In Search of the Holy Grail: Mapping the Espresso Landscape

By Shanna Germain

Espresso. It’s a drink, a lifestyle, a ritual, an addiction. It’s an end-goal and a dream concoction. It’s an art and a science, a measurable entity and a mystical experience. It’s also full of controversy, misunderstandings, missteps and flawed logic.

To uncover some of what makes espresso such a complicated creation, we invited some of those in the know to give us their two shots worth on the magic and miracle that is espresso, and to guide us through the murky place in search of that most holiest of grails: the perfect shot.

Before we begin our journey, please welcome your guides, three espresso enthusiasts who speak the language fluently and who can expound upon the history, present and future of the espresso landscape. Don’t expect them to agree on everything, of course—after all, this is dangerous territory!

Kyle Glanville, director of espresso R&D for Intelligentsia Coffee.

Tim O’Connor, president of Pacific Espresso.

Carlo Odello, member of the Board and Trainer of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters and communications manager of the Italian Espresso National Institute.

Welcome! First, let’s talk a little about espresso’s backstory. It’s a drink with a long and varied history. What can you tell us about its history in terms of specialty coffee? Has espresso always been considered part of specialty coffee, or was it a later addition to that “label”?

Kyle: Espresso predates the notion of specialty coffee by about seventy years, but their ideological paths converged in the 80s. This is when self-identified specialty coffee roasters began to adopt espresso as a legitimate preparation method. So, no it hasn’t always been considered a part of specialty coffee. In fact, for most of espresso’s history, it has functioned more as a colloquial language of coffee preparation, not unlike Turkish style coffee in the Middle East or Brazil’s Caffe Zinho. Frankly, espresso’s meteoric rise in Italy can be tied to rising coffee prices and poor economic conditions there. Espresso turned otherwise undrinkable coffee into a strong, sweet liqueur.

A strong argument can be made that the rise of the prominence of specialty coffee and the prominence of espresso can both be attributed to Howard Schultz’s efforts to globalize the phenomenon. Although plenty of other entrepreneurs were running successful espresso bars in the US, he gave the movement legs when he bought and expanded Starbucks towards the end of the ’80’s.

Tim: I would have to say that espresso has always been a part of specialty coffee, since the roots of espresso were to produce a coffee beverage fresh for each customer. While the technical definition of specialty coffee may be limited to the bean, I do not think you can rely on that definition in the market place since the finest “specialty” coffee beans can be compromised in the roasting, storage or brewing practices before they are consumed. Specialty coffee in the market place must continue the complex chain of development from the blossom to beverage with attention to detail and desired result without interruption or lapse of attention.
The concept of an espresso brewed for the customer has not changed, but the quality and complexity of the beverage has evolved. It continues to evolve and is a different beverage in different regions and this is one type of “espresso style.” Espresso in southern Italy is traditionally roasted darker and brewed shorter, while espresso in Scandinavia is brewed very long and can be much lighter roasted. While espresso was present for a long time in America, it began to flourish in the ’70s and ’80s. In these early days, American roasters were experimenting and learning the qualities of the beverage. Often the results were poor, producing a thin, bitter beverage that was masked with milk. In the 1980s, I would give the credit to Illy for lifting the quality of American espresso, by educating the public to the possibility of great espresso. Now that we have a vision of what is possible we can continue to explore the possibilities.

Carlo: If you think about the geography of espresso, you can easily find two areas. In traditional consuming countries like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, you cannot say espresso is specialty. Espresso is a synonym of coffee, made of a blend and served in a very traditional way. You will not hear anybody asking for an “espresso” in an Italian coffee shop, everybody just says “caffè.”

Regarding the history of espresso as a specialty coffee, I would say it is quite recent, I think you could date it back to the ’90s. Espresso was reinvented and became the favorite way to extract great high-quality single origins. So we could say espresso was born in Italy at the end of the Second World War, when the first real espresso machine was born, and evolved into a new shape.

What do you think makes espresso specialty? Is all espresso specialty? Is it the beans, the roast, the preparation, all of the above? What distinguishes specialty espresso from “regular” espresso?

Kyle: Specialty coffee can vaguely be described as clean and relatively defect-free coffee. If we are to apply this definition to espresso, I guess you could define a specialty espresso as being constructed of clean green coffees, roasted without error (baking, carbonizing or underdeveloping) and prepared without channeling or over/under-extraction. Of course there are other factors but those are the most essential.

