Who is to blame?

You drink a nice brewed cup of coffee from a hypothetical farm in El Salvador.  It is incredibly delicious.  The cup is light and juicy, but still very sweet.  There are notes of cherry and caramel and acidity is reminiscent of a crisp apple.  We celebrate this coffee, perhaps we bid a lot money for it at an auction, and are excited to roast it and retail it.

We then brew the same coffee in an espresso machine.  It doesn’t taste good.  People say it lacks body, isn’t complex enough, has too much acidity.  People say it is one dimensional.  We roast it darker than before, though hopefully not a lot.  We mute and soften the acidity, try and keep the sweetness.  We burn away some of what we loved in the hope that it will be a better espresso. Even now we don’t enjoy the coffee as much.  People still complain that it isn’t complex enough, isn’t complete enough.

“This coffee isn’t good enough to be a single origin espresso.”

We blame the same coffee that we once celebrated.  This doesn’t make sense.  If the job of a brewer is to translate what is great in the coffee down into the cup why aren’t we pointing our fingers at the espresso machine?  If the job of the barista is to use tools to translate what is great in the coffee down into the cup why aren’t we ashamed of our failings?

41 Comments Who is to blame?

  1. Tim Varney

    The first thing that strikes me is that i hope nobody actually said that, or as a collective we aren’t saying that.

    Secondly, it highlights to me there isn’t a roast profile you can use for both espresso brewed coffee and brew brewed coffee. You either roast it for espresso or you roast it for filter stylee brew methods, otherwise one of the brew methods will suffer.

  2. anthony rue

    I think you’ve explicitly identified how the important next steps in the evolution of our understanding of coffee as not-commodity needs to be in tandem between roaster and retailer. When your only tool is an Aurelia, does every coffee look like espresso? My point is, we need to finish destroying the myth that there is culinary equivalency and interchangeability between the uses of different coffees and brew methods. We need to put the bean ahead of the machine. I’ll be first to testify that it’s very difficult to develop a new market and new business model for by-the-cup brewing of seasonal coffees. It’s taken two years for us to really break down the barriers of expectations of our customers, to move away from making choices between dark/bold/mild/fast/jumbo and towards choices between farms on either side of a mountain. If the coffees are good enough to tell a difference, it can be done, and at an appropriate price. If these distinctions are to spread into common sense knowledge, though, roasters and retailers are going to have to work more closely to better define– and make commonplace– the idea that different varietals, harvests, and processes are more unique than previously marketed. Nobody in the slow foods movement would slag off a regional hand-crafted cheese because it doesn’t pair with every wine, nor would any chef dismiss a specific local fish because they couldn’t substitute it for swordfish in a recipe. Why should coffee be any different? From each bean according to its quality, to each according to its appropriate method!

  3. Jasper

    I think espresso is quite a peculiar brewing method. I use to compare it to an electrical guitar with some sort of distortion pedal. Not every piece of music is suitable for this kind of set up. Sure Jimi Hendrix’s work might strike someone as the pinnacle of guitarmusic, who can blame them?
    But a complex piece of spanish guitar played on his guitar set up MIGHT work, but chances are it’s gonna break apart, losing all of its well seperated complexities.
    Same thing works the other way around, a Jimi solo played on a spanish guitar (Press, Filter, Syphon etc.) might be boring, lacking the effect of the electrical fx.

    BTW The espresso system was never invented to produce the best tasting coffee, it was to produce the fastest coffee. (although i must admit i enjoy Jimi Hendrix;)

  4. Nick Cho

    “This coffee isn’t good enough to be a single origin espresso.”

    Along Justin’s point above, I have a problem with the word “good” in that sentence. You could say similar things that are equally specious: This coffee isn’t good enough to work in a soy-milk latte. This coffee isn’t good enough for my grandmother. This coffee isn’t good enough to meet SCAA Specialty grade.

    Hate to say it, but I wonder if the crux of your post here is based on a fallacy.

