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Thoughts on an Italian Espresso Blend

Postby another_jim on Sat Sep 25, 2010 12:36 pm

Prologue We all make fun of Italian espresso blends and of the people who use them. Why pay eight to twelve dollars per pound for cheap stale coffee when you can get high quality fresh coffee for roughly the same price? We especially made fun of Ken Davids when he reviewed some of these blends, comparing them to US ones, and declaring the most plebeian of all Italian espresso, Segafredo's bar blend, the winner.

But then it occurred to me that I haven't pulled an Italian blend for years; and the last time I did, I wasn't a very good shot puller, nor did I know much about coffee. So I'm not being fair when I make fun of these coffees. I wonder how many others making fun also do so without having given them a serious tryout after they became experts.

That is why I'm staring at a 1 kilo package of Essse Caffe's Miscela Masini. Essse is Segafredo's premium brand, and Miscela Masini is Essse's top blend. It was roasted on July 10th, 2010, about 11 weeks ago, and expires on July 1, 2011. I suppress my snickers and start pulling shots.

The Puzzle How can stale coffee be this good? Miscela Masini isn't quite up to the standard of the best coffees we reviewed in the favorite blends project; but it completely spanks anything you'll pick up in a supermarket, and is better than most of the fresh espresso blends done by specialty roasters in the US. Solving this puzzle can perhaps even help us improve the blends we normally drink, which use high end, fresh coffees.

Taste & Shot Pulling The dry aroma reminds me of a distilled, barrel aged grain mash; not quite whisky, but perhaps if whisky were made of buckwheat. There are also hints of smoke and nuts.

All the shots have a dense layer of crema and heavy mouthfeel. There is no acidity. Shots pulled at high doses or ristretto flow rates taste mostly of wood, but dosed at the Italian 14 grams and ground for normal flow, the taste opens up into a complex mix of roast flavors. The experience is reminiscent of oak paneling, leather chairs, brandy and cigars. If you are looking for fruit, acidity, crispness, you are in the completely wrong place.

The description Ken Davids gave of the Segafredo is close to what I'm getting, but this blend is cleaner and tighter. In essence, while this blend has no origin flavors or acidity, the roast flavors are far more complex than those of any of the coffees in the HB reviews.

Unlike many other Italian blends, this espresso does not require sugar. However, it is neither sweet nor crisp, rather the bitterness is balanced by a fat and buttery mouthfeel and alcoholic aromatics.

Staleness By Design While Illy is an acidic coffee that needs to be fresh, the situation with this blend, and probably most other Italian blends, is different. It is designed to taste as good or better stale than fresh. The blend is a mix of about 25% of lightly roasted robustas, 50% of darker roasted arabicas, and about 25% of a darker roasted robusta peaberries. The darker roasted beans are not oily, and won't get skunky. All the coffees seem to be slightly baked ahead of the first crack, and then finished very fast afterward, so that the acids are baked out, and the roast flavors, both the nutty, woody and toasty ones from before the first crack, and the chocolate and distillates that develop at the second crack, are accentuated. Unlike the aromatics and acids of light roasts, or the oils of very dark roasts, these baked roast flavors are relatively immune from staling.

Robusta Reconsidered And one of the blend components is better staled than fresh. Fresh robustas smell of rubber and solvents. But the brandy aromatics that Ken Davids liked so much in the Segafredo, and that are powerfully present here, is what happens to the Robusta rubber and solvent after it's sat for a month or two. Or at least it's what happens to the Robustas used in Segafredo coffees.

Let me be clear about the potential here. This coffee, over two months old, produces a dense thick crema, due to the robusta. The robusta also creates an ultra-complex roast taste, and smells like brandy. What would happen if you took this same two month old robusta and combined it not with an indifferent stale arabica tasting like nuts, but a fresh roasted one brimming with fruit and floral aromas? Maybe a completely brilliant espresso blend?

Just a thought brought on by an Italian espresso blend.
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Postby earlgrey_44 on Sat Sep 25, 2010 1:23 pm

Motivated by some similar thoughts to yours, Jim, last year I bought on impluse a brick of preground Italian coffee. I do not remember which one, but it was one of the more expensive examples of the bewildering variety displayed at the Italian grocery that I frequent. It was an "all-purpose" grind said to be appropriate for espresso machines, moka pots and drip, (quite a magic grind indeed).

It ran way too fast in the e-61 Mondiale to be of interest, so I tried it in my vac pot which I was experimenting with a lot at the time.

The resulting cup was distinctively shocking. It had a noticeably heavy body and little aroma. No acid bite at all - smooth as silk. Simple but very pleasant roast-maillard flavors.
I had expected a biting bitterness but it was simply not there. While not in the same ball-park as a fresh, well-chosen arabica varietal brewed as drip, or a chocolate/fruit high end espresso, I would much prefer that cup to most things I've been served in good restaurants and peoples homes.

