Do you handicap your single-origin espresso evaluations?

Discuss flavors, brew temperatures, blending, and cupping notes.
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#1: Post by HB »

I arrived late on the single-origin espresso bandwagon. Nowadays my regular espresso rotation includes one single origin (e.g., Yemen, Yirgacheffe), but I am still very much a newbie in the arena. A few weeks back, I brought in the remains of some Yemen from Intelligentsia to our regular Friday espresso lab at Counter Culture. Although I was still excited by the newness, I was fighting the nagging feeling that my critical eye was partially closed whenever I dialed in an SO. My unspoken assumption was that a single bean should be lacking in some respect. Afterall, wasn't that the purpose of blending, to produce a pleasing orchestra of flavors and textures?

It was getting late in the session and all the usuals had already cleared out. Peter, me, and a little of the Yemen remained. I pulled him one of the last shots and asked him what he thought, including what he'd assign it as an SCAA competition score (related poll). "It was really good. I'd give it a 4," he said. I agreed it was quite tasty, but thought it was unbalanced. The chocolate bitters, while very pleasing, stood out too starkly. Peter continued, "We talk about espressos having to be extracted in 25 seconds at 9 bar. But what if I think it tastes better extracted in 15 seconds? Am I by definition wrong? The taste of the espresso you served was true to the coffee. It said 'Yemen' to me. That's why I would evaluate it a 4." (paraphrased).

This conversation has returned to my thoughts each time I sample a single origin. Do we "handicap" our evaluations of an espresso knowing the origin of its coffees? And more significantly, are we less critical when the evaluation involves a single origin, as long as it's true to its character?
Dan Kehn

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#2: Post by AndyS »

HB wrote: Do we "handicap" our evaluations of an espresso knowing the origin of its coffees? And more significantly, are we less critical when the evaluation involves a single origin, as long as it's true to its character?
I think the answer is probably "yes," at least at the current state of the art. Eventually, the handicapping will probably be unnecessary.
VST refractometer/filter basket beta tester, no financial interest in the company

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Compass Coffee

#3: Post by Compass Coffee »

I've pulled many more shots of SO's than blends. I find that while generally speaking SO shots can be much more demanding to pull, usually very temperature temperamental, when nailed usually are excellent. Maybe not always perfectly balanced as far as espresso scoring goes but excellent none the less. A wet processed Yirg shot won't have as much body and if scored by the rules might suffer points for not being full bodied but that's Yirg' being true to it's nature IMO which to me is true to the cup. That's all I really care about. I don't see it as a handicap. OTH I pulled a SO Puerto Rican Yauco Selecto ristretto the other week that would blow away most blends in the cup and scoring. Have some JBM Mavis Banks coming up on 5 days rest tomorrow I can't want to pull, fairly certain its shots are gonna rock.
Mike McGinness, Head Bean (Owner/Roast Master)


#4: Post by HasBean »

I'm not sure handicap, but I guess there is part of the brain that would do that subconsciously.

But then evaluation is soooo personal (even using a framework), and you have to evaluate why your scoring something.

Something like a Yemen is always going to get punished if you evaluate it for say balance, but you could reward it for its flavours so a counter balance?

Interesting thought though got me thinking.


#5: Post by PeterG »

Apologies, but I'd like to cross-post an analogy I wrote elsewhere:
Walking out to the garden and eating a ripe tomato straight off the vine, while still warm from the sun, is one of the greatest culinary experiences there is. The sweetness and acidity of the tomato, the pure tomato flavor, the warmth of the juice, are a perfect taste experience and a positive miracle. I will use the word "perfect" again because this experience can be so wonderful it makes me want to cry.

Taking tomatoes from the garden, and making a tomato salad by cutting them coarsely, and tossing them with coarse salt, really good olive oil, and a chiffonade of basil, in a bowl rubbed with garlic, is a different experience. The oil gives the salad a mouthfilling body, the garlic enhances the savory character of the tomato, the oil and basil lend herbaceous and floral aromas to the experience and accentuate the floral character of the tomato itself. Salt adds another basic, complimentary flavor. The experience is also perfect, if the ingredients are all wonderful and the salad is made judiciously and with care.

Are either of these tomato experiences less "good" than the other? You might argue that a fresh tomato from the garden isn't to your taste, but I would argue that you are missing one of the greatest food experiences in the world.

I think that drinking single origins offers the same kind of opportunity for exploration and coffee appreciation. I look at coffee as the same kind of perfect miracle a great tomato is, and both deserve all kinds of appreciation in all sorts of contexts. Cupping, French Press, Filter-Brewed, Espresso Machine, Clover: each brewing strategy can show you different aspects of the coffee and can reveal the miraculous perfection of the coffee itself. To me, it's not all about the competitive/judging aspects of achieving the "best", it's about learning about the world. Then you wind up discovering lots of different "bests".

I think that sometimes, when we start talking about "best" and even "good", we start to narrow what we will accept as pleasing. It is especially tragic that as human beings we will tend to reject that which is new and unusual to our palates. I think that this is something to overcome, not to embrace. "I don't like it" is a legitimate response, but I will wager that most of us didn't "like" coffee when we were children or teenagers. We learned to appreciate it, we taught our palates that a certain kind of bitter was in fact delightful, and a whole world of flavors were opened up to us.
I would definitely disagree with the word "handicap". I think what I try to do is normally keep my mind as open as possible when appreciating coffee. A great Yemen in all its Yemenosity can be a really wonderful experience, but which can never be confused with (or even compared to!) a well-crafted blend.