  5. anthony rue

    I don’t know about you, but in the last month and a half I’ve seen any number of people who think that because a specific coffee might cup or brew up to a certain quality, that it should be able to be shoe-horned into espresso. And I also think that roasters are way behind the curve in aggressively developing and educating retail clients on single origin espressos– leaving many shops out on their own to experiment and promote brew-spec production roasts as single origin espresso offerings. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; I’d argue that this sort of make-your-own-way experimentation at the shop level leads to the sort of fallacy that James is writing about. Operating in relative isolation, I’m sympathetic at how shop-level experimentation can lead to both frustration and the belief that certain coffees are better because they are more versatile or forgiving of being used for both brewing and espresso extraction.

  6. SL28ave

    We have to keep pushing the limits, perhaps while at the same time being very focused.

    I feel that one of my big successes was in helping to develop Terroir’s Northern Italian Daterra. The espresso evolved over years, over hundreds of roasts, thousands of brews, some big and small experiments, and little tweak by little tweak. In the end it became an espresso perhaps unrecognizable from its first incarnations.

    Regarding bad shots regardless of the origin, the blame falls on a galactic zoo that perhaps we’re all a part of. Regarding bad shots from good beans (and I mean good at the MOMENT they’re roasted), I’m inclined by experience to agree that the blame lies outside of the raw beans.

  7. Sam

    Who would put an El Salvadorian coffee through an espresso machine anyway?

    It seems like baristas are putting the wrong types of beans through the wrong brew methods and saying it’s the brew methods fault. So take an extremely bright tasting El Salvadorian coffee, pull a shot on your synesso, it tastes like shit, and we decide “ok that’s it! espresso is just fucked”
    I mean you could take a natural from Sumatra and brew it in a press, and its tastes like a homeless guys ass. Do we say french press is shit? No, because some people like the taste of homeless ass. Put it through an espresso machine and still it comes out tasting like ass, but more like a tight piece of ass you might see in the club. Niiiiiice!

    Jokes aside though, I think its time to move on from the this whole anti-espresso machine thing that’s the cool thing to think now a days apparently. Maybe we should actually try to understand espresso more. Try to understand the characteristics of coffee origin more. maybe we’ll be getting somewhere. Its a little premature to dismiss espresso as some kind of italian black magic thats been disproven with western science, when still every cafe I’ve ever worked in, paid the bills by selling triple shot soy lattes… just saying.

    Finally, St Ali in Melbourne, were putting esmarelda special through their slayer a few months back, the words “jizz in your pants” come to mind.

  8. Will Frith

    Since we admit that we’re all students of coffee, we should blame ourselves when a great coffee “falls short” of our espresso expectations (perhaps the expectation itself is to blame – “expectations are just future resentments” somebody smarter than me said once). Gwylim’s WBC performance beat us all to the punch here. This begs another question: just what do we expect?

    Maybe it’s not “shoehorning” a great coffee into espresso machines that’s the problem. It could be “shoehorning” the “what we know as espresso” parameters into the coffee that’s the problem. Just have a look at how we’ve changed the way we make espresso since 2000, and then think about future changes.

    It leads us back to the problem of too many variables, and until we can figure out just what effect each and every variable brings to espresso, it’s too early to write off any good coffee for any other reason than “we just don’t understand it well enough yet to make it work for this coffee.”

    We’re shooting at a moving target and not exactly sure where to aim. Yet.

    I’m not at all disheartened by this. It’s a challenge to overcome, a reason to keep learning, tasting, talking. A reason to be excited to work in this industry. We just have to temper our passion with a little patience.

  9. SL28ave

    Be strong Sam you are. I bet there’s some objectivity lurking in our midst. For example: this El Salvadoran made a sweet espresso for me and many others, and unfortunately now it’s not, and so I assert a desire to go back in time or into the future to replicate the sweet Salvadoran.

  10. James Grierson

    Does it really matter that this coffee doesn’t work as a single origin espresso? Surely there’s no shame in blending to add body or complexity – and by doing so you’re still translating what is great in the coffee down into the cup.

  11. Dale

    ‘If the job of the barista is to use tools to translate what is great in the coffee down into the cup why aren’t we ashamed of our failings? ‘

    I’m absolutely ashamed when I don’t think I’ve translated the best potential of my coffee into the cup however I wouldn’t blame the espresso machine, I would blame my hands, my technique, my lack of knowledge and perhaps my limited interpretation of what I believe is ‘good’?

