What Makes a Perfect Espresso?

There’s espresso and then there’s Espresso! Seriously, anybody can learn to pull a shot from an espresso machine, but that doesn’t mean the beverage being pulled would put a smile on the face of Signore Americano. It is an easy beverage to get wrong, and that is even more likely now that the urban American third wave style of coffee, focused on single-origins, has taken hold.

Espresso, in its essence and in the cultural context of Italian tradition, is a very precise thing. Seven to eight grams of espresso to one ounce of water, at 200°F and no more than 30 seconds of extraction, according to Giorgio Milos, the master barista of Illy in Trieste, Italy. And he should know, Illy defines Italian espresso for much of the world. Illy espresso roast is a blend of 9 different beans, enabling Illy to formulate a consistent flavor experience, year after year, recalibrating with each harvest by modifying the roast and quantity of each bean to achieve their signature espresso.

In that context, espresso doesn’t fit into the “single origin” mantra of third wave coffee connoisseurs, and it’s likely that Europeans who are accustomed to a more robust espresso experience would turn their noses up at a trendy American espresso bar.

But that does not mean a single origin espresso is bad! Far from it. Espresso extraction remains one of the most precise ways to consistently extract coffee oils and understand the full expression of a bean’s flavor potential. But with that said, it is also possible that some roasts, especially light roasts, won’t stand up to the extraction process. Beans that taste fine as a slow pour can easily become too sour as an espresso because the time, pressure, and temperature differences cause volatile flavor components to be extracted in different amounts.

If you ever want to understand the Italian fascination with espresso, you really need to have it prepared properly, with a good espresso roast. If you cannot buy local beans that are blended specifically for espresso, you can try Illy coffee. Their beans are available in 8.8 oz. cans that are pressurized with nitrogen to inhibit oxidation and the off-gassing of carbon dioxide. The means their beans can be stored much longer than any other store shelved beans, though they will stale more quickly once a can is opened and the beans, no longer under pressure, are allowed to breathe (the built-up internal carbon dioxide, held in check by the pressurized can, can now be expelled from the bean, replacing it with oxygenated air more rapidly than freshly roasted beans).

Ultimately, it always comes down to taste. Drink what you enjoy, but it’s nice to broaden experiences from time to time, because you may discover a new favorite!

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