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Is Espresso Good for Coffee?

By TIMOTHY J. CASTLE and STUART MACLEOD

The buzz about coffee lately has been really about espresso. The New York Times, even, had a front page article about coffee geeks, freaks and aficionados but the real story, it became quickly apparent, was about espresso drinks…the love affair people have with making espresso and steaming milk.

The problem with the espresso obsession is that the roaster and, to an even greater extent, the farmer get lost in the chaff as the espresso obsessives work on perfecting their grind, tamping, group temperatures, etc., etc. This is NOT to say there is anything wrong with a great cup of espresso but, still, it is perhaps worthwhile to point out that all the hoopla about espresso (and all the attendant paraphernalia) is leaving someone in the dust and that’s the farm.

Roasters can still do well in these espresso boom times. They can be heralded for creating a blend, for instance. But it is symptomatic of the market and our industry’s approach to it and the simple coffee, once again, is not enough. People want to feel that great coffee needs a lot of fussing, and that fussing needs to be done nearby - not by some farmer 6,000 miles away.

Much of the coffee market today can be defined in terms of who gets the value-added. Much of this fight, most of the time, is fought with the presumption that if someone gets the perceived value-added then everyone else must not. This dynamic has certainly come into play in terms of espresso, but perhaps not intentionally. Even consumers, those in love enough with espresso, are buying espresso machines and bringing them home to make their own “Three Dollar Lattes,” but they are often under spending on the coffee itself - chiefly because they don’t have enough knowledge about coffee to be able to at least eliminate a lot of the poor quality coffees that many “espresso aficionados” believe have “body” or “depth” or some other such malarkey. Some “cogno-espressistas” believe, for example, that any espresso blend from a particular country is inherently better. Others insist that espresso blends contain certain coffees of purposely-low quality to add certain mythical qualities (aside from a low cost) to an espresso blend.

What the espresso craze might really be about is that people are looking for something to master and control. Now, they could master and control simply brewing coffee, but that would not take very long and they would feel gypped. Plus the scales would become apparently tipped toward the roaster and farmer, who are the ones that really control the flavor of brewed coffee once the basics of brewing are covered. With espresso, though, there are hundreds of details over which obsessive types can obsess about, and that is really the whole point, at least when it comes to home espresso.)

A number of participants in the specialty coffee industry, in a variety of sectors, were contacted to weigh in on whether espresso is good for specialty coffee. Here is what they had to say.

Mike Perry, owner of Coffee Klatch, in San Dimas, California and the retail home of the U.S. Barista Champion, Heather Salisbury, considers espresso drinks as "culinary creations. Heather's winning drinks prove that you can't win without a great espresso. The quality of the coffee used is the key." Perry is a believer that making a great espresso depends on his coffee blend being the best it can be. He starts at scratch with his espresso blend every year, experimenting with different roasts and different origins, because "we are dealing with coffee, an agricultural crop that changes from year to year." Perry continues: "we don't have the restrictions that big corporate coffee companies have with price points and large volumes; we only strive to have quality coffee year round."

Joseph John, president of Josuma Coffee Co. in Menlo Park, California had these general comments to offer about the current craze for espresso: "The growers and roasters are completely out of the loop in today's espresso drink culture. There are 80 different coffee growing countries, one not better than the other, just different." John doesn't have a problem with barista contests however; in fact, he feels they are important tools in raising the quality of North American espresso. He does have issues with contests that are judged on technique, tapping the portafilter a certain number of times, for example, rather than on the resulting taste of the espresso.

Miguel, a coffee roaster in Los Angeles who wished to remain otherwise anonymous, while describing many espresso-based drinks as "totally artificial, just a coffee flavor instead of a coffee drink," still feels that if great coffee is used it benefits everyone in the coffee industry. "Every cup counts," he explains. "The fact that people are drinking coffee helps us all. The final seller in the coffee chain - the retailer - benefits the most, but the farmer still derives some benefit. If it means people are drinking coffee instead of sodas, that’s good."

John Rapinchuk of Knutsen Coffee, Ltd. believes that today's milk-based espresso drinks make the coffee "another step removed from the coffee farm. All parts of the espresso process become important, instead of in drip coffee, for example, where the focus is completely on the coffee." Rapinchuk notes that the SCAA assumed part of the sponsorship of the World Barista Competition from a syrup company in an effort to keep specialty coffee in the forefront of the event. He also feels there is "a lack of transparency in espresso blends, as they are usually proprietary." Rapinchuk ultimately believes, however, that anything that brings people into drinking coffee is good for the entire coffee industry.

"I feel it is typical of most agricultural products, " begins Susie Spindler, of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which runs the Cup of Excellence auctions, "that the growers are left out of the industry." Spindler notes that the wine industry is one of the few agricultural products that gives the producer a voice; a result, she feels, of the way wine is marketed. The wine industry names the producing estate, and brands the product according to the estate and region. Coffee retailers typically market their drip coffee in this manner, but do not for espresso-based drinks. "[Espresso] Coffee drink drinkers are not coffee drinkers," explains Spindler, "they have no understanding of the unique qualities of the coffee itself - where it comes from, how the farmer tended the trees, even where the estate is located. Espresso-based drinks market the process of making the drink, and not the product. Retailers brand and market their store on their unique coffee drinks, such as lattes and ice-blended mochas. As the success of the Cup of Excellence has shown, coffee producing countries can market their finest coffee estates to the American consumer.” Spindler added, "We all need to tell a better story. We need to empower the American consumer to feel that they can reach out and touch the farmer. The farmer has to become involved in the story-telling of his product."