    Different brewing methods will create different results from the same ingredient, highlighting certain features, perhaps at the expense of others. I don’t think brewing as espresso is the ‘best’ way to present a lot of coffees, but it is the only way of presenting a coffee as espresso, and for me, espresso as a brewing style is by nature extreme, immediate, exciting and a great way to introduce the idea to a customer that coffee is a many-flavored, changeable thing, especially as many people seem to consider espresso a more ‘special’ drink than ‘black coffee’?

    If brewing a great coffee as a SO espresso, and making a fuss over it encourages people to try a given coffee when they otherwise might not – and, if, you can guide their reactions to question what they’re tasting/experiencing, what they want to taste/experience in the future, even lead them to look at how it might taste in what you consider a better context, say as a cup of filter for example then surely we’re then achieving the goal of raising awareness of speciality coffee?

    I’m not sure anymore that I even like what I once thought espresso ‘should’ taste like. I recognise aspects that I enjoy in other brewing methods and enjoy the mental link, the familiarity, the understanding of whats caused this when I taste it in an espresso (my enjoyment of the natural tones in winter espresso are an example of this, even though I’m not sure I find it as delicious as some other flavours?) and I delight in and wonder at the huge variety of this amazing product.

  12. jeff verellen

    It seems to be very hard to translate cupping to espresso. Acidity and particular tastes get amplified, sometimes sadly to harshness. Sometimes there seems no real reason to cup for espresso. Why just not pull a shot of it…

  13. Joe Marrocco

    So far I have never had a coffee that I felt was fantastic on the cupping table and was then disapointed when I had it through an espresso machine. James, I know that you have had your hands and machines on a lot more coffees than I. I am also quite aware that your skills as a barista are obviously much more acvanced than mine. So, this post is in no way my way of tooting my own horn. I am honestly surprised to know that this is happening to you. In my experience thus far good coffee has been good espresso. Great coffee has been great espresso. So far, I have been able to taste a coffee on the table and get a good idea of whether or not it will work well as espresso. There are times when I cup a coffee and cannot wait to get it into the espresso grinder. I’m such a geek, I’ll go home thinking about it and planning. I have yet to be bummed out when I come back to it a few days later. (I like to cup coffees after at least 24 hours off of the roast and extract as espresso after at least four or more days.) Maybe this trend has just been a lucky streak for me that will end some day. We shall see.

    I know that this post has been very anecdotal. Sorry about that. It just seems to me that if there are flavor compounds x, y and z in a particular coffee, then they should be present when brewed correctly no matter what method is used. Achieving the maximum expression of x. y and z is what it is all about. Growing builds these compounds (and/or processing, but that is another discussion). Roasting should allow these compounds to be present and developed, brewing should bring them to the forefront of the cup. Where I see a small disconnect is that if there is more of compound x then the others, it may over power them, especially through the pressure of an espresso machine. I like the electric guitar analogy. Amplification is definitely happening. Just a few thoughts.

  14. e.

    I don’t understand what quality, or being ‘good’ has to do with being compatible with a specific brewing method. There are many amazing coffees (specific varietals, estates, processing methods, blends) and equally numerous brewing methods, there are highs and lows in each combination and at the end of the day what we are aiming for is something that we think tastes amazing and suits our preference of flavour, texture & drinking experience. We don’t put coffee in a gallery, we put it in our mouths, where flavour is paramount….no matter what process it went through to get there. No blame game needed.

  15. SL28ave

    Flavor comes after process. Process comes after trees. Even when there are many possible routes, process remains. There are no magic wands involved.

    It’s true that espresso and cupping scores can roughly each be self-sufficient. But, there is often a strong correlation between them that can be utilized, especially when we’re talking about 90+ coffees.

    Or, maybe it’s because cupping has become such a great tradition, easier to roast and brew with consistency and small samples, that it’s used to more or less to define “good” beans. Maybe that’ll change some day when it comes to espresso.

  16. The Onocoffee

    Perhaps this “problem” you are discussing in not a “fault” of the machine or the coffee but rather in the “baristas” who are supposedly making the coffee.

