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
| By Sam Gugino | From Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

It's surprising, astonishing really, that five years after the espresso craze swept across the United States, it's still difficult to get a good cup of espresso here. Yes, there are plenty of espresso bars. In my neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side, you can't walk more than a few blocks without encountering one or more of these establishments. While the quality of coffee that these java joints put out today is far better than the daily swill most Americans drank a decade ago, the espresso is often shockingly mediocre.  

How do coffee bars get away with serving substandard espresso? One explanation is that most espresso served in these lounges is buffered by oceans of hot milk, foam, whipped cream and flavored syrups in lattes, cappuccinos, moccaccinos and chinos that we don't even want to think about. Some of these drinks look more like ice cream sundaes than variations on espresso.  

"Espresso is nowhere near what it ought to be. It's like a soft drink that isn't quite formulated properly," says Ted R. Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group for coffee retailers, wholesalers and roasters based in Long Beach, California.  

Order a simple espresso at one of these bars and what will you get? If the barista, the person who makes the espresso, asks "Single or double?" or "How many shots?" you could be in trouble. Any good barista knows that an espresso is just one shot of coffee, ideally no more than 1 to 1 1/2 ounces. A barista in Italy, the birthplace of espresso, would never ask you how many shots you wanted. But in the United States it's a different story.  

"From my retail experience I can remember when people asked for a grande espresso but what they really wanted was a latte. So we had to educate them," says Aileen Carrell, coffee education manager at Starbucks Coffee Co. Starbucks' chief executive officer, Howard Schultz, had visited espresso bars while traveling through Italy in 1983 and wanted to duplicate the concept in the U.S.  

To Starbucks' credit, its single espresso is usually about 1 1/4 ounces, just the right amount. Unfortunately, it looks a bit forlorn sitting at the bottom of a wide 4-ounce cup. This may make you feel as if you're getting cheated, but it's better than if the barista extracts more espresso, sometimes up to three ounces from the same amount of coffee grounds. The irony here is that more is less with espresso. The additional ounce or two is composed of compounds that you don't want in your espresso, compounds that will only make the espresso bitter and unpleasant. That's why many people think of espresso as harsh and why some places still serve it with a lemon peel to counteract the bitterness.  

Rarely in the five years since I last wrote about espresso for Cigar Aficionado have I had a decent, let alone outstanding espresso in the United States, and that goes for some pricey New York restaurants as well as humble espresso bars. Last fall, in the lounge of New York's legendary Le Cirque 2000 restaurant, Ernesto Illy, chairman of illycaffè, the famous Italian espresso roaster, ordered espressos for us. Illy supplies Sirio Maccioni's restaurant with coffee and the machines to make it.

The espressos arrived in snazzy, 5-ounce cups. But because these cups were more than twice the appropriate size for good espresso and because the regular barista wasn't on duty, our espressos were mere echoes of what they could have been. There was no crema (the caramel-colored froth on top of all good espresso) and the flavor was flat and one-dimensional.

"I've been trying to get Sirio to use our [2-ounce] cups, but these [Le Cirque's cups] were designed by Adam Tihany, who designed the restaurant," Illy says with an air of resignation.  

A few months earlier, a perfectly made espresso was set in front of me at San Tommaso 10 in Turin, a city known for its great caffès and the home of Italy's largest coffee roaster, Lavazza. The crema was a deep nut brown. The cup and saucer were exquisite, although the size of the cup didn't seem much bigger than a thimble. The coffee was delicious, smooth, rich and pleasantly bitter, and it was gone in two gulps.  

"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.

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."  

Illy eliminated the need for grinding and tamping by creating espresso pods, carefully measured amounts of espresso in packets, each with enough coffee for one cup of espresso. Illy notes that grinding your own beans, even with a mill, can be irregular. And Forster says that the compactness of the grounds minimizes exposure to the air and loss of freshness. Other companies, like Starbucks, also make coffee pods. Starbucks' home espresso makers can use pods as well as loose ground coffee.  

I made a few dozen cups of espresso with an Euromatik machine supplied by illycaffè. I found it easy, clean and handy, especially for a dinner party of six, since it required no recovery time from one cup to the next (much like a commercial machine). At first, I didn't think the Euromatik (which retails for up to $800) measured up to espressos I've made with less expensive machines in which I used fresh beans ground just before the espresso was made. But after letting the machine heat up longer and wasting the first cup of espresso, things improved.  

However, the most dramatic improvement came when I switched to illy's 2-ounce espresso cups, instead of my normal 4-ounce ones. But mere volume wasn't the only improvement: the illy cup was at the bottom and not too wide at the top, so the crema held nice and firm (the thick walls retained the heat well). Even the handle was perfect, just a small thumbprint that allows one to pinch the handle rather than trying to put a finger into a hole. Most important, the rich, bittersweet flavor made me think I was back in a café in Turin.

New York City-based Sam Gugino is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.    


More Tips for Making Espresso at Home

Start with cold tap water. Let the tap run for a while to get any stale water out of the pipes. Filtered water removes some unwanted chemicals such as chlorine, therefore bottled water isn't necessary unless your tap water is unusually soft. Hard water makes the best espresso but can break down machines.

A standard serving of espresso takes 20 to 30 seconds to make.

A crema that is dark brown with a white dot or black hole in the middle is a sign that the espresso has been over-extracted and will taste harsh and bitter.

A light crema indicates an underextracted espresso. Make sure you have enough coffee in the filter and that it is tamped down sufficiently.  

If the espresso is too strong for your taste, make an Americano by diluting the espresso with hot water rather than putting less coffee into the filter.