Paul Leighton, Cape Horn Coffee of Eugene, Oregon, "There is so much emphasis today on beverages. The specialty coffee industry has to get back to basics; that is quality, single estate brewed coffee. The little farmer can still make a direct connection through the coffee pot with the American consumer." Leighton adds: "We (specialty coffee industry) don't suffer from over production, we suffer from under consumption. We have to increase home consumption. The beverage market does not benefit the single estate producer. It does swell the dollar value of product, but it does not increase the whole bean business. That has to increase to benefit the producer!"

Mane' Alves, president, Coffee Lab International, is excited about the future of the coffee industry in regard to the espresso-based beverages. "In reality espresso is one of the most dynamic areas of growth in specialty coffee and one that the youngest coffee drinkers are attracted to. We believe that this group, also known as ‘the third wave,’ is the future of specialty coffee. The question is, will this group have enough strength to carry the industry into the future? If they do, it will be an industry dramatically different from what we have now." Alves agrees that selling espresso drinks as a single origin is tricky, but education is paramount. "Pulling a single origin espresso is not commonly done by coffee retailers in the U.S., as they are not equipped to do this type of sale. Single Estate espresso means having one grinder per single estate if a retailer wants to serve more than one farm at the time. The serving aspect of the espresso as well as the drip coffee is conducive to customer education. Regardless, in both situations the retailer has to train and educate its barista on the product source so they can educate the final customer and get them engaged. More information one gives to the customers about the coffee they are drinking, the stronger the bond is formed between the retailer's café and the customer.”

Alves also noted that he believes that some coffees can’t cut it alone, “The second problem is the coffee complexity. Not all-single estate coffees have enough complexity to be developed as an espresso. It is common to blend two or three single estates and have the barista educate the consumers about the blend and its sources.”

Doug Welsh, the director of coffee at Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Emeryville, California, pointed out that, while espresso plays a vibrant and essential role in the health of the specialty coffee industry, through espresso consumers are not learning about or connecting with the coffee itself. “There is something fussy about the approach to espresso right now that doesn’t allow for a simple, beautiful cup of coffee. A cup of coffee should be accessible, simple and just plain great. This straightforward approach is more of something you see with brewed coffee and not espresso.” Welsh also addressed the math involved in contrasting the espresso market versus that for brewed coffee, “I don't say espresso isn't encouraging consumption, but that with the size of the coffee cups we're all serving these days, maybe a great cup of brewed coffee encourages it more. At a 10 gram per six-ounce strength, a 16-oz cup of coffee uses over 26 grams of the good old stuff. Of course some people will point out that a lot of espresso drinks are double shots, so maybe you have 14 grams per serving, but still, what is the lasting impression, of coffee, or of the concoction? Given the prevalence of flavoring, perhaps I should say confection.”

When asked where espresso has taken us and the industry for the past several years Welsh posed two questions himself: “First of all, in assessing where we’re at as an industry, the common sense proposition you have to look at is this: ‘Where, in today’s marketplace, can today’s coffee drinker get a great cup of brewed coffee?'” It is also telling, Welsh asserted, to consider that, “In addition to the relative dearth of great brewed coffee it is also interesting to ask where else a roaster in the ‘specialty’ sector could use Robusta and not only get away with it, but in some cases be praised for doing so.”

Welsh concluded by pointing out that the market’s lack of focus on coffee as opposed to the hoopla over one particular brewing method isn’t all the fault of espresso per se. “You have to consider that specialty coffee retailers aren’t just selling coffee, they’re selling a place to gather, to socialize, that isn’t a bar or a restaurant or home, in that sense, the ‘product’ is certainly a lot further from that simple cup of coffee than espresso will ever be.”

Obviously, it is in no coffee lover’s interest to wish for the demise of espresso, or for the current popularity enjoyed by the many beverages made with it. Indeed, the very popularity of these drinks provides an opportunity to tell the story of the great taste of coffee, no matter how it is brewed, to a much wider audience than might otherwise be possible. This opportunity should be grasped, however, before the notoriously fickle consumer moves on to some other drink that contains no coffee at all. There is a lot going on in the specialty coffee arena that might later turn out to be part fad or gimmickry, but the taste of great cup of (brewed) coffee is not likely to be one of them.

Timothy J. Castle is the president of Castle Communications, a company specializing in marketing and public relations for the coffee and tea industries. He is also the co-author (with Joan Nielsen) of The Great Coffee Book, recently published by Ten Speed Press, and the author of The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books). He may be reached at: (310) 479-7370 or via E-mail at: qahwah@aol.com.


Tea & Coffee - November/December, 2003
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