So, I realise that my last post might have had a rather annoying tone, but this one is probably going to as well, so consider yourself forewarned. However, there was a comment about distinguishing between different types of espresso/coffee, and I thought I’d write a weblog on the subject, since I am such an expert (not).
I must confess that I am a coffee snob, and was one long before I became a barista and learned the technicalities of why I cannot drink low quality coffee. So, I have to admit that Starbucks is not the worst coffee out there–in fact, it is of better quality than the shit most companies try to pass off as coffee–and some of my friends get on my case about the fact that I don’t drink bad coffee, but unlike sex, when it’s bad, it’s not still pretty damn good. It’s just bad. I’d rather not drink anything than drink a cup of really shit coffee.
That said, there’s also the consideration of individual palates. I grew up in a home where there was a strong European influence (I have a number of relatives who reside there and a grandmother who wishes she still did), so espresso or dark roast coffee was consumed. Generally speaking, this is not the “American” preference in terms of coffee, and some of the beverages that are most popular in my coffee shop are beverages which I find gross. So, I don’t think one can generalize as to what will be most well-liked–some people like a weaker brew or don’t particularly care about the nuances of espresso.
Those facts notwithstanding, I shall share with you the things that strike me when evaluating espresso quality.
Firstly, the obvious one is that it has to be brewed at the proper temperature so as not to produce any bitterness or sourness. That’s a given.
Secondly, in my opinion, a very important part of espresso is the crema–it is part of its character and essential to the balance of texture and taste that I so love about espresso. This is produced by the process of compacting the espresso grounds into the cup through which the shot will be pulled (i.e. the water diffused through the grounds to produce the magical liquid)–very few coffee shops still adhere to the “old school” practice of pulling and packing espresso shots by hand, and Starbucks is definitely not one of them. I am of the opinion that the absence of hand-packing produces an inferior crema, if it even produces one at all (yes, many times at Starbucks my espresso shot has been–gasp–missing the crema. This appalls me for obvious reasons.)
Another issue for me is also most likely due to the absence of hand-packing, and that is the texture of the espresso. Espresso is meant to have a very distinct consistency which is quite unique, yet unmistakable. It is not meant to be watery or similar to the consistency of American coffee–it is more velvety, more dense. I’ve never before attempted to come up with words for the consistency of espresso so I’m not sure I can adequately express what it is that you’re looking for in words, but it suffices to say that once you have had proper espresso (or had a lot of it), you will be able to tell when it is not of the correct composition and balance.
Lastly, as with most things, good food and good drinks come down to good ingredients. Again, I’m not saying that Starbucks is the worst offender of using low quality coffee and espresso beans, but it again suffices to say that the beans they use are not the best beans available and that is clear in the finished product which lacks the depth of flavour one finds in espresso produced from higher quality beans.
These are just a few things off the top of my head that are most flagrant to me when I encounter bad espresso–there are probably many more ways of telling what “good” espresso is (fyi: I was also told that the crema should make a “tiger stripe” pattern 30 seconds to one minute after it reaches the cup) but I’m a palate girl through and through, and I trust what my palate tells me…so these comments are based upon my own taste preferences and are therefore certainly subjective and arguable.
As I said, we all must go to Starbucks at times, but their espresso definitely doesn’t touch real espresso.
Perhaps that is why they feel the need to combine it with so much milk and syrup…
(Hope this is helpful to someone out there!!)