Would an espresso by any other name still taste as sweet?
Espresso, not EXpresso, describes three different things; a method of making coffee, the drink itself and a blend of coffee.
Let’s talk about each of these things separately, to better understand this wonderful invention and tradition that we love as part of our daily morning ritual.
The espresso machine was invented in 1901 by Luigi Bezzera with later improvements by Desiderio Pavoni and Giovanni Achille Gaggia as a way to make coffee using heated water forced through a small amount of finely ground coffee to extract the exact amount of the flavourful oils within the coffee.
It was discovered that in superheating the water, steam was also produced and that steam could be utilized to heat the milk that went with the espresso, making the drinks such as café con leche and cappuccinos.
However, the espresso drawn from the machine is still meant to be taken al fresco and exists in Italy as an integral part of their day. It is meant to be made and served quickly, often with a bit of sugar added to it and sipped quickly or even shot back to give that jolt of energy to get through the rest of the day.
There is also a Moka pot or stovetop espresso machine, which also makes an espresso but using a much less expensive device and requiring only a heating element (or campfire!).
Water in the lower portion is forced through the coffee grounds in the middle and rises through a pipe to the upper portion, where it can be poured off.
Some of these pots have a steam wand off the top and by closing the outlet for coffee, steam pressure builds up and, Voila!, cappuccino can be yours for the making.
When making an espresso using this forced pressure of water, a strong, rich liquid is decanted and you will notice a rich, foamy, caramel-coloured part on the surface. That is called the “crema” and is where all the flavour of the espresso lives.
It consists of a mix of air, water and coffee oils, containing the volatile compounds that hold the flavour.
As this crema is exposed to air, the flavinoids begin to oxidize and turn bitter. This process happens in less than a minute, hence the need for espresso to be served quickly.
If a barista lets an espresso shot sit for longer than 30 seconds before combining it with milk or water, then most of the flavour of the espresso has diminished and your drink will be flat and bitter.
It is also important to note that this crema can only be achieved using fresh coffee before it has staled, meaning that the oils and volatile compounds that are within the beans themselves have been exposed too long to oxygen.
Using stale coffee in an espresso machine will yield you a strong, dark liquid with little or no crema and any self-respecting Italian will never come for coffee at your place again.
An espresso blend of coffee is often formulated to give specific flavours on the palate, very similar to that of wine making. It often involves the use of three or more varietals of coffee in order to give the depth of body and finish that is required of a premium espresso.
Consider this: when developing the formula for our Espresso, my uncle spent over three years tweaking and perfecting the perfect balance, using an old Italian friend as the tester, until it came to just the right taste to remind him of home.
Lucky me, I got it bequeathed to me as a family recipe. Lucky you, you just have to ask for it.
So what kind of coffee to use? An espresso blend is a dream come to life for every roaster. There is no standard recipe for an espresso blend, so there is joy in trying a diverse range of types or brands and finding your personal favourite.
Any dark-roasted coffee can be used for making espresso drinks; so depending on whether you like a boot in the (taste) buds from a sharp, extremely dark roast, or a rich, smooth glide from a medium dark blend, or the tangy brightness of a coffee just slightly dark roasted to cut through milk, there is a coffee out there for you.
Zola Doré is the owner/roaster of Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters in Whitehorse. Comments and questions about coffee are welcome. Or you and your friends can join her in a coffee-tasting session. Find out more at www.yukoncoffee.com.