dark roasted coffees leave a lot of toxic build-up on our burrs.) But once we eased back on the grind quite a bit and made a few other adjustments, it produced a decent (though not great), dark crema. Even if the operating window of the coffee is not very forgiving, it was still producing a decent crema a week later — leaving us with the impression that the beans weren’t as stale as we had originally feared.

It has an earthy flavor that’s dominated by smoke and some wood. It’s rare these days to come across an espresso so focused on bass-notes (and hence so lacking in the bright note range). And although it’s well suited for milk, without publishing our usual espresso rating routine, it’s not a coffee we can recommend — even if you like that sort of charred, old school, Southern Italian roast. There are roasts just as richly bodied, and at least as fresh, for quite a bit less money out there. But then how often can you taste that kind of SF espresso history?

The shiny Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast Shot pulled from the Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast

UPDATE: March 11, 2011
Today’s SFGate opted to publish a piece on Thomas Cara’s espresso machine retailing operations: Family steam powers S.F’s oldest espresso retailer.