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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 2)

The result, he says, is a bitter bean and a loss of varietal character, so that a Kenya AA bean from East Africa doesn't taste much different than a Sulawesi bean from Indonesia.  

"Americans don't like bitter things," says Illy, pointing to the back bar at Le Cirque. "You probably have two or three bitter drinks [like Campari]. In Italy or France, you'd have 20 or 30. So to cover up the bitterness of overroasted coffee, they add lots of milk for lattes or raspberry syrup. Pretty soon we'll be seeing garlic."  

A few American roasters can get away with heavy roasting. Most notable among them is Peet's Coffee & Tea, a chain of 40 stores that was founded in Berkeley, California, in 1966. "What saves Peet's is the quality of coffee they use," Lingle says. For its espresso, Starbucks uses a roast that is somewhat lighter than its French roast, the darkest coffee it sells. French and Italian roasts are commonly used for espresso. On the East Coast, Italian is usually darker. On the West Coast, French generally is.  

But many espresso experts say the lighter Viennese roast is a better choice than either of the above. This roast is dark enough to produce the character needed for espresso but light enough to prevent any oil from forming on the surface of the beans (a sign of overroasting). The oil in espresso beans is essential in creating a good crema.  

The crema is the heart and soul of espresso. Without it, you don't really have espresso. To create the proper crema, the coffee needs all its oil intact (coffee beans contain up to 18 percent oil). Under the proper pressure and temperature, the oil, and the gas expelled from the beans in brewing, creates an emulsion, not unlike the consistency of mayonnaise. The color ranges from caramel to a darker nut brown, depending on the type of bean used and the darkness of the roast.

The crema will coat the mouth and prevent that sensation of bitterness that poorly made espressos have. Instead, it will be bittersweet. Properly made cremas will also be visible all the way down the sides of the cup as you drink. Poorly made espresso will have cremas that fade quickly. Proper cremas are also hard to achieve when cups are too large.  

You don't have to go to an espresso bar to get the perfect cup. Making espresso at home is an alternative, though not always the best one. You need a sufficiently powerful machine, one that provides enough pressure to force the hot water through the grounds to extract maximum flavor. That usually means investing at least $350. Peet's will soon be selling the Gaggia espresso maker for about $375. The Starbucks Barista goes for $349 (for a graphite finish) or $399 (for copper and stainless steel). But even these machines, or ones that cost far more, including commercial ones, are problematic if you don't make a lot of espresso.  

"People want to drink the first espresso out of the machine and it's usually disgusting," Fucci says. "The places that make the best espresso are the ones that make a lot of it." At Starbucks, Carrell says, machines are always kept hot, never turned off. When business is slow, baristas keep making drinks just to keep the pump primed.  

This is obviously a problem at home. But you can mitigate it by heating the machine well in advance, running hot water through it a few times, and even making a throwaway first cup. You can also heat cups by filling them with hot water or putting them on top of the machine if space permits.  

The proper grind of coffee is as important as the kind of beans and their freshness. The only way to achieve that is with a large coffee mill, not the smaller coffee grinders, which chop, rather than grind, the coffee. Tamping the grounds firmly into the portable filter that goes into the machine is also crucial, which many people overlook. "People say, 'Why do I have to tamp? After all, doesn't the espresso get pressed down anyway when it's made?'" Illy says. "But if you don't, you get channels through the coffee, which allow too much water to go through."  

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