    Seems to me that there’s lots of jockeying and posturing in our business. So many of these baristas have very little understanding of what they are doing and are merely doing without thinking – as though every coffee can be shoehorned into a desired brew method. It reminds me of a delicate and delicious dayboat scallop. Large, creamy and sweet, the dayboat scallop can be a wondrous thing – especially sauteed in a pan. However, take that same scallop and attempt to make Scallop Bourguignon and it’s just not as satisfying.

    Why baristas do not take the time and effort to test their coffees prior to ordering and service is a “fault” of the baristas themselves. In the lead-up to our new shop, we’ve been cupping, tasting and brewing as many coffees as we possibly could lay our hands on. We’re tasting them and brewing them in different ways to see how they perform and come up with an “ideal” brew method to present them. Not to say that this is some sort of “best” way to do things but it’s giving us a greater understanding of the coffees, how they perform and craft.

    To those who complain about the hypothetical El Salvador not “working” as an espresso, perhaps it never will. Time to find the method under which that coffee truly shines and present it that way.

  17. James Hoffmann

    I’ve been reading the discussion and have been left struggling to respond, though I want to.

    I didn’t expect the discussion to go in the directions it has (though I am glad it did). This has been a really interesting insight into how people see espresso – both as process and product. It also highlighted my inability to communicate what I was really thinking.

    I will try and cobble some thoughts together and respond intelligently soon.

  18. Sam

    I don’t know much about cupping and roasting, so forgive my naivety, but it seems odd to me that you wouldn’t cup for espresso. Surely you still look for certain flavours to be projected into your espresso.
    I mean when i drink a single origin as pour-over, for example, I taste certain flavours in a subtle refined way, but then pull the same coffee as espresso and I still taste the same flavours, but its like a punch in the mouth… so i just assume you would find something similar for cupping to espresso.

  19. Johannes Bayer

    Here are some quotes from Anthony Wild´s “Black Gold- A dark History of Coffee”, that are thought-provoking. They read as follows: “Espresso is a wonderful system for making good coffee, but not a good system for making wonderful coffee.(p.271)” “[W]hile espresso conceals the faults of poor coffees, it fails to reveal the virtues of great ones. One benefit that espresso has undoubtedly brought the world is the sure knowledge that when you order a cup it is freshly brewed on the spot.(p.276)”
    What do you think?

  20. Will Frith

    Says one review of the aforementioned book at this URL:
    “One gets the feeling that the author wants to believe that coffee use goes back to antiquity, even though he tells you he can’t provide any evidence of that…When so many of the author’s facts are in error, it’s hard to know when he may have gotten something right… If you really want to know something about the history of coffee, consult at least two other books after reading this one.”

    Makes me wonder if he did his homework on espresso or if he relied on a very opinionated source (from which there are many to choose). I’m not personally disagreeing with your bringing this example up, just that I’m not convinced it’s an accurate source, partially for errors and mostly because it’s not a book about espresso.

    As for James’ original question, I’ll add that roasters and baristas have a lot of (crucially collaborative) work to do before we can write off any great-coffee-as-espresso possibility.

    Keep up the good work, folks.

  21. Christoffer Levak

    I too have to adhere to the school “Espresso is just another way of brewing”. It is not the holy epitome of coffee preparation. It has its own quirks and influence on the cup. Not every coffee is good as espresso. To us in Sweden I think that is superfluous to point out. And commenting more on it might also be.

    But I wanted to share an experience I had at CoE in Honduras 2009. We cupped a lot of coffees and they all more or less fitted the CoE standards (given they had been prechosen by a national jury). Bright, clean, crisp, sweet. The usual, washed and high-grown. Any dirtyness, fermentation, overly berry/fruity brought down the score. Bright, clean, crisp, sweet all nice things but not necessarily the most interesting as espresso. Being an espressoslanted barista I pondered over these things.
    Then I tried a coffee that was marketed towards the Honduran market. It was a pacamara, chalk full of chocolate, spice and nuts. I asked them “Wow, this is a great espresso coffee, what is it?” They were almost ashamed of it and told me that it was a average grade, 1200 meters. If I wanted it, they could blend in some more high-grown from the same farm.
    My feeling, and its just a feeling, is that most coffees offered to most higher-end roasteries are of this variety. What is called high quality usually fits the “CoE-profile” of clean, bright and crisp. Qualities that not necessarily translate well in espresso. The whole espresso-method has been embraced by a country brewing pretty crap coffee for decades (sorry Italy). Coffee that is generally cheap and does not adhere to the high quality profile. And maybe this is not a coincidence. Maybe we, when we start to deal with speciality coffee, origin specific coffee and brew it as espresso, run into a problem in definitions (which I think most of us have, trying to communicate the word “quality”). Again, this is just my feeling, I’m not well versed in sourcing/green-bean-purchasing. I feel that the old term/definition “high quality coffee” has to be revised and we will in the future see far more nuances coffees offered than we see today, as we trade more in depth with producing countries.

