Espresso has so much potential. We are seeing many developments in the tradition and it is always very exciting when people are willing to think outside of the (knock) box. Right now, I would like to challenge all of us to consider for a few minutes how arbitrary the espresso ‘standards’ we have inherited may be.
Everyone seems to have a strict dogma of what constitutes the immutable. We love to give ourselves these ranges of time, temperature, pressure, and volume to let us know that we have done everything we can. When determining a bean’s espresso worthiness, we taste the finished product and judge for ourselves if the bean is too bright or not balanced enough to be used in the ‘Divinely inspired’ rule of espresso extraction.
Now, let’s talk about coffee roasting. Coffee drinkers everywhere are learning about subtlety of origin based on cultivar, altitude, and quality processing and sorting. There is now a tendency to roast as transparently as possible. This comes from the influence of the professional coffee taster (cupper), who knows that there is a certain way to roast green samples in order to avoid tasting what are known as ‘roast defects’ that mask the uniqueness of a coffee. The inherent delicacies of quality are simply coerced into a palatable suspension through the roasting process. The idea of coffee roasting being some sort of mystical way of adding anything not already present is now seen as all but ridiculous.
So, back to espresso, why do we still change the way we ‘profile’ the roast of a bean based on how we intend to extract? Why do we still call a particular (darker and often less airflow) roast profile our espresso roast? Or, why do we say, after tasting a coffee bean as an espresso, “This would be great as an espresso if only we could tone down the brightness (or add body, or add crema) by how it is roasted”? I am not trying to argue that espresso should be overly bright or unbalanced, I am just saying that changing the way coffee is roasted is barking up the wrong (coffee) tree. Instead of saying, “Hey, this coffee would be better if we roasted all of the offensive stuff out of it” why not just admit that any brew method that turns properly roasted coffee into something offensive needs to be tweaked. If you know you roasted the coffee perfectly (by, among other things, cupping for roast defects) don’t fault your roasting, fault the brew method!
I know many people reading this will simply say that some coffees are suited for espresso and some are not. I disagree whole-heartedly. The only coffees that are not suited for espresso are the same coffees that are not suited for any extraction method. I want to see us get to a point where we are finding amazing coffees, we are roasting them transparently and we are brewing them in all the ways we know to be pleasant, traditional or otherwise.
So, I say that espresso has great potential. It could become another amazing way of showcasing different coffees and all their myriad subtleties. It has proven by its longevity and now its global presence to be a promising method that tends to capture the imagination. Now it is just a matter of willingness to trade arbitrary albeit traditional parameters in for honesty and experimentation. We need to be sure to not sacrifice the bean for the method. We need to discontinue the tendency of putting the (espresso) cart before the horse.
Now, what does this look like? Do we need to jump on the bandwagon of pressure profiling? Do we create more and more accuracy within machines through variables that can be tweaked to even more decimal places? Perhaps that is true for some who have the wherewithal to do so. For most of us, this is not practical. What we can do is begin to leave the idea of roasting for espresso behind us and begin to close the gap between the ‘types’ of coffees we are using for espresso and what we are using for other brew methods. I would like to see a day when the word espresso is never mentioned on whole bean packaging. Espresso will be an implied option for any great coffee, not a way of marketing a particular bean or blend of beans.
So, I plead with my fellow roasters to buy the best coffees you can afford, roast them properly and let them speak for themselves. Quality is always marketable and trends or traditions that encourage any kind of marginalization of quality will not last. I hope espresso can be fixed. I know you are out there and that you are tired of making up for an under-developed brew method by improper roasting.