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An Aficionado's Guide to
There is an abundance of information on espresso blending out there on the Internet from places like Coffeegeek and Sweet Marias, and wonderful authors like Jim Schulman and Donald Blum who contribute to CG and other boards. But over time, despite the volumes of information (or maybe because of the volumes!) the questions that comes up over and over again are the same: I'm a beginner, how do I get started in espresso blending? What roast level? What beans? What proportions?
I'd like to take a shot at the question, and in the process walk you through my favorite blend and how I got there. Hopefully I'll be able to share some of the information that has been so helpfully shared with me along my espresso journey.
And when it comes to blending, most of all - be a kid, have fun!
Ben says "Nothing like roasting fresh espresso on a nice night!"
For anybody already roasting, congratulations. You have a great start to becoming a talented espresso blender. For those who don't home roast, now is the time to start.
OK, so you have a roaster and some experience. Now, how do you roast for espresso? First of all, if you have been doing 4-5 minute popper roasts for drip, you are going to have to slow your roaster down. Depending on your model you will find a number of modifications and techniques on the Internet boards to achieve a longer roasting time. For espresso you'd really like a total roast time of 12-20 minutes, and anything you can do to stretch the time between first and second crack will be to your benefit—especially for Indonesian coffees that need to roast slower. What about roast level? People roast their espresso to an overall level of Full City to Vienna+ depending on their tastes. Lighter roasts will be more acidic, and darker roasts will be less acidic. A very good starting point is a light Vienna, which in my book is about 30 seconds into active 2nd crack with steady cracking and oil beginning to drop up on the occasional bean.
For the purposes of this article we are going to concentrate on my favorite variation of a classic Italian espresso blend. Fruit bomb blends, aged coffee blends and other unusual blends are great, but again, we will concentrate on something a bit more mainstream.
To me, a classic blend should possess the following characteristics:
- First, it should have a nice sustained crema. Mouthfeel is a huge part of the espresso experience. Dry processed coffees, especially South American coffees, will play a big role here.
- Second, there should be a least a hit of brightness to wake up the palate, usually from a Central American coffee but possibly from an African.
- Third, as the taste of your sip lingers in your mouth the body should become more apparent and provide that rich palate coating experience we all love. Indonesian or Asian coffees contribute here.
- Fourth, the shot should finish relatively cleanly and the aftertaste should be pleasurable. For me this means attention to technique, and very careful use of aged or more aggressive Indonesian coffees.
So many greens, so little time!
South American Coffees
South American coffees, principally dry processed Brazils, are the classic base, and for good reason. They provide a wonderful rich low-acid body, often with chocolates and a bit of sweetness. Many classic Italian espresso blends are up to 80% Brazil—and in fact, there are known to be a few espresso 'blends' available commercially that are entirely Brazil! Some Columbians, Perus and Bolivians are good bases as well, although most are wet processed and will often provide less crema. Being softer beans, South Americans will tend to roast a bit faster, so be sure to not accidentally over-roast them. A blend percentage of 40%-50% is a good place to start.
Central American Coffees
Central American coffees in the right percentages bring a wonderful zing to a blend, waking up the palate in the initial taste before the shot segues into the rich middle body. Many classic Italian blends are not much more than a majority of Brazil with a small amount of something like Guatemala, and they work plenty well! El Salvador coffees, especially Bourbon varietals, provide a wonderful sweetness along with a touch of brightness. Nicaragua coffees are a personal favorite of mine, and plenty of people report success using Mexican and others as well. Remember that the vast majority of Central American coffees are wet processed, and will often provide less crema. While Centrals are usually roasted fairly light for drip, I tend to like to take them a little darker toward FC+/Vienna to tone down the brightness slightly and kick in more chocolates. I personally like using about 20%-30% bright coffees in a blend.
Africa (and I'll include Yemen here too) is where it all began, and coffees from this region are among the most spectacular and unique that you will ever taste. These are going to be on the bright and acidic side also, but in a very different way. An Ethiopian Harrar in your blend can bring you wonderful fruits include blueberry, and the right Kenyan can bring strawberries. Yemens have incredible profiles with a huge myriad of flavors. Africans can be roasted toward the light side at FC or so, or taken darker where they keep some fruit but also pick up some chocolates. Africans should be counted in with any other bright beans in a blend, and again, I like no more than a total of about 20%-30% bright coffees in a blend.
Indonesian and Asia Coffees
So we've talked about base coffees and bright coffees. How about those wonderful rich coffees that give rich, buttery tastes to espresso? The Indonesian coffees are incredible—a Sulawesi or a clean Sumatra is a great place to start. Some of the Indian coffees are also nice, and India Pearl Mountain has gained a great reputation for the beautiful crema and spiciness it contributes. Aged or monsooned coffees also fit into this category, and are great to experiment with if you want an even more muted and earthy taste. On all of these roast them slowly—a nice long drawn out roast will eliminate much of the musty tastes of Indonesian coffees and bring forward the buttery chocolates. All of these coffees work great around 20%-30% of a blend to contribute body.
What about robusta?
It is often said that a good espresso blend should have 10%-15% of robusta in the blend in order to increase crema and provide that extra 'bite'. I've got to admit, I've tried robusta a number of times, and I'm convinced that it takes away more than it adds. Crema is increased, but with large, foamy bubbles. And the bitter bite of robusta in the middle of an otherwise pleasant Arabica blend is just not to my taste. So, it's worth playing with, but don't ever believe that you need to have it in your espresso blend.
So let's get blending!
OK, so by now you understand a bit about selecting your beans, your roast level and your proportions. Let me take you through my mind set when creating my favorite house blend.
- My house base South American is easy, Brazil Ipanema, a dry processed coffee. I love it. Wonderful crema, chocolates and a bit of (maybe?) peanut butter in the back. I've played with 40%-50%, and eventually settled on 40%.
- Next, let's pick the Central to give that initial bit of palate wakening brightness. It can be a real toss-up for me depending on what greens I have around between an El Salvador or Nicaragua. El Salvador is probably the safer choice, but my heart goes out to the Nicaraguan coffees for having just a bit less sweetness and more complex fruit. This started at 20% and stayed there.
- While we are at it, let's think about whether we can sneak an African coffee in, just because we love them so much. We can't put too much in, or else we'll overpower the blend, but maybe 10% of a nice Yemen will kick in some wonderful aroma and berry fruits. In a pinch I'll use Harrar, but Yemen is worth the money if I can get my hands on it.
- Finally, let's put in some nice mellow Sulawesi to add some body and richness. I started at 20%, but ended up at 30%.
So, we'll put the Brazil (40%) and the Yemen (10%) into one load and the Sulawesi (30%) and Nicaragua (20%) into the other load. We'll roast both loads to light Vienna and mix them together before putting them aside to degas for a couple of days. Doing your own blends is equally easy. It's all a matter of jumping in with a bit of knowledge, experimenting, taking good notes and drinking a lot of your own delicious espresso!
Oh Baby! You wanna talk about crema! NOW can I drink it? I NEED a shot!
Now THAT'S what I'm talking about!