I thought immediately that I had bumped into the substance behind the Illy strategy - and the reason for posts on HB that keep appearing from those who been around the specialty espresso world and still defend their affection for at least some Italian beans.
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Postby ethiopie on Sat Sep 25, 2010 3:49 pm

another_jim wrote:The Puzzle How can stale coffee be this good?

All the shots have a dense layer of crema and heavy mouthfeel. There is no acidity. Shots pulled at high doses or ristretto flow rates taste mostly of wood, but dosed at the Italian 14 grams and ground for normal flow, the taste opens up into a complex mix of roast flavors.

The blend is a mix of about 25% of lightly roasted robustas, 50% of darker roasted arabicas, and about 25% of a darker roasted robusta peaberries.

Robusta Reconsidered And one of the blend components is better staled than fresh. Fresh robustas smell of rubber and solvents. But the brandy aromatics that Ken Davids liked so much in the Segafredo, and that are powerfully present here, is what happens to the Robusta rubber and solvent after it's sat for a month or two. Or at least it's what happens to the Robustas used in Segafredo coffees.

Let me be clear about the potential here. This coffee, over two months old, produces a dense thick crema, due to the robusta. The robusta also creates an ultra-complex roast taste, and smells like brandy.


Jim, thank you very much for this post.

I think the key message is "dosed at the Italian 14 grams and ground for normal flow."

I'm not certain about "And one of the blend components is better staled than fresh. Fresh robustas smell of rubber and solvents", though.

I've had fresh roasted blends with robusta without a trace of rubber and solvents, but they are devilishly hard to find. The only places where I found them were small, local roasters in Italy and France (yes, yes, there's some good coffee in France). Unfortunately, I don't know how fresh the robusta in the blend was. If you ask when the beans were roasted, the standard reply at these places is "this week".

BTW, I'm currently drinking Caffé Gioia "60 % arabica" (http://www.labcaffe.com/vis_dettaglio.p...vello=1505).
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Postby TrlstanC on Sat Sep 25, 2010 4:02 pm

I was in Italy recently, and had the typical Italian espresso experience, above average espresso everywhere, but nothing really stood out. I had the same reaction to most of the coffees, I could tell they were stale from the complete lack of some flavors, but enjoyed the strong roast flavors and kept wondering what they would've tasted like fresh. The almost complete lack of bitterness was always nice, but I missed the lack of any real acidity too.

I didn't know that robusta typically makes up such a large portion of these blends, so now I realize that they probably wouldn't have tasted any different fresh because the arabica beans in the blend are pretty boring to start off with, they're really only contributing a single note to the flavor. But the experiment Jim suggests, "italian style" robusta beans (aged and with a mix of roast styles to get a variety flavors) blended with some fresh artisan roasted arabica might produce the shot I was hoping to find.

Although that being said, looking back at all the best shots I've tasted in the last few years, they've all been top quality SOs from some of the best roasters around, maybe I just prefer the clarity of SOs, but I think it would have to be a pretty amazing blend to make it in to my personal top 5. Of course blends with robusta in them aren't very common from the top roasters anymore, but apparently that wasn't always the case: Ratio of Robusta to Arabica in Espresso Blends?
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Postby another_jim on Sat Sep 25, 2010 4:47 pm

My saying that this is a 50/50 blend is a guess, it could be anywhere from 65/35 arabica/robusta to the other way around.

I wrote the original post over the last few days. Drinking this blend continuously is a bit like eating nothing but fried foods. It's fun to start with, but after a while the fattiness of this style of blend gets cloying in a way that crisp, acidic coffees don't. But that could be a result of my habitual taste.

My main point is that this blend has a lot of complexity and depth in the roast flavors, more than high acid coffees; and that this complexity doesn't go stale. This may not be interesting for some people, but for me it's very tempting to think about ways of getting this along with the top end of a good SO.

My other point is the sheer intelligence of the blending and roasting strategy -- if budget and logistic considerations compel you to use cheap and staled coffee, why not come up with something that is not hurt by these constraints?
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Postby yakster on Sat Sep 25, 2010 5:25 pm

I was considering trying to pick some up until I read your last reply. I may still consider it if it's available in the local market here in Vimercate, but I'd rather save the room to pick up some coffee from Sweden before I fly back.

The last time I was in Vimercate was the end of July into the beginning of August, and the one day I had off to hit Milan to seek out great espresso my two main targets, Peck and Pasticceria Marchesi were both shuttered, either because of the August holiday or because they were just closed that Sunday. I drank a lot of espresso stopping all over Milan but nothing great with the Housebrandt espresso served at the hotel in Vimercate being the best and most consistent with a hazelnut flavor.

This time I'm back and I was able to hit both Peck and Pasticceria Marchesi. I had a great lunch at Peck and picked up some great teas for my daughter for her birthday, but the espressos at these places were nothing to write home about. They were good, but not great and they were more then a little bitter. I think I may have caught just a hint of orange in the Peck coffee. When I went upstairs to shop around for coffee and tea and have lunch, I noticed all their coffees in large bins with a lot of selection but probably not much turnover.

