A note before I begin: Espresso coffee is wonderful in its beauty and craft. With any such art form, there is no one right way to achieve superior espresso and no one flavor to which all espresso should be judged. This all said, to me (and thus is the beauty of such a thing, personal preferences), espresso coffee is meant to be enjoyed in ceramic, it is meant to be drunk quickly and efficiently. Espresso coffee is meant to give you both a lift and a solitary moment of blissful experience before facing the rigors of your day; a perfect moment of perfect enjoyment.
In short, espresso coffee is full of opinions and differences, but all with the same goal; to please the drinker….
Espresso is not a roast profile, nor is it a blend; it is not an origin, nor a varietal; Espresso coffee does not come in biscotti, ice cream, or chocolate-covered form. Espresso is a brewing method created to be prepared as you would drink it, quickly and methodically.
What is an espresso blend then?
The art of espresso blending is the selective blending of coffees that will excel when brewed using a super concentrated extraction method (i.e. as espresso); off flavors will be exacerbated, “roasty” notes will become bitter bites, and a bright acidity will become like a sour candy without the sweet, sugary finish. Conversely, however, when the perfect coffees are selected, it is possible to create a truly blissful experience. The chocolaty notes of a Brazil can create a balanced and milky textured mouthfeel, molasses and caramel flavors from a low acid Guatemala or similar Central American can produce a sweetness likened to sugar cane, and ripe berry flavors of a Dry-processed Ethiopian coffee can give the perfect essence of sweet blueberry or ripe cherry (like those of Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia”).
In all blending, your goal is to create a flavor in the whole that is greater than that of each individual coffee. If you’re taking a beautiful coffee, full of vibrancy and complexity, and blending it; to me, this is wasted potential. Blends, and espresso blends are no exception, create a flavor profile unattainable to a singular bean. Mixing rustic, dry-processed coffees with cleaner, wet processed coffee you create an unique experience, especially in the concentrated world of espresso.
What is an espresso roast?
An espresso roast is the degree of roast that fits a roaster’s prerogative when dealing with espresso blends. Moreso than with any other brewing method, espresso coffees must fit into a certain profile in order to create the most important entity of espresso coffee, crema. Crema is the foam that forms when the pressurized water is forced through the packed coffee puck. As it pulls out soluble solids from the ground coffee the water oozes through as a frothy entity (similar to Guinness oozing through a nitrous tap).
This process is extremely fragile and needs certain factors to come to fruition. Arguably the most important of these factors is freshness. The oils MUST be in good condition (i.e. fresh). Once oxidized, the oils create listless parchment colored (and textured) crema rather than beautiful, thick mahogany-red crema. This comes under the “roast” category because it is within a roasters ability to slow this progression from fresh to oxidized flavor oils.
When dark-roasted coffee glistens, what is it that shines? Yep. It’s those volatile flavor oils. When they rest on the outside of the bean they are as exposed as they would be in pre-ground coffee and your left with BAD crema and thus BAD espresso coffee!
The other reason that a roaster (and also an espresso “roast”) is important is to control the caramelization of the sugars. Too short in the roasting drum for an espresso blend will result in underdeveloped flavors. Often times, the most egregious sin that a roaster can make when dealing with their blends is to under roast Central American components. This is done purposefully in many roasteries (namely in America), to create “unique” flavor profiles. To me, someone who is in love with the traditional Italian style of espresso, this is blasphemous. “Lemony” flavors have no place in espresso coffee. Deep flavors with thick, viscous crema is the goal. Roasting coffee just into the second crack as to allow for caramelization but cut off to prevent burning is CRITICAL to this pursuit.
Here lies my espresso blend, roasted to mahogany brown, just prior to the second crack.