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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 standard.
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 cup.
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 innovating,
- 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 espresso specification.
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.