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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.
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.
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.
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.)
It may surprise you that the quality of your coffee grinder is as essential, perhaps more essential, than the kind of beans you use and how they're brewed. Beans ground too finely will cause the filter in the espresso machine to clog. Beans that are too coarsely ground will allow water to flow too quickly, resulting in a weak espresso. And beans that are unevenly ground will not allow for an evenly brewed cup.
For these reasons, a blade grinder is not recommended. Blade grinders chop rather than grind. Instead, choose a burr grinder, which uses plates to grind evenly. Burr grinders also have a number of settings (the better the burr grinder, the more settings), which can provide you with the nuances in grind for the perfect cup. If you have to choose between a blade grinder and having your coffee-bean retailer grind your beans, choose the latter.
You don't want a powder that's more appropriate for Turkish coffee. The grind should have grit to it, something like table salt. Illy has a simple guideline to help you in that regard. "When you brew the espresso, time the flow of water through the grounds. It should take 25 to 30 seconds. Less, and the coffee is too coarsely ground. More, and it is too finely ground."
Some grinders, like one from Saeco ($180), come with a "doser," which doles out exact amounts for a single cup, just like a commercial machine. (The ideal dosage is seven grams.) But make sure such grinders aren't designed for specific espresso machines. Carolyn Raich, merchandise coordinator at Peet's, recommends the Saeco and Caffè Roma ($160) burr grinders.
The Brewing Equipment
If you want great espresso, you can forget about those cute little machines in the housewares section of your local department store. This is one of those times when, the more you pay, the more you get.