  22. Sam

    I’m curious to know how much “preferred brew methods” of the major specialty buyers influence their criteria when selecting coffees and defining coffee “quality”. Some of these roasters being cash heavy and buyers with celebrity status, would therefore influence the coffee growers produce and how the whole specialty industry determines a great coffee.

    I wonder if a large specialty roaster with lots of cash went into Honduras (for example) specifically wanting to create an amazing espresso roast. Having a defined criteria in mind, having cash to back his desires. Would have that same coffee grower put more effort into that bean? Paid closer attention to the trees, the soil, the pruning and harvest etc etc (ie: not just aimed it towards the local market).

    Maybe the main problem for espresso is that currently the guys with the cash and halo above their heads are those who loved washed high grown coffees that taste amazing in syphon pots? so thats what they buy, and therefore encourage the exporters to produce.

    I say this because in Australia, whose industry is solely espresso (99% or some silly stat like that), the specialty guys there are making amazing espresso. They just don’t have the capital to be able to go to origin and say “hey this is what we want, start growing it or our plastic aussie dollars will go to the guy who will”

    Having said this there are one or two roasters in Australia who will probably start making more noise in the next few years regarding this issue.

    Anyway just a thought, i dunno.

  23. Julie

    I think this discussion has highlighted some of the problems with CoE competitions. As Sam said
    … the main problem for espresso is that currently the guys with the cash and halo above their heads are those who loved washed high grown coffees that taste amazing in syphon pots? so thats what they buy, and therefore encourage the exporters to produce.
    Here in Holland, the cultural preference is for deep earthy coffees. CoE coffees that have a great write up, based on traditional cupping, and targeted for brewed coffee use, simply don’t work either in espresso or even in filter systems if you want deep flavour and low acidity.

  24. Fras Def

    What is the obsession with single origin espresso? It seems that the trend of late is to be into this single or that single as espresso. When in reality espresso is more often that not a blend of several coffees crafted together to make some something that is greater than the sum of its parts, a well rounded, balanced and enjoyable espresso drinking experience. How can you expect a single coffee to have all of the dimension that several coffees will have?

  25. Will Frith

    Just what are we expecting when it comes to espresso? Single-Origin Espresso? Are we looking to complement the brewing method itself or are we trying to use the method to highlight what’s unique and captivating about a coffee?

    Personally, I’m not expecting every SOE to carry the “roundness” of a blend. I want a taste experience that is specific to a coffee, and even if that coffee doesn’t translate into what we’ve come to know as espresso, it’s exciting territory worth exploring. Some really bright coffees with less-than-viscous body have really grabbed my attention, while some super-heavy-and-sweet coffees have as well. Not because they would “punch through the milk” or satisfy the old expectations, but on each coffee’s own merits and as The Thing Itself. If it has the versatility and balance to stand up to a blend, bonus!, but not necessary.

    Ok I’ve run out of soapboxes for now.

  26. Jason Dominy

    I will agree with Will’s last post. We have got to remember that all coffees are different, and as such, will need to be handled differently. Knowing that we’ve already started doing that with manual coffee brewing methods, that is, using different weights of coffees and water, different methods like Chemex or Aeropress, we need to realize that if taste is the ultimate goal, we will find it using different methods. That means that certain coffees will taste better in the espresso method, others will taste better using Chemex, others manual pourover. I am okay with that. I like the variety and challenge of figuring out which coffee works best with what method.

