Favorite Espresso Blends 2010

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#1: Post by HB »

For the site's first five years, the reviews focused on espresso machines and grinders. Recognizing that coffee is the most important contributor to exceptional espresso, HB has expanded the popular Second Look review format to include peer evaluations of espresso blends. For the inaugural review, the theme is favorites nominated by Team HB and the site membership (poll).

Over the course of one week, we'll review two coffees from this list. During this period, this thread will be locked so peer reviewers can post their comments together, then the thread will be opened for public comments. Those who wish to "follow along" are invited to order the coffees under review and post their results (e.g., for this first week, we'll post our results the weekend of May 8th so members can order on Sunday the 9th for their own home testing the following weekend when the review thread is open for public comments).

Consistent with the site's motto "Your guide to exceptional espresso", we'll include explanations of the effects of manipulating the brew parameters on a given espresso's taste profile. It's our hope that this focus on technique will shorten the dial-in time for those trying the reviewed coffees for the first time. For example, we will include:
  • Recommended brew parameters for straight espresso (dose, temperature, brew ratio)
  • Recommended brew parameters for other preparations, if applicable (e.g., lattes, macchiatos, Americanos)
  • Peak flavor window and fade time
  • More to be added as our review process develops.
Please note that the order and timing of reviewing the "favorites" will be announced in Nominees for "Favorite Espresso Blends" review.

DISCLAIMER: With the exception of Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Espresso Vivace Roasteria, evaluation coffees were provided for review purposes by the roaster. Other than said samples, the reviewers receive no financial or material compensation of any kind from the roasters or Home-Barista.com for evaluating these coffees.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#2: Post by HB (original poster) »

Espresso Toscano by Counter Culture Coffee

Counter Culture Coffee was the clear leader in the membership poll, so naturally the review kicks off with their most popular espresso blend, Espresso Toscano. They describe it as "A wonderful espresso roasted and blended in the sweet coffee tradition of Central Italy. Sweet and mild, with notes of caramel, hazelnut, and dark chocolate, Toscano has built quite a following of professional baristas and home espresso enthusiasts alike."
Dan Kehn

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#3: Post by cannonfodder »

My Toscano waited patiently until the 6th, roast date was the 30th. The beans were a nice milk chocolate in appearance with no surface oils. The dry aroma is quite pleasing. I dumped half the bag, around 2/3 of a pound, into the Cimbali MAX grinder. Counter Culture recommended 198F with a 19.5 gram dose and 1.5oz extraction in 26 seconds. 19 grams is a lot of coffee for a double basket. I had to use a Marzocco ridgeless triple basket for that much coffee. Even then it was difficult. My machine of choice is an Elektra A3 and it likes to have headspace.

When changing coffee's I do a backflush to clean the system prior to starting on the new blend. I got out the scale to measure the dose, did a quick grinder purge and dove in. My first observation is how much volume this coffee produces. It appeared to be quite fluffy. At 19.5 grams the triple basket was mounded up well over the rim. The first shot ran tight which I expected at that dose. It pulled barely 1oz over 30 seconds. Talk about thick and gooey. I went ahead and tossed back the diminutive shot just to see what it was like. It tasted of almond extract. Very intense almond but equally intense bitters.

After a couple more shots I got the grinder dialed in. I was getting a very pleasing to the eye shot. Nice syrupy shots that flowed at a nice deep red hue. At the recommended shot volume the flow was still far from blonding. I was getting a heavy buttery mouth. Almost mousse like in texture. The prominent flavors were almond, some bakers chocolate and what I would swear was marzipan, no real fruit notes and medium to low acidity. It had a nice sweetness and a touch of bitter, which is why I say bakers chocolate.

