Part 1 – This is part one | Part 2 – Coming Soon
There is a broad array of espresso blends out there. There seem to be just as many single origin coffees being marketed for use as espresso. An espresso blend is portrayed as a coffee company’s flagship product, a consistent-tasting part of an espresso and milk cocktail, or an expression of cutting-edge quality or skill. Sometimes it’s just a means to an end.
What makes a blend an espresso blend?
The answer to this question seems to depend on who you ask! I can’t think of any coffee professionals who would disagree with saying that espresso is essentially a brew method. Most would also agree that the beverage that results from the brew method shares the title. It’s the characteristics of this beverage that is intended when a blend is referred to as an espresso blend.
What this comes down to is what the blender, roaster, or customer considers to be important. We all have our own opinions and views of which aspects of an espresso are the dominant features that make espresso what it is, or at least what we find to be important.
The Hierarchy of Espresso Characteristics
This can be broken down more times than I care to count, so I’ll stick to what I see as the most common characteristics that people have and do refer to when praising a particular blend or shot of espresso.
1 – Crema
1 – quantity
2 – color
3 – texture/consistency
4 – persistence
2 – Quantity
1 – leaning more (i.e.-there’s not enough)
2- leaning less (i.e. – less is more, ristretto)
3 – Flavor
1 – Balance
2 – sweetness
3 – acidity
4 – body
5 – bitter
4 – Contents
1 – what is the blend comprised of?
2 – consistency: will the blend always taste the same, or will it change with the seasons?
3 – does it contain robusta, or is it a 100% Arabica blend?
5 – Functionality
1 – does it work well in milk drinks? (i.e. – cappuccino, caffe latte, mocha, iced drinks, etc..)
2 – does it work well on its own?
3 – how long does the finish last? (10 minutes? 30 minutes? 1 hour?)
4 – is it interesting? Is it too intense or too boring?
5 – is it finicky? Is it forgiving of barista inconsistency?
This seems like a lot to digest. Like most things, espresso can be as complex or as basic as you allow, dependent entirely on the perspective of the audience. I’ll approach this in chronological order.
Step one: what does the roaster/blender/customer wish the espresso to be?
Light roast or dark roast? Bitterness or acidity? Heavy body, or clarity? Intense and complex, or balanced and approachable?
A lot of roasters develop multiple espresso blends to satisfy a broad array of palates. The most common variation that I see is one blend for milk-based drinks, and another blend for non-milk drinks (i.e – espresso, Americano). The thinking is that the fat sugar and proteins in milk drown out a lot of the more delicate aromatics in an espresso, and that there had better be something in the finished shot that can punch through what is often times a pint or more of hot milk. That’s a tall order, even for such a concentrated ingredient as espresso.
a) The solution is a slightly darker roast, with an emphasis on body, and roast flavors that perhaps compliment the flavors found in milk. This comes with the understanding that flavored syrups will often find their way into the mix, which is just another element to consider when preventing the clashing of flavors. I personally find these blends to usually be rather boring as a straight shot, and give enough of a coffee flavor impression to keep most people happy. This is not to bash this style of blending. I have had some great drinks from some blends that were approached just this way. I have also been very bored with several straight espressos made from the same blends.
b) For those who desire more acidity and complexity in their straight espresso, a lighter roast profile is often utilized. Interesting coffees are chosen with certain flavor characteristics in proportions to deliver a balanced, complex medley of flavors to the palate. Unfortunately, a lot of these wonderful aromatics are virtually lost when added to even a 12oz. caffe latte since the milk tends to mute aromatic complexity to some degree. Some flavors are effected more than others. The barista often must use more coffee in the preparation of a shot of espresso to achieve a strong enough result that will still be appreciated in a large milk drink.
Step Two: Should the blend be seasonal or should the flavor profile be consistent over time?
a) Obviously we have our own thoughts on this, but for some retailers, a consistent flavor profile is of enormous importance. This is especially true for chains and franchise stores. They are trying to develop and deliver a consistent experience at every location. Growth based on consistency takes time to develop, and so the coffees used should ideally have very consistently similar flavor characteristics. This could mean developing a blend of a high number of coffees so that changing one or two will not have such a great impact on the final result. It could also mean buying cheaper coffees with fewer aromatics to contribute: effectively reducing the problem of inconsistency of aromatics between crop seasons. This also means a less flavorful coffee that may be more approachable to grocery store canister coffee fans.
b) When a blend is seasonal, it is intended to convey the fact that coffee is itself a seasonal crop that changes with a number of environmental factors year after year. This approach reminds me of the wine industry’s focus on wine’s terroir and its impact on the finished product. What is missing is the level of consistency in a) above. What this does, however, is enable the blender to work with the inherent qualities present in the coffees at his disposal to achieve a harmonious flavor profile that works for the intended purpose. This also has the added benefit of producing a blend that is always fresh, always in season, and always an expression of the current crop’s characteristics. Not every coffee farm’s crop is consistently the same every year, and there are farms making their mark with a new high quality crop every season.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series on espresso.