    In researching this issue of SOE, I was at our Dancing Goats shop here in Atlanta a few weeks ago, we were discussing this issue, and the comment was made by Aaron Shively, one of our roasters, “I just wish we had a coffee that held up as a good SOE.” I immediately did an inventory of our coffees, and thought about how last year I had taken the BUFCAFE Rwanda through the espresso machine and how good it was. So, I convinced Aaron to load up the extra Super Jolly we have at the shop there with our Rwanda Buremera. And you know what? It was freaking amazing. Citrus, grapefruit, pomegranate, sweet caramel. Deelish. And we are stoked. Turns out, I like the Rwanda better as espresso than drip, and I’ve tried it Chemex’d, Aeropressed, you name it. So, we rocked it on the Fourth Machine at the SERBC and people were going crazy over it. It was a hit. Lesson learned.

    I do fault the barista, I do think like Jay said, we have a responsibility to know our coffees inside and out, intimately, and know what the best methods for brewing them are, and how to communicate that to our customers. I will agree also with Anthony, though, and that it will take some time to reeducate our customers away from the old vocabulary and mindframe of coffee shops of yore. I think baristas become more coffee professionals when they take the time to figure all this out, at least head in that direction. With that being said, we’ve come a long way, and have a long way, and conversations like this certainly help the journey, so cheers. Thanks James for starting the conversation.

  27. bea

    I think the post is quite interesting when looking at it from say, a non-coffee geek point of viewm

    I think there is a high emphasis on the relationship of coffee bean to espresso but why? Has starbucks inadvertently trained
    Us to believe that the highest form of the drink lies in an espresso?

    I understand that people are looking to brewed coffee as the ‘next new thing’ and as a result there
    Is a backlash, as seen in a couple of posts above.

    Why not view brewed coffee and espresso drinks as separate entities, and with each bean providing their
    Own nuances and pros/cons to each type? As a pastry chef I’m constantly aware of the pro/cons of using any
    Ingredient based on a specific prep method. Passionfruit for example is bright and cheery as a sorbet or curd, but bake it
    Or turn into a caramel and it takes on incredibly musky tones. If I want bright while baking, I can’t bend the fruit to my wil

    ultimately who is to blame? No one and everyone. Every bean should be embraced for its finest qualities, not be forced to be used in an all-purpose fashion.

  28. Sam

    I don’t think many people who would read james hoffmans blog would say that starbucks is a strong influence in their tastes. But Perhaps in many quarters of the specialty industry, they were surrounded by starbucks their whole lives, so perhaps any negativity towards espresso has grown from this. As Australian, I’m incredibly espresso biased. I grew up drinking espresso. However the industry has grown on a strong independent scene there, not starbucks.

    My main concern when replying to this article, has been the fact that there is an anti-espresso sentiment growing in the specialty industry, particularly in North America. This could be the fact that getting a decent espresso here had been a myth up until maybe 5-10 years ago. (i’m sure there was some little espresso bar in new york for the last 70 years pumping out amazing espresso, but thats negligible)

    I am espresso biased! I admit it. But do i think it is the pinnacle of the coffee world. No. Being the pinnacle in any industry goes beyond the simple product. You could be a coffee shop with a syphon bar selling $200/lbs coffee but if the floor is dirty or the barista a douche then its not the pinnacle.

    The pinnacle should be about understanding every facet of coffee, for every brew method, for every country of origin, for every varietal. And I think everyone would agree that we’re only just beginning the scratch the surface with regards to this. So my point has been that to write off espresso as a brewing method before we even fully understand it is incredibly premature. And again like i said earlier. If you’re selling 500 espresso coffees a day in your cafe, why would you want to have a mentality that is not good? Its what paying your rent.

    Anyway I’m going to stop. I think I’ve said all I have to say.

  29. kurt

    James sounds more and more like a roaster, (as opposed to a barista). There also appears to be more comments coming from roasters.

    I couldn’t agree more with the post. Didn’t strike me as an accusation or problem. More just a curious observation. In coffee the moving parts don’t always align the way we think they should and that’s okay. We accept things for what they are and appreciate them when the finer qualities shine and make accommodations for their shortcomings when they don’t.

    At least I think that’s what James was saying. Which is nice. That’s what friends do.

