The Emperor Has No Clothes.

Author: Aaron Posted: April 22, 2009

Lately George has become so blindly infatuated with the French Press it seems as if espresso has taken a back seat here at the Clean Hot Dry blog. Time to get things back on track.

Espresso was after all, the darling of coffee many of us fell in love with in the first place. But something has changed. Nobody actually drinks it on it’s own anymore. Maybe they never did. Rarely these days, have I seen it embraced, au naturel, without milk. It doesn’t count to just “taste it” as frequently happens, where someone tries the coffee, checks up on it if you will. Maybe because they’re in a new shop or there is a new blend. That doesn’t count. I’m referring to ordering it based on a hankering. Drinking all of it all down, done. And then maybe having a second espresso because the first was so good.

Even amongst the fringe elements of the coffee community, the bleeding edge of passionate, forward thinking coffee professionals what I see is espresso + milk. Most frequently taken as a macchiato. Sometimes as a cappuccino and of course, just recently, as the fast spreading Gibraltar (maximum style points). Each and every one of these is enjoyable, flavourful and satisfying-no doubt. But why not get an espresso instead?

You hear all sorts of descriptors about espresso don’t you? Endless superlatives that flirt with the romantic in all of us but rarely in that mix do you catch mention of the word “balanced.” When the acidity and body play paddy cake together on your tongue. Flavours remain subtle. There is simply synchronicity between the parts. It all just works and you finish it, satisfied. Nothing more, nothing less.

For me this means a single shot. There is a place for doubles but I just ordered an espresso, a small drink. A drink delivering flavour, intensity and satisfaction.

Along with the double shot, naked portafilters and many contemporary techniques also act as a subterfuge to this destination of “balanced.” Starting with lots of coffee, finishing with an abbreviated pour and showcasing that sexy viscosity can make for great photos but I would argue, tends to deliver the furthest thing from balanced in the cup. Up front there is an attacking intensity followed by abrasive acidity that trends caustic. The middle might have some texture that carries you to the finale but that last bit of coffee at the bottom, sour to the extreme. And I thought we were friends. For all the knowledge, passion and great coffee being pulled, I experience variations on this taste profile frequently. Often in the shops and at the hands of people considered the “ne plus ultra” of their town. Is this why everyone is drinking macchiatos?

Taste your espresso again for the first time. Ask yourself if what you are serving is balanced? Is it approachable? Do you need 24 hours before you could possibly drink a second one? Are there beads of sweat on your forehead after the first?

Maybe you are choosing to serve espresso that is the equivalent of the 90-minute, continuously hopped IPA, but if you’re not, may I humbly suggest…Oh look at that, we’ve run out of time.

Join us again next week for “Three easy steps to becoming an Espresso Pariah.”

See you then.

About The Author:  Aaron De Lazzer is the Director of Coffee for the Ethical Bean Coffee Company in Vancouver.

16 Responses to “The Emperor Has No Clothes.

  1. Robert Csar says:

    Excellent inaugural post Aaron.

    I also agree that naked espresso has taken a back-seat in our community. As well as lethargic viscosity and obsesity in the body seemed to be preferred over fine acidity and balance.

    And, I do miss the olden days when people called it by its full name ‘espresso’ and not that hideous post-modern brevity ‘spro’. For example, my name is Robert and I would think nobody would ever dare call me ‘Bob’ – based on the fact that my name does not start with a ‘B’… just like there is no ‘spro’ in ‘espresso’.

    Cheers.

  2. April 23 — SOR « daily YHZ espresso says:

    [...] tempted to get another espresso (not spro) I get the Ethiopia WondoWorks French press.  This has nothing to do with Aaron’s piece on cleanhotdry.com about espresso taking a back seat…AS often I have had an espresso (not spro Robert) that was so good I decided to order another [...]

  3. Edwin Martinez says:

    It is soo true, everyone tastes espresso but drinks macchiatos. I wonder if it is not just that it is hard to find a balanced, clean, refreshing, delicious shot but that we all have a sweet tooth that appreciates even the slightest amount of sweetness from the little milk in a macchiato. Aaron you are a fantastic writer. – Edwin

  4. Anthony says:

    It’s personal preference, no? I’ll take consistently excellent or good drip over consistently average espresso any day of the week.

