A blend of beans for espresso. Photo: Erin Meister.
The word "espresso," contrary to relatively common belief, has almost nothing at all to do with the beans themselves, but rather the magically delicious elixir they produce when put through the process. You can actually toss any beans into il molino and extract them using la macchina and what you'll have is, by most definitions, espresso.
But that doesn't mean it's going to taste very good. Find out why after the jump.
Think of the espresso machine as being like a kind of magnifying glass trained on the coffee: It highlights all the beautiful, nuanced and dynamic flavors that a bean is capable of, but it can also make the more prominent or potent qualities seem rather overwhelming. Brightness, or acidity in coffee (their fruit-like "pop") can be especially eye-popping if not balanced in some way.
Many coffee roasters create espresso blends to marry the flavor characteristics of several beans, and/or coffee at several roast levels together in the hopes of creating an overall harmony, or achieving a particularly flavor overtone. While one might be crafting an espresso that is "sweet and nutty with a buttery body," another might prefer "intense and rich with hints of dark chocolate and berry."
Of course, not all espresso has to be a blend. Much is being made lately of putting coffees from a single grower, farm or region to the test under the magnifying glass -- sometimes with very exciting results. But those results are somewhat dependent on the last "M" of espresso -- but you'll have to wait until next week to find out what it is.
What is it that you're looking for in an espresso? Do you think a blend is best, or does single-origin coffee reign supreme? Tell us in the comments.
Erin Meister trains baristas for North Carolina-based Counter Culture Coffee and sporadically maintains the blog Meet the Press Pot from her home in New York City. This is part of a series for the caffeine-addicted.