  30. Bea

    “I don’t think many people who would read james hoffmans blog would say that starbucks is a strong influence in their tastes. ”

    No, Starbucks is most definitely not an influence on our tastes, but it sure makes an incredible difference on our customers’ tastes. Australia’s coffee culture grew in a very different manner to the U.S. and UK, but the U.S. is still dominant in total consumption (by sheer size), and as a result, Starbucks has a direct and indirect influence/role on independent owners because in their clever marketing way, they have insinuated themselves into mainstream consumerism.

    Totally agree that all brew methods, etc. need to be examined, enjoyed, and played with more thoroughly. I think the fact that coffee is being looked less as a commodity and more like an artisanal product, is one step in the right direction. We must remember that 80% of coffee will be freeze-dried instant horrible dreck that will be consumed without a care in the world.

    Which leads me to an unusual question. In an age where Thai mangoes are airshipped around the world, and special Japanese grapes are sent to restaurants at 50 GBP per kg, why isn’t the fresh coffee fruit going through a similar distribution channel?


  31. Trevor

    As a simple barista, I’m generally quite happy to trust the knowledge and judgement of my roaster when it comes to evaluating which coffees might work best either as espresso, or just as filter, or for both in some cases, at different roast profiles or blends …and then to do my best to get espresso profiled coffees working in the best possible way, once they get to me in the cafe setting (which is devilishly hard and complex enough as it is!).
    And as a barista I feel my focus is towards espresso, and attempting to offer great espresso drinks …simply because people can quite easily brew great filter at home if they’ve got a grinder, whereas espresso and the milk drinks are not something the customer can replicate easily to the same standard.
    Therefore, sometimes it is tempting (and fun) to see if a really great coffee can be brewed as great espresso …but if that coffee is just not going to work so well for the espresso method, or if too much of its beauty is going to be lost by the profiling or the method, I’m happy to respect and accept that it’s just best left away from the espresso machine. Although sometimes, even though some subtle characteristics of a coffee might be muted by the espresso process, a really great and exciting espresso can be crafted which still allows much of what’s great about a certain coffee in it to be allowed to shine …but just in a different light to the way it would as filter. But it would be unfair to force a coffee into espresso if it clearly doesn’t benefit from it at all. Again, for me, it would come down to communicating with, and trusting the judgement of someone much more highly skilled at this particular aspect of the chain from plant to cup. Naturally I try to gradually learn a little more, bit by bit, about all aspects of coffee, because it’s insanely interesting, and it helps me to better understand what I’m doing and producing in my role as a barista – but for the most part I’m not qualified, nor in a position, to undertake that initial assessment of each coffee’s different potentials.
    Great filter is perhaps a much better, simpler, more gentle, more approachable and more sympathetic way to roast and brew many of the very best coffees, and I can well appreciate why the ever growing whisper is that it’s going to be the next big thing for us all, and that roasters especially are keen for this to happen… But I still think espresso has a particular magic, allure, immediacy and potential for beauty all of its own (albeit with appropriate coffees!), which has still not been fully realised by any means, and it would be a shame to move away from it too vigorously.
    Hopefully neither baristas, brew methods, or coffees will be worthy of blame, if we all just continue to use our respective skills with the aim of producing better and better coffee.

  32. Michael Phillips

    So many points… First off, we have a very real El Salvador that just came in. Super fresh crop and it tastes amazing as espresso in my opinion… that however is not what I believe it was bought for, just a lucky side perk. Going off of my still fairly limited experience, I would say there is certainly a correlation between coffee that cups and scores well to coffee that pulls a great shot but it is hardly set in stone. For example, perhaps a coffee tastes amazing as a pour over but in the first attempts as espresso is mediocre. There is a chance that the barista could go back and work with the roaster, could play with adjusting pressure and temperature on their machine, swap baskets, try different ages of roast and work with 50 other variables finally managing to squeeze out a good shot… but there is no guarantee. To “blame” anything for a coffee not performing as an espresso is a bit silly. Just as some people have a knack for writing and others for medicine I believe some coffees do for espresso and some for drip. Granted, just as there are clever people who will be good at most anything they set to so are there clever coffees that perform however you brew them… but if they are not so agile then all the better to focus on what they do well. I think more so what needs to change is our somewhat narrow opinion of good espresso can be if just to let us push the boundaries of what we will try. The baristas in my shop over the last year have gotten to the point of throwing pretty much any standard drip roast into the grinder at least once or twice to see what they can get out of it. This compared to a few years ago when to pull shots of something that didnt have “espresso” written on the bag would have resulted in very strange looks from those around you. There are so many consumables that I love now which upon first encounter were simply to much, I am sure several profiles of espresso fit into this category. I look forward to educating my pallet enough to find my next version of really stinky cheese, very sour beer or over the top Kimchi.