    I’ve yet to meet a barista who can effectively manage enough variables to pull consistently excellent or good shots.

  5. Spencer says:

    While I may at times share Anthony’s sentiment, I must raise a voice in defense of the barista. Are all the same? Most certainly not. Do some fail to recognize the subtle, elusive, mysterious, at times frustrating factors that go into a good, (or dare I say excellent?) espresso? Yes. With espresso, like many other things in life, the measure you reap is a consequence of what you have sown.

    Thanks be to God that our industry has been blessed with so many passionate baristas who have sought to separate themselves from the mundane underbelly of the espresso experience en mass in hopes of achieving something worth talking about.

    But what exactly is worth talking about. As Aaron has eluded to in his most wonderful prose, we have fallen into the trap of thinking that bigger is better. But Spencer, you say, to drink espresso is to react against bigger is better. We’re not drinking 20 oz lattes anymore. We’ve found the true coffee experience, espresso ristretto. But in that well-intentioned pursuit of the “pure stuff” we’ve confused bigger taste, louder flavors, more intense anything and everything, to be better. Bigger flavor, not size, is our new obsession.

    I think that these hyper intense, 1 oz. DOUBLE SHOT! experiences have all too often left us cringing. We walk away scratching our heads thinking what went wrong…well it must be the barista.

    I think to truly get back to an enjoyment of espresso. To love it. Want it. And trust that we won’t be wammed, bammed, and left to suffer through some kamikaze showcase of “attacking intensity followed by abrasive acidity” we need to settle down, take a step back, and look at some of our underlying assumptions of what espresso was, is, and could be.

    What does this mean? Maybe it means sacrificing intensity. Perhaps accepting that a more balanced shot will not have as much syrupy, mouth clinging body as we have become accustomed to think that we want. I would venture to say that longer shots, less coffee, more subtle flavor notes with the aim of a softer, more balanced, and enjoyable cup might be a start.

    Consistency is not beyond our grasp…

    Love you guys.

    Cheers

  6. Anth says:

    What I should have made clearer Spencer is that I meant there is no barista capable of controlling the variables beyond his control (ie roasting, blending, packaging defects, etc) to keep shots consistent hour to hour, much less day to day. Definitely didn’t mean to imply we should stop trying to manage what we do have control over :)

  7. Jeff Linton says:

    I love the photo – mild flecking and gorgeous adobe brick-red crema. How many espresso’s did you have to pull in order to get the money shot?

  8. Tyler says:

    “there is no barista capable of controlling the variables beyond his [or her] control”

    I can’t control the weather… but I know when to bring an umbrella. A tool to make best of the uncontrollable.

    One always has the choice to seek perfection in a set of given variables. The day people stop seeking innovation and perfection is the day mediocrity is accepted, or the elusive goal of perfection has finally been reached. With coffee (and just about everything else) there is always a new perfection to seek. Its all those uncontrollable elements that make espresso enjoyable.

  9. Spencer says:

    Anthony,

    I’m glad you haven’t given up the good fight.
    But I must point back to your comment:
    “I’ve yet to meet a barista who can effectively manage enough variables to pull consistently excellent or good shots.”
    I personally think that we, as baristas collectively, are too obsessed with perfection that we become sweaty-browed, apologetic, and in many instances, too whiny about such supposed variables. Are you seriously trying to tell me that your roasting, blending, and packaging defects are so severe that you can’t expect consistent results out of your product? I’m very confident that there are many exceptional roasteries whose roasting, blending, and packaging can deliver enough consistency to allow you to do your job as a barista, your current supplier included.

    Personally, I hate walking into a cafe and watching the barista throw a hissy fit over how old the coffee is, how fresh it is, the grinders too hot, the machine is too cold, they haven’t tasted the coffee in the last fifteen minutes so they don’t know if it’s good or not, their underwear shrunk in the washing machine etc…

    Let’s quit whining and confidently serve up an espresso that we’re proud of. We don’t need to apologize, even if some factors are beyond our control. Part of being a good barista is just making it work. Bringing your umbrella, so to speak. Anthony, I can confidently say that you are capable of pulling excellent, consistent, espresso day in day out, from hour to hour, day to day. I can list over thirty baristas in this city alone that are also capable of the same feat.

    Why don’t we stop being so hard on ourselves and start enjoying espresso again?