I decided to try a lower, more Elektra friendly dose. I went with 17-18 grams with 0.5 increments. At the lower dose the berry notes came out but at the expense of the body. The cup thinned quite a bit and the dark chocolate faded into the background as did the almond. The berry was at the expense of the sweetness. I could not pick out the particular berry, more like a generic berry candy. Not one dominate berry flavor, but a blending of flavors. The closest I could get was possibly black cherry. I tried bracketing the temperatures from 197 to 202 as well as the shot timing from 25-31 seconds. I could not recover that body and sweetness and there was an off note in the cup. Could not put my finger on it but the coffee did not like these lower doses.

One thing became obvious quickly. The blend does not like higher temperatures. While it was more tolerant of lower temperatures, anything at 200+ brought out a bitter and earthy note. Earthy in a bad way, dirty peat and ferment, so you may want to keep the temperatures down.

I decided to revisit the lower brew ratios at both the reduced dose and the recommended dose. The extractions returned to those syrupy gooey flows but I could not shake that bitter almond I experienced with the first shot.

I did not care for the coffee in milk. At standard six ounce cappuccino ratios the coffee simply got lost. The acidity vanished as did most of the nut. A slight chocolate note remained but so did that off note I picked up earlier. Definitely a straight shot blend for me. It worked OK in smaller machiatto sized drinks but I could still not shake that off and slightly bitter note. I will stick to straight shots with this blend.

My experience, 19-19.5 gram doses pulled at lower temperatures (197-199) worked best. Their original parameters of 1.5 ounces in 26 seconds was spot on for me. Longer extractions and higher temperatures brought out the bitters and peat.
Dave Stephens

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#4: Post by malachi »

Thoughts on the Toscano.

To me this isn't really what I would describe as a "Northern Italian" style espresso (as it is advertised).
It strongly reminds me of the classic PNW espressos that dominated the USBC competitions about 5 years ago (think Zoka Paladino). It's what I would describe as a "classic north american commercial espresso blend" (what I sometimes describe as "Old School" - not in the sense of tired or dated but rather of a specific style as described above). This is a good thing - there are solid reasons for the success of this style of espresso blend.

In general I found it to be a very simple flavor profile - pretty one dimensional - but pleasurable and reliable.

Flavors and aromatics are dominated by almond notes. Depending on the extraction (in particular the brew temp) this can range from marzipan through amaretto to almond extract to bitter almond. When pulled well there is a nice caramel and a lingering finish of dark chocolate. This chocolate can range (again depending on brew temp) from a light bittersweet chocolate to dutch processed cocoa to bakers' chocolate.

There are few aromatics and only when pulled precisely do you get any fruit (dried dark cherry, hints of some nectarine).

My sweet spot ending up being:
- 198f
- 18g (LM OEM double)
- moderately slow flow
- 1.75oz in 28s

This gave me burnt caramel (as in "burnt caramel sauce" not in the sense of something that has been burned), tons of bitter chocolate in the finish, some marzipan and hints of dried cherry. Very thick body and great visual appearance.

In general I found the straight shots dominated by bitters, with some sweetness. I found very little acidity, no sours and no umami.

In a short milk drink, the espresso rounded out as the fats softened the bitters and the results was a quite nice drink.

One interesting thing about this espresso was that it seemed very, very tolerant of barista technique flaws. I could get it to work with a wide range of doses, flow rates, etc. While the flavor profile would change - the resulting shots were roughly equivalent in terms of quality. In other words, this is an espresso that is very forgiving of inconsistency when it comes to the barista working with it.

On the other hand, I found it really intolerant of brew temps higher than about 199f. At higher temps it became very ashy / oily with some strong cod liver notes. In addition, at temps that were too low, a strong defect note started to emerge. In other words, while this is an espresso that is forgiving when it comes to barista consistency - it is intolerant of brew temp variance.

There is a smoky / woody / dirty note that I was unable to fully tame. This flavor is strongest when shots were heavily updosed and pulled ristretto - and oddly enough also when dosed light and pulled long. The brew parameters noted above seemed to minimize this "off" flavor the best. The shots would still show that off flavor, but to be fair, it is a flavor I'm particularly sensitive to I think. And it tended to be pretty well hidden by the chocolate.