  33. thompson

    I don’t really have any response to the original post because I think it’s a miss. If a coffee doesn’t work well as a SO espresso, I think nothing less of it. I also don’t assume I am the only person that could make it work a espresso; if I can’t maybe someone can. But if it is so difficult, why force it?
    I would flip this on it’s head, and I will, since I don’t have espresso-centric frame:
    Is it a failure of my tasting ability to say a balanced and “restrained” coffee is only good for espresso? Am I unfair to say, “you are pretty boring, mr. coffee, but maybe as espresso …”

  34. tim dominick

    I’m not much of a barista but roasting is my daily function. The approach to roasting will dictate the potential usefulness of a coffee as an espresso. That said, there are more than a fair share of coffees that will not turn heads in an espresso machine yet are quite suitable for a broad spectrum of brewing methods. It does not reduce the excellence of a coffee if it doesn’t work in an s/o espresso.

    A fast turn after the drop and quick jump from first crack to a lighter finish with most washed Centrals will create a coffee that will be unbarabley acidic in an espresso. Slow everything down, mute the acidity and play up the mouthfeel and sweeteness. You can have a coffee with the same agtron number but how you arrived at that number can change the cup dramatically. Also, there is something to be said for the machine itself. It is no wonder that some companies with multiple roasters always choose machine “A” to roast their espresso. Perhaps it has more controls, better airflow, a different burner system or a thicker/thinner drum that gives the roaster an advantage.

    Consider the idea that you can have a single origin espresso that is a composition of roast levels. No one is calling it a single-roast single-origin espresso so fuse the attributes of bright acidity and silky mouthfeel that you find from varying the approach to the roast. There is no “standard” here except self-imposed limitations. We can reduce everything, I suppose the absolute extreme is single orign one shrub from one farm picked on one day?

    An El Salvador that was harvested in late 2009 and delivered last week is a totally different coffee than what you will find when you cup it in mid-july. The life cycle of a green coffee plays an important role in which attributes a roaster wants to feature. What makes a coffee special today might be it’s weakness in 3 months. Wait 6 months and you might find a coffee sings as an espresso yet disappoints as a syphon.

    Finally, give the same lot to ten roasters and you’ll get eleven results. A barista has a toolbox of tweaks they can make to temperature, grind, pressure, extraction time etc; a roaster has quite a few ways to coax out attributes and honestly what happens in the roastery dictates the parameters a barista has to work with. If it is a square peg it will not fit in a round hole, so pull the chemex off the shelf and enjoy a beautiful cup. The espresso machine’s feelings will not be hurt.

  35. Kristy

    In the artisan coffee sphere at present, we are doing a great job of celebrating the purity and amazing quality of single origins, experimenting with and exhibitioning various varieties through a diverse specturm of brewing methods. Testing, recording, looking for patterns, creating proofs and process of elimination is all part of the emipirical method, and we can use this to a certain point ie. professional coffee cupping standards. Espresso is one of many brewing methods, a high pressure, extermely hot method which produces a concentrated brew, pulling out aspects of the bean you may not get from a another method. That’s all there is to it. A single origin, roasted and pulled well may taste great as espresso and it may not. Am I missing the point? Is there a struggle here I’m not savvy to? Fill me in.

  36. Mike Marquard

    random idea…..what if we dropped the temperature of our espresso boilers significantly? Would this do the same thing as roasting a bit darker? Could we use the same roast, appreciate the same coffee in espresso as well as chemex? Are we being drastic enough? We talk a lot about temp/pressure profiling, but what have we found?

    Sounds like I’ll be hopping on the GS/3 tomorrow afternoon…..

  37. Pingback: Espresso as excuse... | Sweet Maria's Blog

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