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Single Origin BrewHaHa
Single Origin BrewHaHa
Posted July 22, 2006 4:45pm
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It's no secret that I try to be an espresso evangelist.

From interviews I do with big papers like the NY Times and Washington Post, to articles I write for magazines like Imbibe and others, preaching the nirvana of espresso is never too far away from the undercurrent of my commentary.

For me, espresso is the brewing method. It's the one that will take everything a blend has to offer, and ether completely fuck it up, or present something wonderous and unique in the coffee world. Emulsified oils, morphed flavours, aromatics to die for and mouthfeel texture unlike anything else any other brewing method we use today has to offer. This is why I evangelise it so much.

Don't get me wrong. I have heaps of respect for most other brewing methods (except for percolator), and enjoy the bounty that vac pots, drip, press, moka pots and even the Clover have to offer. Not a day goes by when I don't enjoy coffee using one or more of these methods.

But espresso is it for me - the epitome (so far) of what is possible from the bean.

That said, the espresso process is also torture for a coffee bean. It's like taking the bean and laying out on a rack, drawing and quartering it. The process isn't kind to inferior coffee. It's not kind to old or stale coffee. It's definitely not kind to badly roasted coffee. And it's not kind to supremely delicate notes that perhaps only a cupping (or a Clover) can bring out in the bean.

But espresso has strengths too. It has the ability to develop body nuances in surprising ways. It can take a light to medium caramel / bittersweet chocolate note and explode it to the point where not only do you get the whiffs of these elements, but they linger in your aftertaste for minutes, maybe even an hour or more.

The thing I like most about espresso is the ability to morph various taste elements in various coffees used in a blend. By morph, I mean it can take flavour A from one bean, flavour B from a second bean, and create a brand new, surprising flavour in the shot output. In many cases, one or more of the original flavours may be barely discernible in the cupping, even by experienced palates, but total newbies can taste the morphed, amplified flavours in the shot.

And there's that word amplification. Espresso does that in droves. For the more noticeable flavours in a cupping, espresso has the ability to turn things to "11" in the shot. Light lemon zest citrus notes in the cupping have the potential to become overblown sourpuss pursing tastes in a shot.

Which, I think more than any other reason, is why we blend for espresso.

Sure, blending began and continues to this day as a cost saving measure. That's why even coffees for drip and other brewing methods have been blended since the late 1800s. It's why a company like 7-11 today can have a "Kona Blend" and capitalise on the marketing strength of "Kona", yet  only have 5% real Kona in the blend.

But I'm not talking about the 7-11s and Starbucks and Green Mountains and Canterbury Coffees of the world. I'm talking about true artisan roasters who specialise in espresso blends.

These are craftspeople out there who "get it". Get it to the point where they recognize the pleasant lemon zest in a cupped coffee will become pursed-lips unpalatable in the shot. Get that the pleasing bittersweet cocoa taste in another coffee's cupping will become overly bitter notes in a shot pull. They understand this through cupping and through pulling the coffees as SO shots (single origin), they will get a feel for what the coffees have to offer, both on the positive and negative sides.

Artistry and alchemy then take over. The master roaster, through a lot of effort will get a feel for what flavour components play off other flavour components to provide a balance. Through many years of hands on experience, they get an understanding of what comes through in a cupping, and how it can change in the shot. They want that lemon zest hint, so they find another flavour in another bean to work with that cupped lemon zest to make it a mellow, soothing lemon zest in an espresso shot. And the worst part? They have to continually do this as harvests change, crops change, supplies change.

I could go on. But in short, blending for espresso is an art, a science, and in my opinion, necessary. Because of espresso's amplification ability, elements that dance and play nice in a cupping will become overwhelming in a shot pull.

Which is the crux of two reasons why I'm so anti "SOS". That's single origin shots. By single origin, I imply one farm, one varietal, one harvest.

In the last few years, SOS has become an "in" thing. People rave about this CoE winner pulled as a shot, or that Panama winner, or this eCafe winner, or that Q-Auction lot, or... whatever. I've tried pretty much all the raved-about coffees as SOS, and the problems I have with any SOS coffee as a shot pull are still evident problems with the world's best coffees. Flat. Single note profiles. Overdone. Over-amplified notes. Same tastes at the start as at the finish and aftertaste of the shot. Excessive acidity. Excessive bitterness. Or at its best, just plain boring.

The flavour profiles of these SOS pulls is one of the reasons I'm so against them as an enjoyment beverage, something to highlight what espresso can be (mind you, everyone should pull SOS to evaluate the coffees!); the second reason is, in a roundabout way I see it as a slap in the face towards the artisan roaster who toils and trials to come up with an exquisite blend that works well on the espresso machine. It's like taking the easy way out to achieve espresso, bypassing one of the important steps in the process.

In Italy, they have the four M rule. Macchina, macinzaione, miscela, mano. That's machine, grinder, blend and human. Blend, not "coffee". The Italians have long known that to get the epitome of what espresso has to offer, a blend is needed to balance out the harsh forces the machine throws at you.

SOS pundits say espresso is just fine that way. They also say who am I to say anything different. You know what? They are exactly right - after all, espresso is different things to different people.

But if we go with that argument, who are they, then, to say to Joe Average consumer the espresso they get at Starbucks, or at Blendz, or at (gawd) Second Cup is bad? If Joe Average loves that espresso, then all is well with the world, using the pro SOS argument. But many pro-SOS people happily rant and rave against the quality of the beverage presented at these kinds of places.

I use the same argument against SOS as many do against what they perceive as inferior espresso - that it's just not a proper way to prepare such a demanding beverage. I'm told to shut up, and stop dictating to others what they should and shouldn't like. It's a bit ironic.

Bottom line? Respect the process. Respect the torture these beans are put through. Respect the master roaster and their artisan blends for espresso. Save the SO coffee for evaluation, and for the cupping, clover, press, vacpot and drip tables, where it really does shine and shows off the worlds' best SO coffee.

And give me a 100% CoE or award winning blend. ;)

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