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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.

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.

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

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.

Inexpensive machines don't create enough pressure—about nine-and-a-half atmospheres or 140 pounds per square inch—to make proper espresso. Pressure is essential for maximum flavor extraction because the water temperature in espresso making is relatively low, between 192 and 198 degrees.

Look for a machine with an "open system," one that has a pump to create necessary pressure and a water reservoir separate from the boiler. The separate reservoir enables the user to continually refill the water tank without having to shut off the system.

The minimum you can get away with, according to Raich, is something on the order of a Saeco Gran Crema (formerly the Super Idea, about $180). Raich calls it a wolf in sheep's clothing because it performs better than some more expensive machines. Bernard Mariano, who has been importing espresso-machines from Italy since 1974, says it's the best value in home-espresso machines.

As you move up the ladder, materials become more solid and more features are added, some of dubious necessity such as attached grinders and utility trays that hold coffee scoops. The Saeco 2002 (about $250) and the Caffè Roma Espresso Prima (about $220), for example, have enameled steel housings instead of plastic in the Saeco Gran Crema. At $370, the Saeco Rio Vapore gives you a pivoting steam wand for espresso drinks and a larger water reservoir. Raich says the staff at Peet's favors the Rio Vapore.

To approximate the quality of commercially made espresso, you must make the leap to a Rancilio Rialto (also known as the Audrey, $495) or the Faema Family ($450). These machines are made with enameled brass, which not only conducts heat well, but has the heft to withstand a good deal of punishment.

Mariano says the Rancilio Rialto is the only home machine that can duplicate commercial machines. "It's got tremendous power and exactly the same filter holder as commercial machines," he says. Another factor that recommends the Rancilio Rialto is a water-level indicator that tells you when the water level is too low. Running an espresso machine with too little (or no) water is akin to running a car with insufficient oil.

If you're the hands-on type and like the old-fashioned espresso-machine look, you might want to try a piston lever machine such as the La Pavoni ($425). Unlike the electric pump machines above, pressure in a piston lever machine is produced by the manual operation of a lever. This can create commercial-quality espresso, but it also requires a certain level of skill in applying just the right amount of power and speed.

The above machines all use a boiler to heat water, but Mariano also recommends thermal-block machines that heat water through tubing, much like radiators. Mariano says thermal-block machines, especially the Krups Novo (about $200) and the Rotel Espressomat (about $300) are very user friendly. But he admits that they have disadvantages such as less forceful steam and a delay in producing sufficiently hot coffee.

Whichever machine you choose, insist on a complete demonstration before you buy and give it the proper maintenance. "People think that because they buy an expensive machine, it will take care of itself. But whether you have a Saab or a Ford Festiva, you've still got to take care of it," Raich says.

An Espresso History

We can thank the Ethiopians for discovering that the seeds of the berries from the coffea arabica and coffea canephora (better known as robusta) plants had certain stimulant, even medicinal properties. And we can thank the fifteenth-century Yemenites for roasting, grinding and infusing those seeds in hot water to create a delicious beverage we now call coffee. But we must give the Italians credit for elevating that brew into espresso, the ultimate coffee drink, as Kenneth Davids puts it in his book, Espresso, Ultimate Coffee (180 pages, 1993, Cole Group, Santa Rosa, California).

The Italians were introduced to coffee through Vienna by way of Turkey in the early eighteenth century. What we know as Turkish coffee, a thick, almost muddy cousin of espresso (with surprising similarities), was developed in Egypt and Turkey in the seventeenth century. The Ottoman Turks left their coffee as a gift to Western Europe after their failed siege of Vienna in 1683. It was the Viennese, says Davids, who perfected the concept of filtered coffee.

The Italians fell in love with this strong, filtered coffee, but insisted on perfecting it further by means of industrial and technological advances that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the first large, steam-espresso machine was developed by a Frenchman, Edward Loysel de Santais in the mid-1800s, it was not until 1901--when Luigi Bezzera of Milan, Italy, patented a steam-pressure restaurant machine--that "the technology and culture of caffè espresso was born," says Davids.

