Random ravings on coffee tradition
Oct 10, 2008
One of the challenges of developing a product from scratch is converting improved concepts of function into new physical forms that are robust and practical–and anticipate the brewing needs of the growing boutique coffee segment. Traditional European manufacturers of equipment have a huge stake in equipment fashioned to perform a particular way. Most notably the “Italian Tradition” of espresso brewing.
This tradition is not just one of short shots of straight espresso, but also one of coffee blends made up of copious amounts of robusta mixed in with other secret coffee ingredients to enhance crema formation, even at the expense of flavor. It is also one where the exact set points of brew temperature and pressure are of little or no consequence.
How many times have you heard the axiom from someone returning from a culinary tour of southern Europe that the best way to tell a great espresso is if a teaspoon of sugar will linger on its thick layer of crema for five seconds before sinking into the cup? A great espresso may have this characteristic, just as it might not. And really we taste with our tongues not with our eyes. The best way to tell a great espresso is to taste it as soon as the shot is pulled.
It’s arguable that coffee is a learned taste. We can learn to like even the bitterest brew, especially if we shoot it down quickly. However, the trend among Third Wave roasters and retailers especially in North America and Northern Europe has centered on the genuinely appetizing appeal of coffee. There are so many flavor possibilities inherent in the coffee itself, if time is taken to isolate great coffees on the basis of flavor.
Taking coffee in this direction is a movement to de-commodify a product that is hardwired into our collective thinking as “the second most traded commodity after oil”. Until very recently coffee was viewed as monolithic. I would argue that even the industry’s early efforts to differentiate between robusta and arabica mainly highlighted the difference between the London coffee exchange (robusta) from the American coffee exchange (arabica). Except in the hands of a few very small roasters, coffee has never blossomed as a drink with much potential for nuance and variation–even as an arabica.
Today the story is different. A small number of influential roasters are becoming truly specialized. Their sourcing efforts are direct. Berry, fruit, spice, and savory flavors are isolated in coffees from particular countries, coops, and cultivars and purchased in small micro-lots. This is a new development and those who think they have experienced it all should seek out these very special coffees because the flavor of “specialty” coffee today is utterly different than it was even a few years ago–so much more nuanced and enjoyable. You will be floored by what you experience.
The genuine pursuit of excellence in the preparation and enjoyment of coffees of a particular provenance and terroir has become the hallmark of the new Third Wave movement. Coffee drinking which on one continent is largely a caffeine delivery system has become on these shores a genuine culinary specialization.
So what kind of machine lives up to these new standards of coffee? This will be the topic of my next posting. . . and since pictures speak louder than words. . . I will be supplying a few spy shots of the Slayer espresso machine, the first ultra-traditional brewing device of its kind.