    With Love,

    Spencer

  10. Mike Yung says:

    Hm… Got into this a bit late I see.

    My 0.02 $CAD, and I can really only speak for myself.

    Aaron:

    I think what you’ve said is possibly quite true, that many baristas avoid ordering espresso on a regular basis. Back when I worked a regular bar shift, the last thing that I wanted to do after my 8 hours of tasting shots was to sit down at another cafe and drink an espresso. That was a time for a good cup of brewed coffee, whatever was new or fresh or a favourite. Rarely have I really ordered milk drinks since working in coffee, but you’re right, macchiato’s and their variations are becoming more and more popular. I think, from a barista’s point of view, they’re fun to make because 1. you need to start with a great shot of espresso because any flaws will come through, and 2. you get to show off your pouring skills in a small cup. That’s certainly why I loved making them. Anyways, I digress.

    Now that I’m not behind the bar on a regular basis, I find myself searching out the best, and not-so-best, espresso’s wherever I go. Not macchiato’s, not capps, not americano’s. If I’m going to use up my limited caffine quota at a shop, I’m ordering espresso. Since I make brewed coffee at home every day, now I take long detours to find interesting shots. I say “interesting” because they’re not always great, as you say. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. :)

    I think we should have a coffee, I mean an espresso, together sometime soon!

    Anthony:

    “I meant there is no barista capable of controlling the variables beyond his control (ie roasting, blending, packaging defects, etc) to keep shots consistent hour to hour, much less day to day.”

    Does good, or great, or excellent espresso really have be consistent? I know you understand all the variables involved, so why should we strive to control them all? And if it’s in the nature of roasted coffee to behave differently day to day, or hour to hour, or even barista to barista, should we not embrace it? As much as I love the search for the “god shot” as many have talked about, I’d much rather spend my time sharing with someone what I do find in the cup, even if it wasn’t as floral as yesterday’s shot, or as complex as last week’s roast, rather than dumping it, re-pulling it, and becoming frustrated with the result. I find that baristas who have a better understanding of the extraction process can use this as a tool to learn, teach, or reflect on the differences of each espresso, rather than to look at it as something of a disappointment.

    (But for competition, I think it’s a completely different game!)

    Spencer:

    I agree. Great baristas would never walk into another cafe and complain about the coffee. They just understand that there are so many things that might happen with a single shot. Many times have I had the opportunity to make coffee for other coffee professionals, and the same sinking feeling comes every single time. You want them to love your espresso. You want them to have the best possible representation of your coffee and your skills in espresso preparation. It doesn’t always happen, but you learn to trust that they have been where you are now, and will understand what happens with each shot and embrace what you serve them…

    Happy drinking and sharing, everyone!

  11. ya.wei says:

    ” Great baristas would never walk into another cafe and complain about the coffee. They just understand that there are so many things that might happen with a single shot. ”

    They understand; they swirl the cup; they smell the cup; they take another sip; they contemplate; they grin/smile; they walk up to the bar; they put down the finished cup and they thank you for that interesting shot.

  12. Tyler Brown says:

    @ Mike

    So true about wanting to serve a delicious drink to someone you know who will appreciate it. I personally find that the most rewarding experience is not when they enjoy the drink (hopefully they do) but when they notice and appreciate the effort a barista has put into the drink.

    They are the shots I most enjoy serving and the ones I most enjoy receiving.

    ” As much as I love the search for the “god shot” as many have talked about, I’d much rather spend my time sharing with someone what I do find in the cup, even if it wasn’t as floral as yesterday’s shot, or as complex as last week’s roast, rather than dumping it, re-pulling it, and becoming frustrated with the result.”

    Bang on. Hardly do i remember the exact specifics of a really good shot. But, I always remember the people it was shared with.

  13. Kyle Wheeler says:

    It seems to me that all these comments border on the philosophical. What other drink inspires such contemplation as espresso?
    On another note, I appreciate that post. Last weekend I visited Victoria, and at 2% Jazz it seems they have the same sympathies, as they now serve free shots on Saturdays and Sundays. The first shot was so good that I had another, and not just because it was free, it was made with love and appreciation. Sometimes it feels like you can taste the passion that goes into a shot.

