Getting schooled on espresso
Did you know that the coffee you buy can change hands up to 20 times before it gets from the jungles to your cup? And that’s assuming you’re buying coffee from a specialty coffeehouse who buys quality coffee from a roaster who takes pride in their production. With large-scale, industrial coffee suppliers, it’s hard to count the number of middle men. This matters because every move of the bean matters to the ultimate taste and experience you get. Local coffee roaster Cuvee Coffee takes extra steps to ensure that the upfront quality represented in the beans they select translates to your cup.
One of the most critical steps in a quality cup of coffee is the very last one: the pour. Cuvee Owner Mike McKim is dedicated to finding the very best beans, but says the skills of the barista matter. “We take care of everything up to the time it leaves our place,” says McKim, “but it’s really important that the people we sell it to know exactly how to serve that coffee or it’s all for nothing.”
Which is why in addition to selling small batch, specialty roasted coffee to-order, McKim also offers one, two, and three-day barista training courses at the Cuvee roasting facility. What better way to ensure final quality of his product than by personally teaching his clients how to serve it? Personally, I was intrigued. Sure, I’ll drive an extra 15 minutes to Caffe Medici to get a cup of Cuvee coffee , but I always assumed it was just the product that made the difference? How much really goes into making the perfect cup of coffee? Isn’t it just about grinding some beans, inserting them into a machine and pushing a button?
After a 30 minutes trek west towards Marble Falls, I arrived at the Cuvee roasting facility in Spicewood at 10 am where I was joined by two baristas from the new Monkey’s Nest on Burnet Road and our cheerful instructor, Lorenzo Perkins. (Cheerful or fully caffeinated, it was hard to tell.) Perkins was a former barista at Caffe Medici and is the first place winner in the South Central Regional Brewers Cup Competition (kind of a big deal). He began the class by promising to show us how to make a good espresso, but could not promise that he could make us good baristas.
“Making good espresso is a craft; a melding of art and science,” says Perkins. “ I cannot make you an artist, but I will show you the technique and method for making great coffee and how to identify features of what makes good espresso.”
According to Perkins, good espresso requires the following:
- Good raw materials (beans),
- A good grinder,
- A good espresso machine,
- A good barista; one that understands how all of those things work together.
“Espresso will only be as good as the weakest of all of these things,” says Perkins. (Note: It was pretty clear I was going to be the weakest link of this equation.)
It’s probably best to start at the beginning. Forget what you know about coffee in general. Forget the oversized vacuum-sealed can from the factory, or the three randomly named sizes at the omni-present coffee chain. (Why is a “tall” the shortest offering and what the hell does the word “venti” have anything to do with a size anyway?)
Let’s start with what espresso is NOT.
- Espresso is NOT ex-presso.
- Espresso is NOT a different bean than coffee; they are one in the same. In fact, you can technically make espresso from ANY coffee bean. (Note: This means, when you see “chocolate-covered espresso beans,” they are not any different than “chocolate-covered coffee beans.” It’s just a marketing gimmick.)
- Espresso is not about roast degree. In other words, you may buy coffee that is labeled as “Espresso Roast” or simple “Espresso” but it all you are buying is coffee that likely makes a good espresso based on how the roaster has produced it. But there is no official “espresso roast” button that is designated for making espresso-only coffee. A good espresso can be made from any number of roast variations so long as you have the right elements to make it. (More on that later.)
- Espresso is not a flavoring as in espresso ice cream, espresso-flavored chocolate, etc.
- A brewing process that uses pressure to extracts flavor from ground coffee and dissolves them into hot water to make a highly concentrated coffee beverage.
- It can be made with any coffee bean at any roast (medium, dark, French, Italian, etc.), but certain roasters blend or roast coffee specifically to make a balanced style of coffee that reveals the best flavor during the espresso process.
- Espresso can only be made with an espresso machine. (Those old-fashioned metal pots that sit on the stove-top are not espresso makers. They are called mocha pots and make a very strong cup of coffee, but not espresso.)
- Espresso is made based on 6 variables: brewing temperature, extraction pressure, dose weight of ground coffee, tamping pressure, grind particle size, and brew time.
- Espresso is used to make other coffee drinks including café latte, macchiato, café Americano.
- Espresso is judged on a number of things, one of which is the color of the “crema” or natural foam created from the pressurized brewing process when making an espresso. It gives the espresso a creamy, buttery, round feel. The darker the crema, the better the coffee.
- All coffee beans (which may end up as espresso) should follow the rule of 15: It should be sold within 15 months of harvesting, it should be ground within 15 days of it reaching a shop; it should be served within 15 minutes of being ground.
When you taste espresso you should look for a snappy, vibrant acidity; a fragrant aroma that doesn’t smell burned; a round, buttery body (think whole milk versus skim milk.); and a long, full finish that doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
A good barista should deliver this to a customer every time he pulls a shot of espresso. To do this takes study and dedication. Each time a barista starts a shift, they should dial in to the coffee, grind, and water pressure, tasting at least three extractions (shots) until things are perfect. That kind of consistency takes finesse, but it’s something that all specialty coffee shops and roasters build their reputation on.
“I want to make you awesome coffee,” says Perkins. “I want honest feedback on the coffee you drink from me. Specialty coffee people are all in this together and we have to keep each other accountable for delivering the best espresso we can make.”
I could go into the specifics of timing, flow rates, crema, color, taste, and how they all integrally work together, but having just experienced this in depth intro course in a mere 5 hours, and assuming you probably don’t have a professional grinder, or a $7,000+ La Marzocco espresso machine lying around your house, my best suggestion is to go where the coffee geeks reign supreme and deliver the crema of the crop directly to you.
A few choice local locations:
- Caffe Medici (all three locations)