When cupped, the coffee was quite flat and had both ash and smoke notes. In addition, as it cooled a strong "mulchy" note appeared. A quick visual inspection shows some defect and some tipping.
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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#5: Post by HB (original poster) »

Counter Culture Coffee's roasterie is located in Durham, North Carolina; it's a 15 minute drive from my house and 5 minutes from my office. For the last five years, they've welcomed local espresso enthusiasts from around the Triangle to join them in their espresso lab, every Friday from 7:30-9:00AM (public cuppings are scheduled at 10AM at the same location). I've enjoyed many Friday mornings at Counter Culture socializing with locals, learning from the staff, and sharing coffee.

One part of this experience I enjoy the most is watching the development process behind their blends. Although many consumers assume that blends are developed in secret and never changed, the truth is that blends must constantly be reworked as the season and crops change. What Counter Culture Coffee calls Espresso Toscano isn't a formula, it's a defined characteristic the coffee director (Peter Giuliano), head roaster Tim Hill, and other staff members strive to fulfill each week. For other artisan coffee roasters, the same process repeats itself, which is why this thread is named "Favorites Espresso Blends 2010" in recognition of the seasonal nature of coffee.

The Toscano blend I've known over the years is best represented by caramel notes, creamy mouthfeel, and a sweet finish. Depending on the type of pull (ristretto, normale), other flavors like chocolates and bitters in their various degree emerge. In the dolce vita tradition, Toscano is a simple, forgiving blend. It's ideal for those developing their skills as a barista.

With that preamble, yesterday and today I revisited this blend, using the Compak K10 WBC grinder and Elektra Semiautomatica. Following Tim's advice, I let it rest a full 7 days, updosed slightly (16 grams for this particular espresso machine), and pulled at a temperature around 199F. The first extraction had a brew ratio around 80%, yielding rich crema with sharp overtones of bitter sweet Baker's chocolate. I adjusted the grind coarser through successive extractions, ultimately arriving at a brew ratio closer to 70% and the simple, smooth, chocolate and marzipan espresso I expected (higher brew ratios were marred by bitter chocolates, smokiness, and lacked sweetness).

In addition to raising the brew ratio (16 grams dry ground coffee to produce 23 grams of liquid espresso), I also experimented with declining brew temperatures. Unlike the flat brew temperature profiles extolled by La Marzocco and similar double-boiler espresso machine manufacturers, this technique intentionally exploits the malleable nature of heat exchangers. The technique has to be adapted to a given machine, but in general the barista can produce a declining profile by setting the steam boiler pressure at its upper range, overflushing, and allowing a very short recovery (see How I Learned to Love HX - Temperature Profiles for more details). When done correctly, the result is a brew temperature profile that spikes momentarily, then falls slowly, similar to the profile of many level espresso machines.

Toscano is one of the three Counter Culture Coffee espresso blends. La Forza is their "big milk" blend with more punch and Aficionado is their straight espresso offering. Toscano straddles the line between these two, delivering an uncomplicated flavor profile and high tolerance of barista errors. In small milk, the bitters of darker chocolate balances well with the sweetness of milk, but be careful not to pull it too tightly, otherwise an undesirable ashiness sets in, marring an otherwise enjoyable macchiato.
Dan Kehn

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#6: Post by another_jim »

If you have a grinder with a doser, it's very easy to tell what Toscano is all about. Take a sniff of the ground coffee, and you'll be met with the aroma of cocoa and toasted almonds, along with hints of cherry and smoky molasses. That's one reason why Toscano received more votes than any other blend: everybody likes chocolate.

The other reason is that you will get these flavors in your cup ... guaranteed ... no matter what machine or grinder you use, and no matter how much of a beginner you are. Schomer once famously said that only a perfect espresso blend done with perfect technique will taste as good as it smells. In that case, Toscano has been perfect a long time, along with all the baristas who ever used it.

