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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

(continued from page 1)

According to Kenneth Davids, author of Espresso, Ultimate Coffee (see story, page 143), espresso is such a complex beverage it has yet to be fully duplicated in the laboratory. You won't see an artificial espresso flavor as an ingredient, for example, merely espresso extract.

In addition, the extraction of oils from the coffee--high-quality arabica coffee beans used in espresso contain up to 18 percent oil--creates an emulsion not unlike mayonnaise. This results in a silky, rich drink. The extracted coffee oils also have another benefit. They block receptors in the mouth for bitterness. The bitterness is still there, but it doesn't overpower our taste buds. Thus, in perfectly brewed espresso, made from oil-rich arabica beans, we get a lush, bittersweet taste, akin to bittersweet chocolate.

"You see, you're still tasting coffee after 15 minutes, and you will for another 20," Illy says, noticing the smile on my face after a few sips of that espresso elixir. "It's pleasant, and it makes you want more. The oil is responsible for that persistence."

The heart and soul of great espresso is the crema. So important is this element that it's the title of an informative training manual on espresso by Bernard N. Mariano (44 pages, 1991, Trendex International, Inc., Chicago). Crema, says Mariano, "is the foamy, golden-brown extraction that develops in the filter holder and encrusts the top of your espresso serving. It is visible, smooth and creamy, with a fresh, bittersweet taste not found in other types of coffee."

When you're drinking espresso at a restaurant or cafe, it is the crema that will tell you whether the barista, or espresso bartender, knows what he's doing. It will also tell you whether the coffee beans are freshly roasted because the gases in freshly roasted beans (as well as the oils) help to create a good crema. The crema should be caramel-colored and reasonably thick, as much as a quarter inch or more. It should coat the side of the cup almost like a syrup and linger as you sip. A crema that is dark brown with a white dot or black hole in the middle is a sign that the espresso has been overextracted and will taste harsh and bitter. A light-colored crema indicates an underextracted espresso that will taste weak.

While the barista is, in part, at the mercy of the quality of the beans used, and, to a lesser extent, the equipment, it is he or she who is the ultimate determinant of how well an espresso or espresso drink is made. "I've been known to turn around and walk out if I didn't like who the barista was at a certain place," Davids says.

With espresso, more is definitely not better. A classic espresso, the way the Italians drink it, should be no more than an ounce and a half. After that, all you're getting are unnecessary chemicals and water. Espresso hipsters even ask for a smaller dose of one ounce, called a short pull, or ristretto. Main says espresso virgins sometimes blanch at the portion they get. So Peet's will frequently make them a lungo, or three-ounce long pull, to compare. After a taste of the two, they will usually convert to the classic size.

Italians, incidentally, don't linger in espresso bars nursing their drinks over conversation or the daily paper. Instead, it's two or three sips and arrivederci. Want more espresso? Order a double. Or try an Americano. Unlike a lungo, an Americano is a normally brewed cup of espresso that has been thinned by hot water. It will give you a diluted drink to be sure, but one that retains some of the integrity of real espresso instead of the unwanted characteristics of an overextracted long pull.

American-made espresso often employs beans that are more darkly roasted than what Italians are used to. Peet's, for example, is famous (some might say notorious) for its distinctive heavy-duty roasts. To cut some of that heaviness or sharpness, try an espresso macchiato. This is a normal espresso that has been "marked" or "stained" with a small amount of frothed milk; just enough to smooth out the harshness, but not overwhelming like a latte.

Sugar can also cut harshness, but Americans, Davids says, are snobbish about adding it to their espressos. (Somehow that snobbishness doesn't extend to mass quantities of milk.) Italians, on the other hand, will stir enormous amounts of sugar into their espressos, though Davids says he's noticed a diminution of the sweet stuff on his last trip to Milan, as well as--horror of horrors--decaffeinated espresso.

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