The Espresso of the States, and the State of Espresso

I’d love to be able to tell you that the reason this post was delayed was because the Why Not? editors have been battling through our difference of opinion, possibly having an arm-wrestling tournament to see who would take on the challenge, or even that we were pulling straws in the back offices; but nay, we’re just busy with our full-time jobs.

In mid-August, Why Not? went out to the 10th Annual Roaster’s Guild Retreat in Skamania, WA. The event was quite different than one that Why Not? would typically be involved in only because we primarily focus on being baristas before anything else. But nevertheless, there’s something to be said about pooling knowledge from as many inspirations as possible; including the Italian coffee culture. While at the lodge, I had the privilege of working bar with Stephen Vick, who most recently worked as the East African Field Agent for Intelligentsia, and had just flown in from Rwanda. Being one of the only baristas in a room full of people far more qualified to speak than myself, I was able to spend an entire weekend only absorbing information. One of the persons I was able to chat with for some time was Dr. John from Josuma Coffee. I served his blend of mostly Malabar Gold, a coffee known for it’s creme and often used in more “traditional” Italian blends. I chatted with him about the American palate and how most Italians couldn’t stand how the newer era of baristas were serving crap espresso that retained no sense of tradition in it. His coffee was 9 days out and had crema like it was roasted the day before. Even though I could relate to the taste, I still had to rely on Dr. John to help guide me to how he wanted me to serve his coffee. It was difficult for me to connect with the coffee for various reasons, and not having a back story just made it that much more difficult. Another coffee I was able to serve was a single origin blend from Topeca Coffee and Cafe de El Salvador that was made entirely of beans from the same farm, but with three different processing methods (if I remember that all correctly.) With the Topeca blend, I was able to meet the producer, importer, roaster, and work with the coffee personally all in one day. These are two very different experiences with a coffee. I personally prefer the one that I was able to connect with more, something that I feel creates a better coffee experience for all involved.

When I first started becoming interested in coffee, my idea of a dream come true was Italy; Vienna, Milan, Venice,… the whole nine yards. And now? Huehuetenango, Addis Ababa, Kigoma, Chiapas, etc. So what’s changed? I understand coffee differently, obviously. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to visit Italy and absorb as much of the “tradition” of a coffee bar as possible but it has nothing to do with where I aspire to be as a barista and it has no direct effect on where I want to take coffee for my customers or for my future business. I appreciate the Italian view that Americans, “don’t know (traditional) espresso,” but in all honesty I don’t care. The difference in this view is that baristas in the States, (primarily quality focused cafes) don’t act like they know everything. (well, at least we’re not making statements about other cultures.) We want to let coffee speak for itself, and provide transparency in the trade. That’s what the “wave” model is more or less about, knowing that there isn’t a hard and fast rule for anything, especially coffee. Every coffee has it’s own spirit, if you will; and if you won’t, it has it’s own quality potential. One new approach to showcasing a producer/coffee is by serving a single origin espresso, an espresso from a single coffee-producing farm or co-op that is roasted to best be extracted with pressure to be served as an espresso. There are two ways to look at the “recipe” for an espresso. You can view it as a beverage requiring specific profile composition or as a preparation method. The taste profile composition is that which follows a more traditional format, like say an approach the Italians would have. A great company that blurs the lines with this, Vivace. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had shots that are less than 1 oz at Vivace. Even though they taste amazing, most of the time, I’m pretty sure the baristas are not using single baskets. Now, I’m no one to critique Vivace, or any company or approach for that matter; but Vivace serves amazing espresso that represents both the tradition and what was formerly the forefront of espresso and what still is the best of Seattle coffee culture. Most baristas that understand, appreciate, and showcase coffee understand that the cutting edge of coffee standards, are that there are in fact NO standards and everything must be questioned. Everything that best represents coffee can’t possibly be crammed into a training manual and definitely not mass produced over any extended period of time; including espresso.

The current state of espresso? You’ll have to ask your barista.

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6 Comments on “The Espresso of the States, and the State of Espresso”

  1. 10/10/2010 at 5:42 pm #

    So how did the shots of Dr. Josuma’s *taste*? To your palate? After having tasted two different – possibly even wildly divergent – types of espresso, what is your take on the difference in flavor, in the “tradition” as it is expressed through the coffee? Do you think the U.S. espresso aficionado would gag upon tasting a traditional Italian-style shot and vice-versa? From this post, I’m not sure where you stand.

    Even though am a fan of aesthetics in coffee, I’m a little suspect of espresso blends that are going for aesthetics in such a big way. This seems to be, from what I hear, what the crema controversy is all about: how it looks over how it tastes.

    • 10/10/2010 at 6:54 pm #

      I think that my taste preference is highly subjective. My point is only that we have different cultures and different approaches, there’s no reason to try and call one better than another.

      I personally don’t understand why people feel the need to talk about, “the state of espresso.” Which is one of the reasons I decided to write the part of “Espresso in the States.”

      • 10/10/2010 at 7:02 pm #

        On the taste: gotcha.

        Also, the “state of espresso”: just the phrase is presumptuous. There are nearly as many “states of espresso” as there are roasters, I would think.

        All the same, I would love to someday taste Italian style and some “American style” espresso side by side. Culture and how it is expressed through a particular food being an intriguing concept.

  2. 10/10/2010 at 5:43 pm #

    (posted simply in order to be notified of new comments by email)

  3. Brandon Weaver
    10/10/2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Great post Alex.

  4. Ryan Soeder
    10/11/2010 at 1:53 pm #

    I really enjoyed this read. I’m new to Seattle and moved here from Kentucky specifically to explore the greater coffee scene. I consider myself fairly well versed in all things espresso but if there’s one thing that I’m being constantly reminded of is that no one truly knows what they’re talking about in a definitive sense when it comes to this art. Time and time again, I’ve watched a barista do their thing, critiqued their technique, noted their mistakes, rolled my eyes (only in my mind, of course) when I receive the shot, only to be blown away by beautiful espresso that, according to what I think I know, should taste like- well, shouldn’t taste very good. Usually when I have an experience like this, I end up having a conversation with a barista who has very good reason for these “mistakes” and is able to consistently pull excellent shots as a result. This is not to say that we should abandon proper, repeatable technique but rather be slower to judge others in a field that is evolving.

    The opposite is often true, as well. Yesterday at Voctrola I bought a shot of their SO Yerg from Greg. He [cheerfully] prepared it in a manner that I originally balked at but have come to expect greatness from. When he handed it to me, he noted that it looked like it pulled a little slow but I couldn’t be happier. I left a little for him to taste and began to wax eloquent about the sparkly sweetness with accompanying savory notes that were unexpected but not in the least offensive. In the middle of my monologue of praise, he interjected, “Yeah… I’m gonna make you another one.” I thought he was out of his mind but I’ve never said “no” to free coffee. He fine-tuned the grind and pulled another shot which he smelled and dumped. Then another. As he smelled it, a slow grin crept across his face. He looked up, still grinning, and handed it over. BAM! Savory was completely gone and replaced by a sparkly dance all over my tongue, kept in check by deep sweetness. “It’s like a lambic, right?” Yes. Yes, it was like a lambic.

    So often I think we get in our own way by trying to figure everything out all the time. Sometimes we just need to take a step back, trust the barista, and let them wow us. Is what’s in my cup delicious? Yes. Can they do it again? Yes. Then what are we complaining about?

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