So if you are just starting out, or if, God forbid, you are opening a cafe and know nothing about espresso, put this blend on your shortlist and quit reading now. For those with more experience, there's some mixed news to come.

Chocolate, almond, and cherry flavors are easy to get when you use dry processed Brazils and low grown Central Bourbons, gently roasting them well into the 2nd crack. But this sure fire consistency comes at a cost: in most years the flavors will be muddied with hints of ashiness and ferment. Coffees that deliver this flavor profile ultra-cleanly are rare, expensive, and often not suitable for espresso. So flaws are the price you must be willing to pay if you want a blend that achieves this profile consistently year in and year out. Therefore, while Toscano has an enormous sweetspot, the challenge for the experienced espresso puller is to find the much narrower zone where flaws are minimized.

But there's a catch. While experienced shot pullers usually grow more tolerant of flavor profiles that aren't their favorites, they grow less tolerant of the flaws they particularly dislike. So readers shouldn't be surprised that each reviewer comes up with different dial-in recipe, since each is avoiding a slightly different set of pet peeves.

A flat, no-acid taste is my biggest pet peeve, so my first goal was to liven things up, while not losing the overall chocolate and nut profile. I found low to middle doses to be very dull tasting, like cheap chocolate bars. High doses, on the other hand, lost most of the chocolate and nut taste, replacing those with rooty and woody flavors, along with some citrus. This wasn't bad, and is worth trying out, but it's not really the intent of the blend. For me, the best dosing strategy was to "hunt the cherry." The cherry flavor was most distinct at a middle-high dose, which is what I recommend. The exact weight of a "middle-high" dose depends on your basket or group; so each reader needs to know what it is for her or his own setup.

The other fault I wanted to avoid was an astringent/ashy edge that often crept into the shot's flavor. For me, the best tactic was to run the shots at a fairly fast flow, and also cut them while they were still flowing quite dark. This made for fairly short shot times, around 20 to 23 seconds, at normal volumes.

For cappas, adding a little astringency and rootyness is not a bad thing. So for them, I preferred to dose a little higher and to slow down the flow. This meant keeping the grind setting roughly the same as the straight shots, while adding a little extra coffee to the basket.

To summarise: Add some crisp cherry to the chocolate and nut by:
  • using a medium-high dose,
  • setting the grind to get a fairly fast flow,
  • and cutting the shot well before it blonds.
  • For cappas, add a little extra coffee while keeping the grind the same.
Jim Schulman

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#7: Post by HB (original poster) »

Ecco Espresso by Ecco Coffee

Ecco Caffe didn't top the list of our members' vote, but like American Idol, the reviewers do have some say in the candidates appearing before the panel. I explained that this would be a peer review spread out over several days in a blog-like fashion; Drew at Ecco welcomed the opportunity to participate. After a long time away from Ecco's offerings (admittedly I favor east coast roasters due to better shipping arrangements), today is my second day with their flagship espresso blend, Ecco Espresso. Below is their description:
Gorgeous notes of bittersweet chocolate begin the cup. Vanilla and sugarcane transition seamlessly into a lingering caramel finish. This coffee exhibits a rounded acidity and silken mouth feel creating a classically balanced espresso.

Ecco Espresso was designed to deliver an abundant, luscious, and syrupy crema that is perfect for cappuccinos and caffe lattes. When blended with steamed milk, notes of cocoa enhance its elegant caramel-toned soul.
Dan Kehn

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#8: Post by malachi »

Moving on to the Ecco Espresso now.

This is definitely one of those "signature taste" espressos. I'll explain what I mean.... I feel like a lot of commercial blends are somewhat formulaic ("let's create a Black Cat clone" or "I'd like it to be like Illy but with chocolate" or "something that's a mix of Brazil, Indonesian and Ethiopian coffees"). Then there are those espressos that are clearly going for someone's own personal vision of espresso. The Vivace Dolce is (to me) the classic example of this. The Ecco Espresso is another example.