Sadly, even by that very loose protocol, I fear the vast majority of what is served as espresso in the world would not fit the criteria. Those are three major steps (harvest/processing, roasting and preparation) that must be executed by very skilled craftspeople intimately familiar with the variables they must control. If even one of these important pieces of the puzzle is not operating top notch, the whole chain unravels.
That said, the real creation of specialty coffee lies in the husbandry and harvesting of the coffee. Every step that follows should function as an effort to preserve the innate quality of the raw ingredients.

Tim: Specialty espresso must encompass the entire chain of coffee production. Not all coffee beans are suitable for the harsh and demanding extraction of an espresso. Not all espresso is specialty. My definition of specialty is that it is the highest quality. To obtain that level of quality, specialty espresso must encompass a number of characteristics. Not all specialty coffee beans can meet those demands. Some specialty coffee will be excellent in a number of brewing methods, but may fail when brewed as espresso.

Regardless of the many flavors specialty espresso may have, it must also achieve these basic characteristics: body, complexity, finish, longevity, and balance. Body or mouth feel may be soft or big, velvety or creamy, but it must be more than just there or thin. Complexity means the initial flavors continue to evolve and change as the liquid crosses your palate. It is all the nuance and regional characteristics that are perceptible to the individual. Finish is the aftertaste and it must be pleasant, mid-palate and something that you enjoy lingering in your mouth. Longevity is one of the more difficult as many espressos can meet the above criteria for a few moments after brewing, but then quickly become sour and undesirable. Balance, I feel, is often forgotten lately. In the end, the espresso or espresso beverage must be satisfying to consume. While a particular espresso or style of brewing that espresso may push certain characteristics to the forefront of your experience, poor balance results in a intellectual exercise of perhaps a citrus or flower note, but not a satisfying beverage.

Carlo: I am Italian and so, of course, a specialist about the traditional espresso, but I have been lucky enough to travel around the world to hold Italian Espresso Tasting classes on behalf of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters. So I had the possibility to get in touch to different cultures of espresso, which in the end are not so different. Specialty or traditional, the quality of an espresso depends first of all on the quality of the green coffee. You cannot get a great espresso out of a poor raw material. Of course the roasting is a critical point, as well as the preparation. At both these steps you can make mistakes and damage your coffee or get the best out of it. The International Institute of Coffee Tasters has been studying for years the roasting process from a sensory point of view (and also from the chemical point of view, as you can see in our book, Espresso Italiano Roasting). And in the end you have to design the blend; that is fundamental. As Italians we cannot conceive espresso without blending, that is why we do not actually have a market for single origins. Blending means, first of all, creating a composition, building up an orchestra and reaching richness and complexity in the aromatic profile. Last but not least, the barista. I think 50 percent of the success of an espresso depends on the barista.

What are the different styles of espresso? Is there even any agreement in the industry as to an answer to this question? 

Kyle: Different styles and approaches to espresso blending and preparation are proliferating rapidly. Often times colloquial generalizations are suitable, such as a Northern Italian (lighter roast, all Arabica) style or even Scandinavian (light roast, higher acidity profile) style. As you peel away the layers, the complexities of different approaches become much more apparent.

Among the most progressive roasters, a seasonal approach featuring freshly harvested coffees with more intense acidity is emerging. I suspect this would be downright offensive to a daily espresso drinker in Rome, though. Old-school roasters in the U.S. tend to prefer a very dark, chocolaty espresso as well, but rarely incorporate the Robusta so often found in European espresso blends.

Tim: I do not think styles have been adequately defined yet. There has always been long and short, light and dark. The industry is trying to push the possibilities. Some do it well and some not as well. We see a number of experiments online, in trade publications and between different coffee shops and baristas or barmen. Style is where the industry is struggling in my opinion. Mostly because many shops and baristas focus on narrow characteristics and have not explored the concept of balance adequately.

Carlo: From 1996 to 1998, the Italian Espresso National Institute has been studying this point. Through extensive research on consumers and on coffee technicians, the Italian Espresso National Institute was able to get a scientific profile of what can be conceived as an high quality espresso. Through thousands of tastings and a statistical processing of the data, the Institute got the profile. You will see that we always have a lower and an higher limit, that is due to the regional differences in Italy. You have different espresso styles according to the regions. This profile is based on sensory analysis, is quite strong and it is tested on a regular basis. Nowadays, 43 companies are members of the Institute which certifies coffee machines, coffee blends and, of course, baristas.