I came back to the hotel tonight to have dinner and wanted to have another good espresso but as I've been having trouble sleeping these last couple of nights decided against it. I'm thinking that the robusta in the espresso is keeping me up, along with the jet lag, and I'm even wondering if they've switched brands because it doesn't seem quite as good.

I am really starting to miss freshly roasted coffee with some acidity, fruit, and high end. It might be interesting to buy some Essse Caffe's Miscela Masini to take home with me, but I certainly won't want to start drinking it right away.

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Postby plamberti on Sat Sep 25, 2010 5:30 pm

Never thought to read about "miscela Masini" on an american blog! I'm using this blend from 1 year or so and get almost what Jim described. I buy little quantity at a time, from a very nice bar, from a package just opened. In Italy coffee packs are grinded in the first month from roast (I don't ever consider drugstore coffee). My experience with miscela Masini (and with other high blends) is that I get good results within the first 2 days from pack opening, from the 3rd day coffee start to stale.

There are other blends, in Italy, from small local roasters driven by very high commitment on quality coffee. Better than miscela Masini, far better than Illy if we consider 100% arabica, and more expensive. In another thread I already told about "Caffe' Terzi" in Bologna where you can taste many mix of 100% arabica (natural and washed) and some 100% robusta too.

Can start a business shipping high blends to USA... :)

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Postby Alan Frew on Sun Sep 26, 2010 2:09 am


Robusta Reconsidered And one of the blend components is better staled than fresh. Fresh robustas smell of rubber and solvents. But the brandy aromatics that Ken Davids liked so much in the Segafredo, and that are powerfully present here, is what happens to the Robusta rubber and solvent after it's sat for a month or two. Or at least it's what happens to the Robustas used in Segafredo coffees.

Let me be clear about the potential here. This coffee, over two months old, produces a dense thick crema, due to the robusta. The robusta also creates an ultra-complex roast taste, and smells like brandy. What would happen if you took this same two month old robusta and combined it not with an indifferent stale arabica tasting like nuts, but a fresh roasted one brimming with fruit and floral aromas? Maybe a completely brilliant espresso blend?

Just a thought brought on by an Italian espresso blend.


2 words: Indian Robustas.

Clean, neutral, no off smells or tastes. About as far from Viet Robusta as possible.

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Postby another_jim on Sun Sep 26, 2010 3:29 am

Alan Frew wrote:2 words: Indian Robustas... Clean, neutral, no off smells or tastes. About as far from Viet Robusta as possible.


I'm sure you're right, but it wasn't the point I was trying to make.

I think the usual explanation that Italian roasters have proprietary connections to perfect robustas, unavailable to others, is wrong. Instead, they are using the "bad" robustas in ways we do not understand.

I'm guessing they deliberately source robustas with the right kind of solvent smell, bake them early in the roast so they taste very woody and bready, and then stale them until the solvent, bread, and wood flavors morph into the whiskey-like feel that turns this blend from boring to fascinating.

This is not what we consider artisan coffee roasting, i.e. the quest to bring out the natural excellence of each coffee; instead it is coffee engineering to get a taste of distinction that has nothing to do with natural coffee flavors, and everything to do with the flavors preferred by picky Italian espresso drinkers (this is a premium miscela).

Clearly, the artisan and engineering approaches are two ends of the coffee roasting spectrum. We do not give the engineering end enough respect, since the mass market roasters in the US, and perhaps Oz, are so unconcerned by taste. But clearly the Italian mass market roasters are all about taste.

In our espresso tests, the Dolce blend from Vivace came close to this flavor engineering approach, and was also a pleasant surprise for me. But I think the skill set of roasters in Italy makes successful flavor engineering a lot easier and more usual for them than the skill set of US specialty roasters makes it for us.
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Postby michaelbenis on Sun Sep 26, 2010 5:45 am

It's nice to hear the Italians and robusta getting a much-deserved re-evaluation. Some of the small roasters are equally adept and often more adventurous, as they can be without the large market that a large roaster like Segafredo targets.

There's nothing from my experience which leads me to believe that the Italians are less exacting in their choice of robusta than the arabicas in their blends.

Anyone who has any doubts about the potential flavours, aromas and complexity available from a robusta grown to quality criteria should try the Java Semeru (in UK you can get it as a SO roast from Londinium Espresso). The only limit on the use of this fantastic bean is the high caffeine content. More than two cups and you will buzz like an electric spinning top; more than three to four and you will spend the next hour in the smallest room in the house. :shock:

But the flavour, mouthfeel and aroma are astounding.

I would be surprised, personally, if the Italian high-end roasters were not using this quality of robusta. After all, their cheaper blends have all the characteristics one would expect of a cheaper robusta.

Cheers

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