Espresso as a Coffee Yardstick
In order to standardize reviews and fairly compare coffee establishments, we chose the single espresso – without sugar or milk – as the foundation for all ratings. So what is espresso? Despite the many labels on packaged coffee in America, it is not a style of coffee roasting. Rather, espresso is a method of coffee preparation where near-steaming hot water is passed under pressure through finely ground coffee beans.
Espresso is subject to dozens of variables that affect its quality – for example, the origin, freshness, roasting, and blending of coffee beans; water quality; equipment; barista skill; and even the ambient temperature and humidity. Because espresso is sensitive to so many factors, and because it requires a lot more skill than preparing a simple pot of drip coffee, it serves as an excellent yardstick for comparing the coffee quality between establishments.
Most Americans rarely, if ever, opt for the single espresso shot, but eliminating other variables keeps the focus on the coffee. Sugar can vary in dosage and quality from place to place, and a properly made espresso should not be bitter and instead have its own natural sweetness. And while espresso is almost always taken with milk as a cappuccino or latte in the Bay Area, milk and its frothing introduces an entirely different set of variables that can muddle accurate comparisons.
Furthermore, establishments with substandard espresso tend to hide its flaws under volumes of milk. We liken this phenomenon to restaurants that can mask the flaws in a cut of meat by serving it well done. It’s the same reason why high-end tequilas are often wasteful in margaritas.
Although this guide focuses exclusively on the quality of espresso and not other methods of preparation, espresso preparation requires a significant amount of technical and artistic skill. Thus these espresso reviews serve as an indicator for other drinks such as cappuccinos and drip coffee. As with other gold standards, we never encounter good Thai restaurants that serve poor pad thai – or good pizza places that fail to make a good basic cheese pizza.
Most of us have at least some acknowledgement, if not respect, for the art and science of wine tasting. Yet when it comes to the concept of coffee tasting, many of us either draw a blank or presume it is something as relevant as milk tasting.
For many of us old enough to remember the Folgers Crystals TV commercials of the 1970s – where no one could taste that their fancy restaurant coffee had been secretly replaced – the general public’s concept of coffee tasting has not evolved much beyond that. However, coffee tasting is well established in professional circles, with international standards for the procedure, a somewhat standardized vocabulary, and a common set of criteria. (Elswhere on this site, we outline the common criteria used for all the coffee reviews in this guide: brightness (or acidity), aroma, body, flavor, and – particularly for espresso – crema.)
There are professionals in the coffee industry who perform this task routinely, not unlike a wine sommelier, through a process formally known as cupping. Yet instead of the elegance and refinement often associated with wine tasting, sucking, slurping, and spitting – and a series of other guttural gymnastics beyond the tolerances of acceptable dining etiquette – characterize the cupping ritual. (Part of this is because coffee cuppers are more often tasting for defects, rather than for ideal flavor, before purchasing a large shipment of coffee.)
For all the perceived snobberies that can accompany wine tasting, coffee tasting can rival many of them. Both have an agricultural foundation with significant sensitivities to climate, regions, and estates. Their qualities are significantly affected by numerous environmental, ingredient, and equipment factors – and by human technique. Both employ the use of blends to bring out more well-rounded characteristics.
And if you presumed wine was a far more complex tasting affair than coffee, you may be surprised to learn that coffee possesses over 1,500 aromatic and flavor compounds – compared with approximately 200 for wine.
All this is to say that the espresso tasting discriminations made in this guide may not make immediate sense at first. However, as with wine tasting, experiencing a variety of espressos will help you develop a better sense of what to taste and how these tastes may differ from café to café. It wasn’t that long ago that wines in America were mostly labeled as “red” or “white” instead of “cabernet sauvignon” or “chardonnay.”
Also as with wine tasting, you may ultimately discover that your definition of a great espresso varies widely from our own in this guide. That’s perfectly reasonable, as you need to define what’s best for you. The key is in identifying these consistent standards.
Rules of Engagement
In addition to the criteria above, here are some of the other rules of tasting that are adhered to for every review on this site:
- One taster, all espressos: This is perhaps the most difficult rule of all. What it means is that I, Greg Sherwin, personally taste and review all of the espressos on this list, rather than open it up to others. This, of course, limits how many can be reviewed and how complete the coverage can be. But it does creates a consistent yardstick with a single taster’s palate (which just happens to be mine!). There are many community sites out there open to user reviews from anyone — but consistency, a common methodology, and a common reference point is missing from all of them.
- The espresso must be consumed within one minute of serving: This is a rule I picked up from the excellent Espresso Italiano Tasting guide. But note that if a café serves an espresso five minutes after preparation, all bets are off; they should know better.
- The espresso is observed for crema, smelled for aroma, and tasted for brightness, body, and flavor — in that order.
- Tasting is performed on both the tongue and the back of the throat (the oral mucosa, although this is often associated with aroma).
- No colds: This seems pretty obvious, but your sense of taste and smell are often wrecked by headcolds and the like.
- No more than four reviews every four hours: It’s easy to experience sensory fatigue after downing a number of espressos in one sitting or just a walk through a neighborhood. For that reason, and to keep myself from completely wigging out on caffeine levels, I limit the number of reviews I will do in a given time period.