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In explaining coffee to the general public, us industry-folk go to a lot of trouble to compare it to other foods products. I often compare dark roasts to over-cooked meat, talk about the body of a cup in relation to different varietals of wine, explain roasting by likening it to popping popcorn, and we are all guilty of using different fruits, vegetables and chocolates when describing the flavour profile of a particular coffee.
To explain espresso, I think of it in whiskey vs. beer terms – you can use the same grain to make either, but depending on your distilling methods, you will end up with distinctly different beverages.
Many people are under the misguided impression that espresso is a type of coffee. It is not. There are two main species of coffee that you have likely heard of: Arabica and Robusta. Without diving too deep into the genealogy of coffee, Arabica is the vastly superior species – grown at a higher altitude, more difficult to cultivate and containing less caffeine but a far more diverse and interesting range of flavours. Robustas are cheap, filler-type beans that you will typically find in coffees that come in tins and the instant, freeze-dried stuff that populate the back of your grandmother’s cupboard (and also in some “Italian” style blends).
Espresso is not a species of coffee. It is simply a method of extraction – using water and pressure to turn ground coffee into a liquid. So practically speaking, if you run out of “espresso” beans, you can put anything into your grinder and what comes out will still in fact be espresso.
Of course the logical question at this point has to be, why then are some bags of coffee labelled as espresso? Well, espresso blends are those that are mixed and roasted to work best through the espresso extraction method. There are dozens of ways to make coffee: espresso, French press, Chemex and Aeropress to name a few. By utilizing a range of techniques and tools, the same coffee can actually taste drastically different. At this point, espresso is the only method that has really been honed in on and had coffees “designed” for it, but in actual fact, every method of brewing coffee could justify the same amount of attention.
In the case of espresso, most consumers tend to like full-bodied, chocolaty and balanced coffees. While many new-school roasters are deviating from those kinds of flavours and pushing the limits of what an espresso is (one of coffee’s many existential crises), you will find that most are roasted and blended in such a way that those characteristics are highlighted.
And despite what some may try to tell you, espressos are not necessarily roasted dark (although they can be if that is your preference) and increasingly we are seeing lighter roasted espressos on the market and single-origin coffees being made on an espresso machine.
So next time you are at your local café buying beans for home, tell your barista how you brew at home and let them suggest a coffee that will match up. Brewing great coffee at home is difficult enough – you might as well start with the right ingredients.