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Espresso Ecstasy

Espresso drinks with all their endless permutations have been the rage in coffee meccas like Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area for several years. Now, the java flood is spreading.
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

Sipping espresso with Ernesto Illy of Trieste, Italy, is like tasting espresso for the first time. President of the eponymous Illycafe, Illy is one of the most knowledgeable coffee experts in the world.

Even after two decades of countless cappuccinos and caffè lattes, not to mention numerous straight espressos, this espresso seems an altogether different drink—a thick, frothy head, or crema, a rich and immensely satisfying flavor and a surprisingly long finish. Having espresso with Illy is as if, after drinking wine coolers for a generation, you are sitting across from Robert Mondavi, who says, "OK, you want to drink real wine? Here's a glass of Opus One."

The United States isn't yet an espresso-drinking country the way Illy hopes it will be, but Americans are getting there. It's a circuitous route through a milky haze of espresso drinks like cappuccino and caffè latte, but the espresso craze is taking hold.

Espresso drinks with all their endless permutations--decaffeinated coffee, skim milk, extra foam, a spritz of syrup--have been the rage in coffee meccas like Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area for several years. Now, the java flood is spreading to other cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, and lately, even New York has gotten on the espresso-bar bandwagon.

Starbucks, the Seattle espresso-café juggernaut, recorded 265 outlets at the end of last year and hopes to open an additional 152 this year alone, according to Laura Moix, a spokeswoman for the company. Boston-based Coffee Connection has 21 outlets and plans a half dozen more this year. It also acts as a coffee-and-espresso consultant to Au Bon Pain, the rapidly expanding bakery chain.

Purists like Patrick Main, coffee-bar quality manager for Peet's Coffee & Tea, the legendary Bay Area coffee company, fervently hopes that cappuccino and latte drinkers will gravitate to "the real thing," much like white Zinfandel drinkers move up to Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Illy is more philosophical. "We have to follow consumers, not give them orders. The main thing is that mediocre coffee is losing ground, and espresso is going up."

Indeed, while overall daily per capita coffee consumption decreased from 2.68 cups in 1969 to 1.75 cups in 1989, specialty coffees (the kind of high-quality coffee used in espresso) increased in sales from $44 million in 1969 to $1.5 billion in 1989, with projected sales of $3 billion by 1999, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. And a study done early last year by the National Coffee Association showed that the rise in specialty coffees has reversed a 30-year decline in general consumption by pushing up overall per capita daily consumption to 1.87 cups.

* * *

If you thought espresso was just strong coffee, think again. Simply put, espresso is coffee brewed one cup at a time by quickly forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground, densely packed, dark-roasted beans. Espresso is far from a simple drink. When brewed properly, it's an enormously complex beverage, what Illy calls multiphasic, meaning it is not just a liquid obtained from grounds, but minuscule solids and gases trapped in liquid. These finely dispersed particles--called colloids--as small as one to three microns, contribute more than 700 different components to espresso. That's just what the nose can detect. Add what the tongue can decipher (albeit a very finely tuned tongue), and the component number jumps to 1,500 or more. This is more than three times what can be discerned in wine, says Illy.

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