“Hi sweetie, I’m at the grocery store and I can’t find espresso Beans. What should I be looking for again?”
It’s a call I’ve had a few times now, and frankly, I’m growing frustrated. So I wanted to clear it up once and for all and explain the ‘ins and outs’ of espresso – the bean, the roast, the beverage.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to espresso. The first, and most common misconception is that espresso is a particular type of bean. It’s not.
Espresso can be made using virtually any type of coffee bean – Sumatra, Kona, Kenya AA, or a blend like My Espresso, Buzzopolis. Coffee beans can be roasted in a variety of ways to create different tastes.
The misconception that espresso is a type of bean may have grown from a misguided marketing concept developed by coffee chains and grocery stores that eventually ended up confusing people, like my mother.
The second largest misconception is that espresso is a type of roast.
If you see a bag of beans labeled “Espresso Roast” at the store, know that the name “Espresso Roast” only means that the beans are more than likely a dark roast. That doesn’t mean that “Espresso Roast” can only be used for espresso, but, that it’s a traditional favorite for espresso and could be used for anything – drip coffee, French press or even with a percolator.
So when you’re brewing espresso, (not expresso Mom!) know that it doesn’t matter what type of beans or what type of roast you use. Making espresso is a unique process that forces hot water at high pressures through very finely ground coffee. It can be made using a semi-automatic, super automatic or lever machine.
Mom, don’t be offended, I love you but please stop the calls, my mobile bill is out of control.
The two most common Beans are:
Arabica vs. Robusta
What is the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee Beans ?
While both widely cultivated, Coffea Arabica (Arabica) and Coffea Canephora (Robusta) display marked differences. The beans are different. The plants are different. And consequently, the use varies as well.
Arabica is grown at higher altitudes. Its cultivation demands great care, and it can be likened to the finest grapes grown at the world’s leading vineyards.
Robusta, as the name suggests, is a hardier plant, and it displays greater resistance to climate and weather conditions, diseases and heat.
Perhaps the most significant difference rests in the cup.
Arabica is distinctly milder and more aromatic. It possesses fewer sharp and bitter tastes than Robusta, and it is therefore considered the superior species by those who cultivate specialty coffees, single estates and varietals.
Robusta is renowned for its higher caffeine content, which is why Italians began using it for espresso.
The coffees are also botanically different. Arabica’s greater complexity derives from its 44 chromosomes – twice the number of Robusta. An Arabica bean is flatter and more elongated; in addition, and the furrow on its flat surface is elongated. It is relatively deep green in color before roasting, sometimes with a bluish tinge.
The Robusta bean is more convex and roundish. The bean’s furrow is straight, and it is pale green with grey or brownish tinges.
Arabica is the more expensive of the two, another factor in why Robusta is sometimes used in blends.
Which Coffee is Right for You?
At the My Espresso, we are often asked this question. Even retailers, some of whom are not well versed in coffee, ask us to help them select coffees. The decision about which blends a retailer should add to their menu is critical.
Local tastes play a big part in determining the styles of coffee that find their way into local markets. For instance, the France style of coffee is famous for being dark, roasty and brooding. Consumers in Italy or Spain prefers lighter styles of roasting, highlighting any dominant coffee flavors first followed by a subtle roasty flavor on the finish.
There are a few good rules of thumb for selecting coffees. Ironically you will get a geography lesson (whether you like it or not), which will be instrumental in identifying which coffees are right for you.
Looking at a world map, divide the world’s major continents into 3 groups. These groupings will give you a good general idea of what coffee flavor-types come from which locales. The first section would be Central and South America Continents (light-body, high acidity, sweet flavor); the African continent (medium body, medium acidity, wild flavors); Asian-Indonesian-Pacific continent (Heavy body, low acidity, earthy flavors).
So looking at a world map, let’s develop a little more in depth framework for selecting the right coffee.
CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA / CARIBBEAN:
Lighter bodied coffees with higher acidity and sweet coffee flavors are typical from this region. When you think of Coffee ‘flavor’ you think of theses coffees. Our Jamaican Blue Mountain best exemplifies these coffees: The most ‘balanced’ coffee in the world – a perfect mix of flavor, body & acidity. The Organic Rainforest Blend is mostly from South America. This Organic ‘masterpiece’ is well balanced, flavorful and makes a fantastic Espresso, and a superlative brewed coffee that never disappoints.
Medium bodied and medium acidity. Wine-like, wild, and syrupy are often the terms associated with African coffees. These coffees are quite sought after by many ‘aficionados’ who love an interesting and satisfying cup. Our Yemen Mocha Java was created when commercial coffee was in its infancy. We blend the sweet syrupy flavors of Yemen Mocha Sanaani with an earthy and flowery Java Estate, mixed to the original proportions. This blend brews up one of the most prized cups in the history of coffee.
INDONESIAN & SURROUNDING ISLAND:
Heavy bodied, low acidity and earthy notes are the dominant characters of these hearty beans. Sumatra is a popular coffee to roast dark, creating a hearty brew. Most people enjoy these coffees because they stand up to milk more so than most. New Guinea, Sulawesi and Java are other coffees from the region, which exhibit more finesse than Sumatra, but still have smooth flowery and robust flavors. Our Black & Tan is a great example of these coffees and how well they work together even with different roast profiles. Powerful and brooding with flowery elements, the earthiness and smooth flavors of these unique coffees are without equal.
As with many wines, cigars, chocolates and many other palate pleasers, coffee offers many choices to reach the end result: the best experience of its kind possible. With so many choices and so much to enjoy – try a coffee ‘round the world’ experience and discover why each regional coffee is unique and special.
By in large most blends either contain a blend of both arabica & robusta, thats to provide a good balance between strength and taste or are 100% Arabica. It is very unlikley that if you use a 100% arabica coffee, that you will achieve a large amount of crema. This is due to the arabica beans simply not contain the right chemistry to do so. Some blends are mixed based on two or several regions producing arabica beans to achieve a good balance without bitterness and a sour aftertaste in the blend. Others have been blended on the specific properies of both varieties to achieve a better balance whilst still producing a good volume of crema.
In the end the only way to discover what suits your palate is to try a variety of different blends and roasts, be experimental and even changing the grind with the same blend will most times change the charactaristics of the taste to the extend that what was not quiete to your taste, suddenly is close to perfect.
However there are a few basics that need to be obseved when tasting:
Experienced tasters follow a strict routine ritual when tasting.
They deliberately slurp coffee and swirl it all around the surface of the tongue and mouth. They want to obtain the full experience of the taste, the unique combination of sensations in the nose and on the tongue.
Note to Readers: The taste profiles and characteristics discussed in this article apply to drip coffee. Flavor characteristics and descriptions will change with alternate brewing processes.
For all intents and purposes, our sense of smell and sense of taste are inseparable. Without our sense of smell, our taste sensations are limited. The tongue detects 4 basic sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Most of what we experience as taste depends upon our sense of smell.
The tasting experience begins before you brew – with the grinding. When you smell ground coffee, you experience the first impression of its flavor – its Fragrance.
Aroma refers to your first encounter with a coffee when it’s brewed – literally, the first contact of water and coffee.
Lastly, there’s a coffee’s Nose. Take a sip of coffee. As soon as it reaches your tongue, it stimulates taste and simultaneously releases aromas inside the mouth.
Follow the lead of the experts: allow your sense of taste and smell to mingle. Enjoy the tactile feel of the coffee on your tongue.
Now that you’ve taken a good whiff and your first sip, it’s time to let your tongue do the talking. Of all the facets of coffee, Taste is the most complex to discuss.
Most experts concentrate on three elements Body, Acidity, & Balance.
Body: A coffee’s lipid or “oily” quality creates the tactile sensation of Body or “mouthfeel.”