What are the current espresso trends out there? How is espresso evolving and where do you see it going in the future?

Kyle: As I mentioned earlier, seasonality is beginning to hold greater value than consistency for many. I think we’re beginning to see a lot of folks branch out from the same old espresso styles, which basically varied from milk chocolate to dark chocolate. Now, you can experience explosive fruit flavors, berry, vanilla, molasses, etc, etc. Many roasters offer seasonal blends and are 100-percent transparent about what they contain. The notion of the “secret recipe” is starting to fade away and talented green coffee buyers are focusing their efforts on coffees they feel are suitable for espresso from East Africa and Central America. Its like a little renaissance of sorts; espresso blending was really focused on making things taste the same for, like, a hundred years.

Tim: Current espresso trends focus on the choice of coffees, roast development, brewing parameters, espresso machine features and specifications, and presentation. Coffee choice is and always will be a big element in espresso. Much of the attention recently is to small lots of single origin and single farm espresso. This is a trend that I think has potential, but also great risk in that espresso can be very difficult and often needs complementary coffees from other regions to meet all the expectations of an educated consumer. Roast development seems to be trending lighter or lower roast temperatures. However, my feeling is often the roaster has underdeveloped the potential of the coffee. While this might highlight some characteristics, again it can adversely affect balance, body and complexity. Brewing parameters are a huge debate and it is really a matter of what parameters best develop all the criteria of Specialty espresso. My method is to always start with a standard when learning a new blend or offering. Traditionally that would be 14 to 16 grams of espresso, a double coffee filter and an extraction appropriate to the roast color, and nine bars of pressure. Shorter extractions for light roasted coffee and longer for dark roasted coffee. Brewing temperature must be between 198 and 202F. Once you know what the coffee displays under your standard, you can change one parameter at a time to learn the possibilities of the coffee. Then you must make the decisions to achieve the body, complexity, finish, longevity and balance that makes a Specialty espresso satisfying, and memorable.

Carlo: Espresso has positioned itself as a trendy beverage. I would say espresso-based beverages are now very popular outside of Italy, while in Italy we still have a strong espresso consumption (90 percent is espresso, 10 percent cappuccino or latte). You actually have different national traditions. That means we are going towards wider offerings, so that everybody will find what he or she is looking for. Consumers themselves are becoming more and more careful about coffee, but need more information. It is up to the coffee industry to provide people with more information and to be fair. So the keys to success will be fair information and high quality products.

What do think are the biggest espresso obstacles or misconceptions at the moment? What are the hurtles to better/great espresso or a better understanding of espresso, and how do we tackle them? 

Carlo: Again, I think we need more fair information. We need to tell people the truth about the real quality of the espresso they are drinking. I really appreciate coffee roasters which indicate the composition of the blend on the bag. Telling people “This coffee is 100-percent Arabica” is not that informative: which Arabica? And we need to give people the tools to judge their own espresso, as they do with wine. We do not need any gurus, we need technicians explaining to the men and the women in the street how to evaluate coffee in a consistent and reliable way.

Kyle: The major hurdle is in changing consumer habits by way of delivering great quality. At least in the US, espresso is considered an ingredient for what is usually a much more complex and elaborate beverage. A little caffeine spike in a vanilla-steamed milk.

This mentality does nothing to advance quality, as it allows operators to be lazy about quality control. Who cares about the quality of your shot when it’s drenched in flavors and milk? Why would you want to serve espresso that is spectacular on its own when the milky drinks are so much more expensive? By cultivating a palate for straight espresso, or at least small milk drinks, specialty operators can set themselves apart from the competition and expose their customers to a greater variety of different coffees.

This also is much more engaging for the customer. If you are able to offer a few different espressos, you open up avenues to have a real dialogue with your customers about what makes great coffee.

I can’t emphasize enough how extraordinary the collaboration must be in order to achieve a great espresso. From the farmer, millers, exporters, importers, roasters and baristas, a massive effort must be undertaken in order to finally deliver a great espresso experience. If you are able to experience tasty espresso on a regular basis, you are unbelievably lucky.

Espresso: Still just as mysterious, as complicated, and as intriguing as it’s ever been. But, while it’s a landscape fraught with perils and sinkholes, it’s also an amazing place to journey, especially when in the hands of good guides. And especially when the prize at the end is that holiest of grails: a fantastic shot of espresso, made from the best beans, roasted well, and served up by a knowledgeable barista. Salud!