Bezzera's concept of brewing one rapid cup at a time provided the basis for the Italian caffè scene--dominated by huge, ornate machines resembling locomotives--in the 1920s. But Bezzera's and similar machines that used trapped steam could only generate one-and-a-half atmospheres of pressure during the brewing cycle. More pressure was needed to achieve maximum flavor extraction from coffee grounds. (Current machines now generate nine atmospheres of pressure).

Another Milanese, Achille Gaggia, achieved that feat soon after the Second World War with the invention of a piston-powered spring activated by the now familiar lever. The Cimbali Co. introduced the first hydraulically powered, piston espresso machine in 1956.

In the early 1960s, the Faema Co. ushered in the age of modern espresso machines with the Faema E61. The E61's innovations included heated water on demand, a pump rather than a spring-driven piston to create brewing pressure and a decalcification system to prevent hard-water deposits.

In the 1980s and '90s, semiautomatic and automatic push-button espresso machines (which can include coffee grinders) have made espresso brewing, if not faultless, at least consistent.

AN ESPRESSO GLOSSARY

"I'll have a decaf coffee."

"I'll have a decaf espresso."

"I'll have a double decaf cappuccino."

"I'll have a half double decaffeinated half caf—with a twist of lemon."

"Do you have any decaf espresso ice cream?"

-- L.A. Story

If you've ever tried to negotiate the espresso-coffee-drink maze, you know this hilarious restaurant scene from L.A. Story is closer to truth than fiction. In cities like Seattle or San Francisco, ordering a simple espresso can be as pedestrian as asking for glass of Chablis at a wine bar.

It's hard enough to remember the difference between a caffè latte and a café au lait without trying to remember how to ask for a cappuccino with decaffeinated espresso and steamed nonfat milk (colloquially known as a niente or "Why Bother," in Seattle).

Suffice to say that espresso can be made in regular or decaffeinated form and that steamed milk can be made from half and half, whole milk, 2 percent, 1 percent or nonfat milk. When you start mixing these elements (including, for example, half regular and half decaffeinated espresso), you can envision the endless possibilities.

Because Boston, Seattle and San Francisco (to name just a few cities) each has its own espresso jargon, it's much simpler to tell the barista, or coffee bartender, exactly what you want--in plain English. Beyond that, here's a handy guide to espressoterica.

Espresso: Dark, strong cup of coffee, about one-and-a-half ounces, made by forcing hot water under steam pressure through finely ground, dark-roasted beans.

Ristretto: "Short pull"--espresso cut short to about an ounce.

Lungo: "Long pull"--a "longer" espresso, about three ounces.

Doppio: "Double"--a double shot or two servings of espresso (made with a double dose of grounds).

Grande: A triple shot or three servings of espresso. It may also be an espresso drink with extra milk.

Americano: A regular shot of espresso that has been diluted with hot water to a volume of about six ounces (not a long pull).

Crema: The froth that sits atop a perfectly made cup of espresso.

Espresso Romano: Espresso with a twist of lemon peel.

Con Panna: Espresso with a dollop of cold whipped cream.

Cappuccino: Ideally made with equal amounts of espresso, steamed milk and foam.

Caffé Latte (latte): Espresso with lots of steamed milk and a small head of foam.

Café Au Lait: Often confused with caffè latte, it is usually made with filtered coffee rather than espresso, combined with an equal amount of steamed milk and served in large bowls as a breakfast drink.

Macchiato: Espresso "marked" with a small amount of foamed milk.

Latte Macchiato: The reverse of a macchiato: steamed milk and foam marked by a shot of espresso.

Caffé Mocha (mocha, moccaccino): Espresso mixed with chocolate and steamed milk.

Breve: Caffè latte made with half and half rather than milk.

SOME OTHER TIPS FOR BREWING AT HOME

* Use filtered water to avoid mineral deposits that can build up in a machine.

* Press the grounds or "tamp" them firmly in the filter. Patrick Main, of Peet's Coffee & Tea in San Francisco, suggests giving the tamper a little twist to "get the grounds all going in the same direction."

* Prime the machine before brewing by opening the steam valve for about 20 seconds and letting a little water go through the filter. Lack of regular priming, says Raich, is the biggest reason for machine failure.

When you make espresso at home, think of it as an art, not a science. You're going to have to tinker to get things just the way you want. But with some practice, you can go eyeball to eyeball with your local barista and not blink.

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