  14. Les K says:

    Titanium burrs, pump pressure profiling, variable intra-shot temperature brewing, euro-curves, C-flats, auger-fed, passive preinfusion, digital timers, magnetic burrs, screwless screens, pre-heated, re-engineered water, bean probes, agtrons, extraction refractometers.

    … despite new innovations in grinder design that allow mere mortals to dose consistently, pid’d espresso machines that have a temperature stability curve flatter than a pancake..

    …and even though we try to create homogeneity by resorting to single origins……each night before I sleep, I calm my mind by repeating the following mantra..

    … espresso is inherently rAndoM..
    …espresso is inherently RaNdOm…..

  15. breezy says:

    I used to not understand espresso. It was bitter. dark. black. scary.
    But as I learned more, I started to appreciate it. I think it was because the coffee was bad and dark and bitter. And I was unsophisticated. And espresso was designed for milk. So I used to add milk, and that made it more “safe.”

    Then the coffee got better. The espressos got better. The equipment. The baristas. And my palate. They all got better. And they’re still getting better. But tasting espresso is my preference now. Its my default. Its where all the most interesting and most complex parts of a coffee can unfold. (Unless you also can make a nice syphon in your cafe, then we can talk some more.) And to the points made above, intense seems to be “in” right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Soft and delicate are also sexy.

    As a WBC judge, I get served espressos in some funny ways. Sometimes it is pulled several times to get it just right.
    Sometimes the barista is waiting for a facial expression (and my instinct is not to react with my face).
    Sometimes they have a string of questions about it: “how was it? was it good? should I change anything? do you want me to pull it again? how would you score that?”
    Or the worst, it is served with a string of excuses. (like some that Spencer noted)

    When I’m outside of a competition, I’m not really evaluating each and every shot using a 6 point scale. That would just be annoying! I’m just looking to find something different, something interesting, or something beautiful in every shot. Even a bad shot can be a learning experience.

    But I can tell when I walk into a place if I even want to try the espresso. Is the equipment clean?
    Is the coffee in the hopper not exuding oils?
    Will the barista be able to tell me anything about the coffee?
    If “no” is the answer to 1 or more of those, then I probably am not even interested.

    But tasting espresso, and learning to enjoy it, is still an acquired taste and experience. It still intimidates people, and in many cases, they have never been in a situation where they could have a truly “nice” shot, so the whole idea turns them off. But I’ve seen many people converted! And thank the coffee gods for the new trend in s.o. espresso because that can really help get newbies hooked (and it makes competitions so much more interesting).

    At Crema.us, we serve dozens of single espressos every day – and the customer can choose from at least two options, so I know consumers are into it. Its not just for the insiders. (And at Barista, I can go and choose from a lineup of at least 3 espressos and the options are different every few days.)

    So what’s my point? Just that Aaron is great. And that espresso is and will continue to experience a resurgence, as long as the coffees, roasters and baristas continue to get-the-drill.

    Does McCafe offer straight espressos?

  16. Jimmy says:

    Oh man… really? I had no idea so few baristas drink straight espresso. Or traditional doubles aka normale aka 50% extraction ratio spro. Is this maybe a west coast thing? Ristretto has definitely run its course with me; my last west coast trip, 80% of the espresso was of the 1 oz double variety.

    Actually, I’m a bit surprised espresso isn’t the drink of choice among baristas. How many of us actually have time to actually drink and enjoy a macchiato when we’re on bar? An espresso can be had in 30 or so seconds and actually ENJOYED… and then you get to savour the marvelous aftertaste for hours after.

    And for some reason, these days I enjoy my trad doubles in doppio cups (4oz macchi cups), just to let it breathe and mix a little more than the regulation espresso cup. A strange comparison might be made that when you pull a ristretto into a regular cup, it fills the cup the same ratio a double fills a doppio cup.

    Anyway, at Museo you can have your spro to go, or on ice, because espresso is the highest form of caffeinated love… it’s what we drink the most and what we want to share with the world. Yeah, in paper or on rocks might be super lame, but if you don’t think espresso + milk is an adulteration of espresso, I think you have deeper questions you need to ask yourself . Once upon a time I used to cringe at such things but I’d rather espresso-fy the world.

    Instead I’ll leave you with another question – how many of you taste on a regular basis your best selling drink – the 10 or 12oz latte?

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