Kees van der Westen's
La Marzocco based Speedster
We are currently experiencing a new wave of innovation as the
electronics revolution is catching up with coffee machines. There are
fully automated, push button espresso machines which grind and make a
fresh shot or cup in one touch. They do a better job than poorly trained
people, but not as good as the best trained baristas. Electronics are
also prompting a wave of new manual machine designs that allow more
precision and adjustment of both brewing temperature and pressure.
Will this new wave again redefine what we call an espresso? Perhaps
it will, and probably it should.
First, a development on the technical side: A good contemporary
espresso has a layer of crema, but much of the coffee is still liquid.
However, every espresso hound has experienced shots that are almost all
foam and stable for long enough to drink as such. Increasing precision
in the brewing technology is allowing such all-foam shots to become the
There is also a more radical change on the horizon. Espresso brewing
has a weakness. While it does wonders for rather ordinary, low grown,
low acid coffees from Brazil and Indonesia, it produces too sour and
acrid a taste when used with most of the finest high grown, high acid
coffees from Central America or Africa. These "grand cru" coffees still
have to be brewed in the old-fashioned way, or used in only small
amounts for espresso blends. I hope that changes in technique, grinder
and machine design will soon bring the very best coffees to the little
Why do I think this will happen?
The current espresso-making technique was developed in Italy, where
espresso is cheap and regarded as the equivalent of take-out coffee.
They have refined it to the point where there is no better way to
prepare everyday coffees. But in the rest of the world, the situation is
very different. Espresso is sold as a premium drink because it is so
much better than the local everyday coffees. This has created a large
number of espresso enthusiasts whose attitude often bewilders Italians.
With the advent of the Internet, these enthusiasts, comprised of both
professionals and their amateur customers, have come together and are
improving on the state of the art. Manufacturers serving this market
make more precise machines; roasters use higher quality coffees in their
espresso blends; and baristas push the envelope of skill, especially
since the advent of the Barista World Championships. In this friendly
competition to be the best, people will want to use the most premium
coffees they can and demand equipment able to unlock their wonders. Most
of the new innovators will probably not be Italian, although it will
probably be Italian manufacturers that make use of the discoveries.
But there is also a looming shadow—the number of coffee
drinkers is declining. Mass coffee marketeers have misread the coffee
market for the last fifty years, and their products have become ever
cheaper and more vile. Few people new to coffee would knowlingly choose
to drink Folgers or Maxwell House as they are now. The specialty coffee
roasters of the 80s did create a new, younger coffee public, but they
now have been sidetracked into pandering with ever more massive and
sweet milk concoctions mislabeled as espresso. These drinks are
gradually moving into Coke and Pepsi's turf, and when these giants
finally notice and bring the stuff out in cans at fifty cents a pop,
even Starbucks is going to get squashed. Espresso is in danger of
becoming just another soft drink flavor.
The widening range of equipment and beverages labeled as 'espresso'
has prompted specialty coffee associations to issue standards for
genuine espresso. Here is a link to the Italian
and the best American
standard. These standards are excellent, but nevertheless, I have some
problems with them:
- Being voluntary, they do nothing to curtail the misuse of the term
'espresso' by the worst elements of the industry,
- Having been adopted by the best baristas for competition, the best
cafés for their practice, and the best manufacturers for
equipment design, they may inhibit the cream of the industry from
- Having been negotiated by large industry players, these standards
do not specify freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee, and thereby get
the details right while missing the main point: fresh coffee. Coffee
freshly roasted, ground, and prepared is the one thing that cannot be
canned and mass marketed. It should be the first line in every
If you are reading this, it's likely you are an actual or budding
espresso enthusiast. The latest innovations have been driven and even
developed by amateur and professional enthusiasts. It is also
enthusiasts who can put a brake to the bastardization of coffee and
espresso into ever more inane soft drinks. My fervent hope is that this
introduction to the art of home espresso will help.
Next page: Espresso blends...