"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2007 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at email@example.com
It's Coffee and Water, but Mostly Coffee
Coffee is about a lot of things, and espresso is the square of that. it it weren't it would make the reading of this website a lot more time efficient. We talk about equipment, and could spend hours discussing the virtues of a heat-exchanger machine versus a single boiler, and then double the time spent by watching the arrival of the new dual-boiler designs as they crawl over the horizon. Just when that subject seems temporarily exhausted for the moment the discussion turns to grinders. The history of the discussion of doser vs. doserless is no less contentious than a drivers' meeting after a Nascar race. I could point you towards a multi-page article on grinders that made use of an electron scanning microscope that compared grind quality, and compared conical vs. flat burrs. And just when things start looking finite, a discussion begins on distribution and tamping techniques that are designed to eliminate channeling. Put all that together and you are guaranteed to have someone add that in Italy, in every coffee bar, the barrista will dose and tamp with little more effort or technique that fill, level off with a finger and up-tamp on the grinder's built in tamper and all carrying on a conversation while gesturing with his free hand.
Put all of that together and this is probably the best reason that I am still here. Espresso is, after all, food, and the preparation of any fine food product is part art and part science, and ignoring either part is a left turn down Failure Road. And if you don't pay attention to the vehicle code, Failure Road becomes a one-way, dead end street. Chapter one, page one of that code is: It's all about the coffee. With the best (or worst) equipment you can find, together with the most detail-oriented or lackadaisical procedures you can muster, nothing matter is you are using bad coffee.
When talking about espresso, the discussion has to begin with the coffee. The beans have to be:
Decent quality - Although it is nice to know the estate, date picked, estate owner's name, and the donkey used to carry it down to the broker, as long as they are of a reasonable quality you have a foundation for success. Like all other foods, there are gourmet quality beans that can sell for amounts that many would consider ridiculous, good green coffee can be had, here in the states, on the retail level, for about $3.50 a pound or so.
Fresh - begin with green beans that have been properly processed, stored, and are not too old.
Properly roasted - Any given bean benefits from a specific roast, but depending on taste, the roasting appliance, and more, there are a lot of ways to roast coffee and have it taste good when used to make espresso.
Fresh - After roasting, the life of the coffee is ticking away. It s close to a sure thing that, if the bag says, "Best if used by" on it, then the beans are already stale. Coffee beans destined for the espresso machine are generally best if used before they are two weeks old. That means, after they are removed from the roaster you have less than fourteen days to consume them.
All of that does not necessarily need to be complicated. If you can't create a drinkable espresso from straight Brazilian beans, then there is a problem. Sure, blends can create a much more complex taste, but it is not necessary to make the espresso drinkable.
All of this came to light recently on my favorite forum- Home-Barista..com. A new member of the site was complaining that, although he had been making espresso at home for four years or so, that he had difficulties in getting consistent results— fast flows, watery pulls, little to no crema, and poor taste were all complaints mentioned. The discussion turned in many directions. His old grinder was suspect, and technique was discussed, but the bottom line was easy to read. He had stated that he was using super market coffee that was fresh because he used it up in less than two weeks after purchase. It is a common misconception that coffee is fresh when purchased, but in most cases, particularly when discussing super market coffee,t hat is just not true. If your coffee does not specifically list the date it was roasted then you can be assured that it will not be fresh. Let's take a look at some of the ways that the consumer is misled when it comes to freshness:
As mentioned, the only date that matters is the date that the coffee was roasted. Their estimation as to how long it will last, as indicated by a "best if" date only means that the date is best for their profit margin, not best for your palate. See my Chapter 81 Fresh Counts! for a detailed example of this.
Just because it was packed in a fancy bag that has a special lining, or possibly a one-way valve, was vacuum packed, or even pressurized with an inert gas in a special can, once that coffee is exposed to the air, the clock ticks and will soon catch up to you. Numerous people have experienced that with Illy coffee which is nitrogen packed. it tastes quite good when first opened, but after two or three days it tastes weeks old, because it is. The coffee is just waiting for the introduction of oxygen to complete the staling process, and it does so in a hurry once the can is opened.
When to comes to supermarket coffee, there is no end to the advertising hype. "Freshness sealed" containers, "From the roaster to you," and all sorts of hyperbole and ad-speak is meant to get you to buy the coffee, and little, if any of it has anything to do with getting you fresh coffee. Much the same for online ordering. be wary of websites that go on an on about the history of coffee, and how they "roast for the best flavor," but offer nothing about the coffee, it's origins, or the roast level. Krispy Kreme was famous for that. They poured on the hype but delivered me a cup of nasty, stale coffee at one of their stores, now closed down. I have read that some popular coffees have artificial aromas added to teh container so that it smells fresh when opened, and I read that one company was working on a plastic container with the coffee aroma artificially added to the lastic itself!
Back to our subject— the one who was having difficulty with getting drinkable espresso. I told him, "If all else is equal, if the coffee is bad, try another brand of beans." It's really good advice too just about anyone having problems. After all, espresso is water and coffee, and very little of the flavor comes from the water itself! Did it work? yes! He found some fresh-roasted coffee, got it home, an made some espresso. His report included the following statement: "Mousetails, perfect amount of time, FANTASTIC crema. A million times better than anything I've seen in the last 4 years."
He had a basic espresso machine, and was using a grinder that was broken and couldn't be properly adjusted, but was still able to improve his espresso by a factor of one million (I will assume that he was rounding off), by using fresh coffee.
I responded to his excitement, "Who would have thought that using good coffee could make a difference!?" Everyone who reads this website, for starters....