Peter G
counter culture coffee


#6: Post by HasBean »

Top post Peter, you have a very eloquent way of putting it which describes it perfectly.


#7: Post by onemoreshot »

I don't think I handicap them in the classic definition of the term but I understand your concept and its a good question. I could be lucky in that I don't usually go in with a pile of expectations for each tasting experience as I am still pretty new to roasting good beans and pulling good shots. The Al Haj Yemen Mocha Matari SO shots I pulled this morning (mentioned in the Brewtus thread five minutes ago) had no defined box it had to play in. I really didn't know what to expect, I have never roasted it, never tasted it anywhere else.

If my life depended on it I suppose I could have made an educated guess as to what might come out of the shot, but I just kind of waltzed into the shot with a blindfold on. Maybe good, maybe not. I guess the good part is that I came out with a light bodied red wine with some wild fruit gaminess and a hint of spice. The maybe not part is that this may not be representative of what "it should taste like"; maybe my Hottop is a terrible roaster, maybe I am terribly unskilled, my temp was off, my tamp was off, etc. Maybe it should have tasted like something else, but it didn't and I enjoyed it and that's what espresso is about for me. Granted I have pulled some horrible, mouth-puckering SO shots that make me question my desire to always taste a roast both as an SO and in a blend, yet I continue and I don't think with any handicap involved - but maybe I'm lucky with my fresh-faced noobiness. ;-)

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#8: Post by another_jim »

In most cases, coffee tasting is handicapped -- a roaster cupping 5 Antiguas in order to pick one to carry is probably going to be looking for the "Antigua profile," that is, some spice and smoke, joined with the usual central characteristics. If the coffee cups like a fabulous Hue-hue, flowery, buttery and delicate, he may buy it as a special; but he'll still be looking for a "proper" Antigua for the customers who want that. Or even more obviously, if I'm buying collards, I don't want turnip greens, no matter how fabulous.

The interesting thing about SOs is that nobody knows what to expect. Regular espresso blends aren't very sharply characterized; although I suspect there are at least 3 "genres" out there: the toasted wood & nut with lemon twist North Italian blends, the cigars and brandy South Italian blends, and the fruit and chocolate, Mocha-Java-ish, comfort food blends. Our notion of "balance" is based on the mix of high, low and center in these blends. Given this, I know I bring certain handicapping instincts to SOs, and I suspect others do as well:

1. We expect plenty of middle flavor and creaminess from a Brazil, but not a lot of anything else. SO Brazils like the Dateras, which emulate the Northern Italian profile, may get a bounce from this -- I'm drinking an ultra-cool SO ***and*** it tastes like fresh Illy.

2. We expect balance and complexity from DP Ethiopians and Yemens, but in these cleanliness and a bit of restraint gets the big points. The DP Yrgs and high end DP Sidamos have done well here, especially since they deliver the florals in a palatable form.

3. I've seen individual roasters take risks with SO Ruandas & Tanzanians, or Peruvians, Bolivians and Chileans. These get plaudits mainly for pushing the envelope with some spectacular flavors compared to regular blends and an equally spectacular lack of balance. People enjoy an occasional shot, but baristas have learned to avoid these for competition, and I'm not sure I know of anyone advocating them as regular go-to shots. So I'm guessing that these still represent a bit too much challenge, and not quite enough enjoyment.

Based on this survey, it seems to me that SOs get the benefit of the doubt for a few shots; but that the successful ones, so far, have to more or less follow the same tasting strictures we put on blends. Our brains have not as yet cleared out a "genre" for them that is independent of regular blending styles.

For a few years, I've been suggesting the scotch and water approach: an interesting SO cut with enough of a neutral tasting, lush bodied and crema-ed Brasil to make it balanced. This is how I handle many of my coffees for espresso evaluation. But it seems that this is so close to the cheesiest practices of mass roasters that it's an absolute non starter for specialty roasters.
Jim Schulman


#9: Post by coffeedirtdog »

Single origins. I mean, it's not something to handicap unless you know the coffee has limits. What you have to really think about when pulling an SOS is that you cannot just put any coffee in and expect a great balanced and enlightening shot. It needs to be an exceptional coffee and not just an exceptional coffee for its origins. Yemen is not, Harrar is not, and many other coffees often pulled as SOS are merely examples of how harrar a harrar can be or how Yemen a Yemeni can be. Too often SOS are just educational and not enjoyable. What I look for in SOS is something that really surprises me and challenges me beyond the generic profile for espresso. Layers of flavors from one bean. Complexity in the cup is hard to find because it often gets roasted out or the inherent flaws show up too. The truth for me about SOS is you have to have exceptional coffee, then an exceptional roast to get exceptional results. If one part of the process has flaws, it shows through in the cup. There is no room for error.
In some ways, it's like aligning the stars. Complex bean, perfect roast, and then adjusting the extraction variables to make it sing.
I think a roaster friend of mine said it best to me the other day, when we stop looking for espresso profiles and origin profiles, then we will begin to find some truly unique and fabulous coffees based on the flavor alone. I really believe that the coffees that make great SOS are still yet to come and we shouldn't discount it because of what we cannot just throw any coffee in and get a good SOS.

Food for thought anyway.

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#10: Post by another_jim »

coffeedirtdog wrote: I think a roaster friend of mine said it best to me the other day, when we stop looking for espresso profiles and origin profiles, then we will begin to find some truly unique and fabulous coffees based on the flavor alone. I really believe that the coffees that make great SOS are still yet to come and we shouldn't discount it because of what we cannot just throw any coffee in and get a good SOS.

Food for thought anyway.
Sometimes you feel like a surprise; sometimes you don't
Jim Schulman