Acidity: Naturally occurring acids in the beans combine with natural sugars that produce a sweetness that gives certain coffees a sharp pleasing tang or piquancy.
Balance: Think of Balance as a harmony of the many sensations yielded by a fine coffee. A “balanced” coffee is one whose flavor characteristics are all at the proper level for that variety.
A quick note on Acidity: Don’t let the term scare you. Acidity does NOT refer to pH levels discussed in high school chemistry class. It is not like hydrochloric acid or stomach acid. Instead, it is a basic taste sensation in coffee, especially those coffees grown in higher altitudes. You’ll notice a coffee’s acidity at every facet of tasting, but especially in a tingling sensation on your tongue. Acidity produces some of the pleasurable and distinctive sensations we enjoy when tasting coffee.
Now, back to our brew!
After a sip is swallowed, the mouth and tongue retain a minute residue of coffee. This sensation produces the Aftertaste, the sensation that lingers on the palate. It is similar to the concept of “finish” in wine tasting. Aftertaste can vary considerably according to the coffee’s body
We mentioned Body as a primary characteristic. You appreciate a coffee’s Body on the tongue and the roof of your mouth. It is a distinctly tactile sensation, and is sometimes called simply “mouth feel.” Another comparison to wine is helpful. Burgundies are sometimes said to be “heavier” than most other reds and whites. The difference is not weight. Rather, Body is the texture and consistency, the thickness or slipperiness of the coffee.
A good cup of coffee represents the collaboration of many highly trained artisans – growers, professional tasters and roasters all working together to create a fine product.
So, let all your senses work together to enjoy the fruits of their collaboration!
One good turn: about the coffee wheel.
Much as wine tasters have created a wine tasting wheel to use an agreed upon terminology, professional coffee tasters use the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel to grade coffees. This flavor wheel is designed for the trained pallet of a professional. Professional “cuppers” use this guide when buying coffee and for creating “taste characteristic profiles” of the coffees. Most of us are much better off using our “Flavor Characteristics” chart. The Flavor Characteristics chart is for use by the average “joe”. It is a simplified method of charting your favorite java’s characteristics. The flavor descriptions that are most commonly used are defined below.
Know thyself: what flavors appeal to you?
Here are some specific desirable flavor characteristics of coffee and the types of coffee that are associated with those characteristics.
Bright, Dry, Sharp, or Snappy – typical of Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Kenyan.
Caramelly – candy like or syrupy, typical of Colombian Supremo.
Chocolaty – an aftertaste similar to unsweetened chocolate or vanilla. Typical of Costa Rican, Colombian Supremo and the House Blend.
Delicate – a subtle flavor perceived on the tip of the tongue.
Earthy – a soily characteristic, typical of Sumatran.
Fragrant – an aromatic characteristic ranging from floral to spicy, typical of Costa Rican , Sumatra Mandheling and Kenyan.
Fruity – an aromatic characteristic reminiscent of berries or citrus.
Mellow – a round, smooth taste, typically lacking acid, typical of Colombian, Sumatra Mandheling, Whole Latta Java and Orgainc Mexican.
Nutty – an aftertaste similar to roasted nuts, typical of Colombian and Orgainc Mexican.
Spicy – a flavor and aroma reminiscent of spices typical of Guatemala Huehuetenango.
Syrupy – strong, and rich, typical of Sumatran.
Sweet – free of harshness, typical of Colombian.
Wildness – an unusual, gamey flavor, typical of Sumatran.
Winey – an aftertaste reminiscent of well-matured wine, typical of Kenyan, Guatemalan.
Keeping it Fresh!
If you are like most people you probably get your coffee beans and think “How do I store these wonderful beans?” There are many different ideas on what you should and should not do with your coffee to store it. Over the past few years everything from freezing to packaging has been considered. What should you put the beans in? Where should you put them? How long can I store them? Is storing ground coffee different from storing beans?