To me this espresso tastes like a very balanced single-origin espresso for some reason. It has a ton of clarity and a sort of simplicity that is almost japanese in its understatedness. But that simplicity hides elegance and some great flavor.

In experimenting with it I found two different sweet spots that worked for me. Each produces its own distinct profile but both are quite good.

The first sweet spot was pulled with the following extraction parameters:
- 200.5f
- 19.5g (LM OEM double)
- 1.3oz
- 25s

This is an odd sort of ristretto in that it's a short shot, but not pulled slowly. Instead it's pulled with a very large dose. In pulling it I found it was best to look for a restricted flow to start and then opening up to normal flow. I found the key lay in cutting off the flow before whitening (and before flow rate changes). In other words - this is more of what I would call an "updosed short shot" than a true ristretto shot.

With these parameters I get a ton of sugar (caramel, brown sugar, light molasses) and hints of some light fruit (strawberry, cherry and what Dan calls "lychee"). The shot isn't super heavy but has a nice long lasting finish with good mouth coating impact.

The only negative of this extraction is that I found I was getting a cellulose flavor that I associate with "baggy brazil" coffees. I find this flavor undesirable, but others don't seem to mind much. This flavor seems most noticeable if you let the shot run too long or if I ran it too slow.

The best shots I found were from using the rinse ("dodge shot") technique of not including the start of the extraction (putting the demi under the stream after the start of the shot has run). This eliminated a lot of the papery note.

To my taste - this profile was best suited for short milk drinks (I had one absolutely lovely macchiato made this way). In milk the fats soften the papery note and enhance the sugars. Really quite nice.

The second sweet spot was with the following parameters:
- 200f
- 17g (LM OEM double)
- 1.7oz
- 27s

With these parameters, the fruit comes forward and the shot becomes more balanced to my taste. I found tons of fruit (pomegranate, kumquat, that elusive "lychee" note again, sweet cherry), nice light sugars (malt, brown sugar, light caramel) and a nice lingering finish with some sweet chocolate. It's a very elegant espresso. Sophisticated even.

As with the other profile, it's important to stop the extraction before it whitens. And, again, I found a "dodge shot" method yielded best results. This profile also dramatically diminishes the "baggy brazil" note.

The only negatives of this extraction profile is that the body is rather thin; it doesn't hold up to milk well; and it's a bit of a high-wire act to extract well.

In general, in fact, the biggest critique of this espresso is that it's not easy to work with. Coming from the Toscano - which was very forgiving - was a bit of a wake-up call. While it was relatively easy to pull decent shots of the Toscano (as long as you were in the temp range), the Ecco seems to require precision, attention and skill to get shots that are better than just "drinkable."

Personally, this is an espresso I could drink with great regularity. I love the balance and I love the clarity. I only wish that one flavor taint were not there - but it can be worked around. If you. like me, prize balance and finesse in your espresso, and you have the patience and focus in your barista skills to coax this coffee to play nice - and if you for the most part drink straight espresso (and the periodic short milk drinks) - then you probably want to check this one out. It could be a keeper for you.
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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#9: Post by another_jim »

Andrew Barnett is one of the giants of US espresso. He is a roaster and cupper of recognized distinction, and a long time head judge and director of USBC and WBC competition. So it is with some shame that I have to admit that this is the first time I've tried Ecco's espresso blend. Since I've never had it in the shop and since it is new to me at home, my take on it will be, at best, a fresh look, and should be taken with a grain or two of salt.

The blend is medium roasted, lighter than Toscano or Black Cat, but not as light as Terroir's espresso roasts. This shows up in the palette of flavors, there's lots of middle fruit, nuts, and light caramels, fewer of the spice and molasses flavors of dark roasts, or the citrus and toast flavors of the lighter roasts. The roaster's description emphasizes chocolate flavors; for me, these appeared only intermittently and as a minor note. From the variety of flavors and the appearance of the beans, I'm guessing it is composed of about half Brasil Yellow Bourbon and half high grown Centrals, but that is speculation on my part.

