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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 2)

One way to get espresso just the way you want it is, of course, to make it yourself at home. To make great espresso, you must pay homage to espresso's holy trinity--the beans, the grinder and the brewing equipment.

The Beans

There is no such thing as an espresso bean or espresso roast. For years, espresso was made from what was referred to as an Italian roast, but even this was a blend of beans. In truth, you can make espresso from any kind of bean or combination of beans you like. Keep in mind, however, that the process of making espresso intensifies the qualities of whatever you use. A single bean with certain characteristics, say a high-acid Mexican bean, will give you more acidity than you want--without the desired body. That's why most cafes and retailers use blends. Peet's rotates four blends in its espresso. The Major Dickason's blend, for example, combines the aroma and acidity of Central American beans with the richness and body of Indonesian beans.

Virtually all the coffee used in espresso and sold as specialty coffee comes from arabica beans, one of the two main coffee species. The other, called robusta, is found in commercial blends and instant coffees. But Davids says robusta beans are unfairly maligned and have a place in espresso blends; the Italians use large quantities of robusta beans.

You'll probably want to experiment with various blends until you get the one you like. Whichever one you choose should be dark roasted, though not as dark as popular-ly thought for espresso. "Some of the beans out there are awfully dark roasted. Why should we go out and spend top dollar for coffee beans, and then have all the nuances lost in the roasting?" asks Rose Marie Jaquith, head of purchasing for the Coffee Connection, which uses a milder Viennese Roast in its espresso.

If you normally drink decaffeinated coffee, you should know that the dark roasting espresso beans undergo literally burns up some of the caffeine. In addition, smokers break down caffeine faster than nonsmokers (though cigar smokers aren't as efficient as cigarette smokers). That said, coffee experts generally agree that decaffeination adversely affects flavor, mostly by reducing the body of the coffee.

Of the three decaffeination methods used, the least harmful to taste is the chemical process in which the caffeine is removed by solvents. Kenneth Davids thinks health concerns about this process are unwarranted since the solvents never actually touch the beans themselves (only the caffeine and flavor components, first extracted by hot water, touch the solvents). The Swiss-water decaffeination process can muddy flavors, and fairly new carbon-dioxide processes are, so far, providing uneven results.

Choosing the proper blend of beans and the kind of roast is like buying fresh fish. So choose your roaster and coffee-bean retailer as carefully as your fishmonger. Freshly roasted beans make the best espresso. So buy them in small amounts--less than a pound at a time if you aren't going to use it up within a week or 10 days--and store them properly.

Beans should be stored in a well-sealed, opaque container shielded from heat. Refrigerated beans can easily pick up odors from that smoked salmon or Caesar salad dressing. And the essential oils in the beans can be neutralized by freezing. (If you do buy more beans than you can use, put half in the freezer and return them to room temperature the day before the other half gets used up.)

The Grinder

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