According to a wonderful article at the National Coffee Association of U.S.A. (NCAUSA), Inc the best way to go is “airtight and cool”. Preserving the freshness of your coffee can be difficult. The freshness gets depleted very fast when it is subjected to excessive air, moisture, heat and light. So, you need to get your precious beans in airtight glass or ceramic containers. Once you have your coffee in the right container, put it in a cool, dark place. Remember, any place near the oven or a window will get quite warm, so try to avoid putting the container there.
What do air, moisture, heat and light do to your coffee?
Well, coffee beans have a natural chemical process they go through after roasting. After the beans have been roasted they degas for three days. That means that carbon dioxide gas is released from the beans when they are at room temperature. Even after they emit the carbon dioxide the chemical composition of the beans continues to change. Air, moisture, heat and light affect the process. An increased amount of air, as from an open container, will cause oxidation and make the beans become stale. If moisture is added to the beans, like freezing, the flavor becomes weaker. Just like any chemical process heat and light make it go faster. The beans’ chemical process is affected the same way. If your beans are in a particularly warm or hot place with a lot of light the process will be faster and the beans will become stale much quicker than usual.
To buy ground or whole bean?
Ground coffee loses its freshness faster than whole bean coffee. The process speeds up much quicker when you change from bean form to ground form. Think about it, you increase the surface area that the chemical process is taking place in, so it increases the speed it is done at. That is why you read that grinding your own coffee is best as long as you grind what you need and use it. If you buy your coffee pre-ground you will want to put it in an airtight container immediately after you open the bag.
The Roaster’s packaging makes a difference.
Another important thing to remember is that the way the roaster packages the coffee makes a difference too. If you buy your beans and ground coffee in a sealed bag or can the shelf life on it is about two years. For example illy coffee is packed in nitrogen, thus eliminating Oxygen, and pressurized in a sealed can. You can leave it in that stored can for two years. Once you open it, the beans are subjected to air, moisture, heat and light. Those four elements speed up the chemical process and make the beans age and become stale. If you receive your beans in a bag or container that is not sealed you will have to put them in an airtight container and use them quickly.
Do I buy large quantities or small?
You can buy as much coffee as you want, as long as you are going to use it within three to four weeks after opening. Also, if you are going to buy different kinds of coffee and open all of the containers at once, try to buy a small quantity of each kind. Once you decide which kind you like you can then buy bigger quantities. The most important thing to remember about buying large quantities is this: Once you open a bag you should use it within three to four weeks. During that time store it in an airtight container. The sealed bags or cans of coffee are fine. You do not have to open them and put them in containers. Just keep them in a cool, dark place.
Can I freeze my beans or ground coffee?
That is quite a debatable question. One article recommends freezing beans for no longer than a month, and only if you have purchased a large quantity of coffee that will not be used immediately. To do that you would break up your large quantity into smaller sections. Then wrap those small sections airtight bags. Once you remove them from the freezer you cannot return them. You have to put them in the airtight containers mentioned earlier to be used and stored in a cool, dry place. Other companies, like illy, do not recommend storing your beans in the freezer for any reason.
You can find many different articles and opinions on freezing or not freezing your coffee beans. Here are a couple things to keep in mind: Beans themselves are very hard. When you freeze beans you lock in moisture and stop the chemical process. After you remove those beans from the freezer you would have to let them defrost completely; this may take 4 hours or even more. Take care to avoid moisture buildup on the surface of the beans – this is called condensation and occurs when warm moist air comes in contact with a cold surface. The moist air looses its ability to hold the moisture and it collects on the cooler surface. Think of the water that collects on the outside of your tall glass of iced coffee (or tea). That water is not leaking from the glass but from the process called condensation. Also, frozen beans are like putting rocks in your grinder and could damage the burrs or motor. The moisture that gets trapped in those frozen beans changes the flavor of your coffee. The change from freezing to room temperature will make the beans become stale quicker because you are increasing temperature. So, in a nutshell – avoid freezing, but if you do, follow our dos and don’ts and you will preserve freshness.
For a definition and history on Espresso click here
Many thanks to Stephen Bornemann