Two things stand out about working this blend. First, it is almost immune to bitter extractions, even the hot triple ristrettos I pulled for the cappas were unmarred by excessive bitterness; it should be a near the top of the list of triple basket fans. Second, dosing changes make for only a subtle difference to the taste; instead the major factor is changing from fast to slow flow. If you are uncomfortable playing with dosing, and prefer to just level the basket, this blend will work well for you.

The blend tastes somewhat thin and papery at fast lungo flows; but gives an interesting spectrum of flavors going from normales to ristrettos. At normal flows, apricot and caramel flavors dominate. As the flow is tightened, you get more vanilla and nuts. At full ristretto, the flavor is dominated by a cola-nut and coffee oil flavor. This is typical of ristrettos, but is normally associated with intense bitterness. For the first time ever, I've gotten these flavors without bitterness, a sort of ultra-intense middle flavor. I'm not sure I like it as much as the lovely fruited normale pulls, but I'm glad I had a chance to taste it.

Upping the dose subtly increases the separation of flavors. At lower doses, the fruits, nuts and caramels fuse into a single creamy effect, as in a milkshake or parfait. As the dose increases, the flavors become more distinct. Personally I like a middling dose, where the flavors fuse and separate in a sort of shimmer; but again, it's fun to explore the entire range.

For cappas, this blend needs to be pulled very much updosed and ristretto. The acidic flavors are too delicate for milk, so the extraction should be punched up for the bass notes. I think the roaster's own recommendation is in line with this use.

I am very impressed with this blend, not so much for achieving god shots, but for never falling off the cliff, for having distinctly different and always very tasty shots over the entire extraction space. People who are just graduating from Peets or Starbucks, who like big roast flavors, or dislike all acidity, should avoid this blend. But for everyone else, especially those interested in developing their palates and barista skills, this blend is a standout for its clear and graceful range of tastes, and for the civilized way it responds to variable changes.
Jim Schulman

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#10: Post by HB (original poster) »

It's not easy following the last two writeups! I may have to seek out a new angle and update this post later...

As long-time members of HB know, my focus over the past few years has been on equipment reviews and coaching others on barista technique. Formal cupping and formulating proper taste descriptors are two areas I've struggled with, but it's an effort I enjoy making and the renewed interest in coffee reviews gives me an ideal backdrop to exercise a neglected area of my barista repertoire.

As Jim and Chris noted, Ecco Espresso isn't a "comfort food" blend dominated by chocolates. It has a mild acidity I associate with citrusy fruits, but nothing so flagrant as orange, grapefruit, or even green melon. Over the weekend, I mulled over the Ecco espressos. Descriptors were not coming to mind, so I quizzed my wife for ideas ("What's something that's like green melon, not as sweet, and has a tart/acidic note?"); she suggested lychee nuts. I haven't had them in awhile, but I think that captures the missing note I was struggling with (for lack of a good descriptor, my earlier notes said pomegranate or papaya, but not as sweet). For those who haven't tried lycees, Wikipedia describes them:
Lychee wrote:The outside is covered by a pink-red, roughly-textured rind that is inedible but easily removed. They are eaten in many different dessert dishes. The inside consists of a layer of sweet, translucent white flesh, rich in vitamin C, with a texture somewhat similar to that of a grape only much less moist.
I think of them as a cross between strawberries and almonds, however improbable a flavor that may seem. As I was writing up my notes, she mentioned he had some pomegranate / lychee flavored tea in the fridge (huh?). A quick sip and I agreed with her, it accurately captured the background note I wanted to describe. However, before branding Ecco Espresso as a lychee nut lover's dream, I hasten to add that it's not a front and center taste note. My attempts to optimize that strawberry/nuttiness without the rest of the profile going flat have been hit-n-miss.
Dan Kehn