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The Perfect Cup: Espresso

Good espresso is hard to find in U.S. coffee bars. While a trip to Italy is one solution, another may lie closer to home
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

(continued from page 1)

"This will never go over in the States," I said to Andrè Fucci, the international training manager for Lavazza, who sat across from me at the restaurant, nodding assent. "Nine out of ten Americans [given this kind of espresso] will say 'Is this a tasting sample?" he replied.  

Lingle concurs. "We still haven't discovered the Italian concept of 'small is beautiful,'" he says. "Size wouldn't be an issue if the quality was there. But the coffee has to be fresh; I've had lots of stale coffee. Conditions have to be right to produce the best crema. The temperature, the tamping [compacting the coffee grinds very tightly] and the grind all have to be correct. And you don't find that often."  

Many espresso aficionados believe that part of the problem lies in the attitude of management and staff in restaurants. Wine is treated like a first-born son but espresso is a stepchild. "It's the last thing the help thinks about in restaurants," says Roy Forster, the quality assurance manager for illycaffè espresso U.S.A. "They forget it's the most important thing, because it leaves an impression with people when they are ready to leave and they're deciding how much to tip."  

But even in espresso bars, where coffee is the focus, finding reliable, knowledgeable help can be a problem. "In the United States you have a high rotation [in staffing]," says Lavazza's Fucci. "Once they are taught, they're gone, because wages are not very high. In Italy, people stay for years." Two years ago the SCAA created an espresso excellence award for baristas, but "we have been hard pressed to get someone to pass our test," Lingle says.  

So how do we elevate espresso to its rightful place as a specially crafted beverage? Education is the answer, beginning with an understanding of what espresso is and is not. Espresso isn't just strong coffee or a type of bean. (Fucci says some Americans think espresso is a plant that grows somewhere in Italy.) Espresso is a method of brewing.  

Unlike filtered coffee, for example, in which hot water is poured over loose grounds, espresso is made by forcing hot water under about nine and a half atmospheres of pressure, or 140 pounds per square inch, through tightly compacted grounds. This gives espresso an intense, multidimensional flavor. "Espresso isn't just a beverage. It's an elixir," Ernesto Illy says.   Espresso has more than 1,500 components that can be detected by taste and smell, far more than wine. What also makes espresso complicated is that it isn't a solution but a colloid, which is a mixture of liquids, gases and finely dispersed solids.

Good espresso will give you a persistent aftertaste (very much like bittersweet chocolate) that can last for 15 to 20 minutes, making the drink a good match for a short cigar such as a robusto. In comparison, wine with a minute's worth of aftertaste is praised as having a long finish.  

Just as there is no Bordeaux wine grape, there is no espresso bean. Just as most Bordeaux wines are made from a variety of grapes, espresso is normally made up of a blend of beans that can come from as far and wide as Central America and Indonesia. Because espresso accentuates the character of coffee beans much more than filtered coffee, using a single type of bean with a dominant characteristic would make an espresso taste unbalanced.

A coffee from Central America with a high acid content, for example, will taste too acidic if used by itself for espresso. So it will be combined with coffee that has more body, but less acid. However, there are single varietal espressos just as there are some Bordeaux wines made from a single grape variety. Virtually all the coffee in the United States used for espresso and for specialty coffees in general comes from arabica beans, which contain from 1.1 to 1.7 percent caffeine. Robusta, the other main coffee species, which contains from 2 to 4.5 percent caffeine, is found in commercial and supermarket coffees.  

How the beans for espresso should be roasted is a point of contention among coffee roasters and retailers. Many mistakenly believe that espresso is a kind of roast in which the beans emerge dark brown, almost black, and shiny from oil that has risen to the surface of the bean during roasting. But these beans, which are commonly sold for espresso, are overroasted, according to Illy.

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