Depending on the style of coffee, completely different factors come into play when determining the quality. For example, if I were to rate a cup of American coffee, I would talk about the perfect blend of Arabica beans that, in my opinion, would include carefully proportioned percentages of beans from Ethiopia, Central America, and Sumatra.
The beans would have to be roasted with a specific profile, to a certain darkness, and it would be brewed between 24 and 48 hours of roasting by a specific machine at just the right temperature. But all of the rules that apply to American coffee mean nothing when it comes to espresso. So I thought I would jot down what I have learned when it comes to one of Italy’s most celebrated exports.
The Standard of Quality
To begin, what does a great cup of espresso look and taste like? I’ll start by saying that it is universally accepted that the best espresso can be found in Naples, Italy. To contrast that, I can honestly say that have have never had an even remotely acceptable espresso in the United States.
Keep it Short
You may be used to the concept of a ‘Single Shot’ or ‘Double Shot’ of espresso. Even the most coffee-challenged Italian will tell you that what we consider to be a ‘single shot’, is far too much. An espresso should measure in a standard espresso cup roughly 1 1/2 fingers. While you may think that such a short cup will be too strong, the truth is that when the espresso is pulled, that is were the flavor is. If you were to pull the cup away after 1 1/2 fingers, then place another cup in, the remainder of the coffee that comes out is extremely bitter. In fact, the perfect espresso will be strong, but never bitter.
It Should Be Creamy and Silky
When you sip an espresso, let it roll on your tongue fo a second. A good espresso will almost coat your taste buds as it goes down. The flavors will be very complex and while it is very thin, it will have a very creamy texture to it. The perfect expresso will have flavors and sensations that almost contradict one another. A bad espresso will feel like extremely strong and bitter American coffee; it will completely lack texture and complexity.
Don’t be Fooled by Crema
We have been conditioned to believe that if the espresso has a thin layer of froth, it must be good. While a great espresso will always have the crema, the crema does not mean it is good. Most modern espresso machines are designed to produce crema no matter what. It has become a marketing thing for them… Produces great crema! But the coffee may still be trash.
What You Drink it In is as important as What You Drink
Drinking espresso out of a paper or plastic cup is no different than eating a Filet Mignon with plastic utensils on a paper towel. You may do it if you are desperate, but it certainly is never your choice. Plastic and paper cups completely change the flavor, such that even the best espresso will taste like junk. A ceramic cup is the most common and widely accepted container, but it is not optimal. The perfect espresso is served in a shot glass. Believe me, it really does make a difference. When you are in Italy, you will almost always have your espresso served in a ceramic cup, but utter two magic words when you order, and you will not only get it in a shot glass, but you will likely get a nod of respect. The two words are ‘Al Vetro’. Simply say ‘Caffe Al Vetro’ and you will get it in just about any bar in Italy.
How the Perfect Espresso is Made
So far I have talked about what to look for and pitfalls to avoid, but what makes an espresso from one bar better than another? Or why is espresso typically better in Naples than Rome? There are several factors:
Remember when I said that the best American coffee is made with Arabica beans from certain countries? The rules are different for espresso. The other type of coffee bean is called Robusta. It is actually a very cheap bean that is considered to be very low quality. However, while it is only present in the worst American coffees (Folgers, Maxwell House, etc.), it must be in the blend for espresso. Without it, your espresso will be missing all of its kick.
Roasting a bean for espresso is a very delicate process. What we consider a very dark roast is still too light for espresso. But if you ever have the opportunity to watch coffee beans roast, there is a critical moment, during which the beans go from extremely dark to burned. It is almost a split second, but the moment it goes too far, the coffee loses all of its flavor. Because of this, it is very easy to get a bad roast. So high quality espresso comes at a premium because of the difficulty, and low quality is very common.
Coffee goes bad very quickly, no matter how much you freeze it, vacuum pack it, or otherwise. A high-volume bar that gets good locally roasted coffee will always have an advantage. The stuff you get at Starbucks has long since gone stale.
No matter how muh you try, no matter how much you spend, and no matter how fancy your home espresso machine is, it will never make a great espresso, period. You can spend $10,000 on a professional grade machine, and you will still get substandard espresso. It is all about how much it is used. A bar that pulls 1,000 espressos a day will always have an advantage over one that pulls 500, so your fancy machine that pulls one or two a day doesn’t stand a chance. Of course water temperature and pressure are major factors that will make a huge difference for those of you that spent $10,000 on the professional machine, but you better be ready to turn it on an hour early and prime it for a while before pulling an espresso to drink
Now here is a place where a small thing you can do will make a world of difference. I often wondered why espresso was so different from city to city in Italy. I finally asked a professional roaster, and he told me that if he would take the same machine and the same coffee, it would always be significantly better in Naples, more bitter in Rome, less full-bodied in Florence, etc. Then he proceeded to tell me every nuance of the water in these places. But since I only really cared to know why Naples was so good, it all boiled down to the fact that the water in Naples is slightly effervescent and has a high mineral content. He told me that if I were to buy naturally carbonated mineral water (not San Pellegrino), that it would be much closer to that of Naples, even in a home machine.
We did it. In our little personal Gaggia Espresso Machine, we began to use high quality coffee with mineral water instead of tap water. I won’t lie and say it even comes close to what I get at a typical Naples bar, but our home coffee experience suddenly got significantly better.
That said, I’m afraid the only truly perfect espresso requires a trip back to Naples. If you go, don’t forget to have the pizza, and bring me back some Buffalo Mozzarella while you’re at it!