The obsession with sweet espresso - a dogma in the making

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Abe Carmeli
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#1: Post by Abe Carmeli »

I think that reading Robusta's Rehab was the last straw for me. Sweet espresso has become so synonymous with the most desirable attribute in the small cup that it is now on the verge of becoming a dogma. This notion is very American to begin with and in the espresso space, it raises eyebrows in most of the world where espresso is consumed sweetened.

If you spent a week roasting and blending coffee you are probably able to figure out that to get sweet espresso, you may need to exclude many good coffees, and more often than not end up with a boring cup. I often feel all dressed up and nowhere to go when blending for sweetness. That inexplicable fear of adding ¼ teaspoon of sugar to your cup is beyond me. Think about this: Would you give up dark chocolate just because a little sugar was added to it? For my palate, most chocolates with less than 70% cocoa are no more than brown goo. It is the intensity of flavors fused with a relatively small quantity of sugar that transforms it. Lindt's 70% cocoa dark chocolate is a good example.

Yes I know, there are great sweet espressos out there; but I can count those on one hand and still have two free fingers to flip the bird. There could be many more great blends, if only adding a little sugar were not a Federal crime. Holding up sweetness on such a podium has a chilling effect on the development of espresso. Roasters are going after it because we are, and together, we are drawing the boundaries of our own development.
Abe Carmeli

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another_jim
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#2: Post by another_jim »

I don't think there's an antithesis between taste and sweetness, rather a synergy. The sweeter the coffee, the more acidity and bitterness it can carry -- just think of lemonade versus lemon juice and eating chocolate versus unsweetened baking chocolate. The more acidity and bitters an espresso blend has, the more potential it has for terrific aroma. So to me, sweetness is the foundation on which I can pile the grace notes.

However, using robusta defeats this purpose -- even the most neutral, sweet, gourmet robustas are a black hole muffling all the other flavors, in the same way as lentils or beans muffle flavors while tasting neutral. A lentil or bean dish is fixed by spicing the bejeesus out of it -- that delivers a "bold" taste, but nothing I'd ever get excited about. The same with robusta blends, you can get a "bold" taste using monsooned malabar, an ultra woody tanazanian or a coffee like that; alternatively, one can get a comfortable chocolatey or caramelly blend using Brazils or Indos. But there's no way a robusta blend will equal the aromatics of a good all arabica blend.

Abe Carmeli
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#3: Post by Abe Carmeli »

another_jim wrote:I don't think there's an antithesis between taste and sweetness, rather a synergy. The sweeter the coffee, the more acidity and bitterness it can carry -- just think of lemonade versus lemon juice and eating chocolate versus unsweetened baking chocolate. The more acidity and bitters an espresso blend has, the more potential it has for terrific aroma. So to me, sweetness is the foundation on which I can pile the grace notes.
Jim,

I have no problem with designing a sweet base to carry the load. I was referring to the final product. I don't mind if it is a little acidic, sharp or bitter, if a little sugar transforms the negative aspects of those attributes and delivers the spices and flavors that hide underneath that background noise.
However, using robusta defeats this purpose.
I am not a Robusta fan myself, I pointed to that article not because of the discussion of Robusta, but because of the emphasis on sweetness. George Howell is quoted to say that for him, sweetness is the most important attribute in espresso.
Abe Carmeli

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another_jim
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#4: Post by another_jim »

Both Geoff Watts (intelly's taster) and George Howell heavily score all coffees on sweetness, not just espresso. Most of the other roasters we like do so as well without explicitly altering their tasting forms. I think for the time being, this is a good trend -- the equivalent of Robert Parker's initial impact on the wine world, which mercifully ended the era where so called experts could get away calling some tannins and mustard greens monstrosity a great wine, and got back to the 19th centuries straightforward preference for sweeter wines. It's time that specialty roasters insist that the coffees they buy be picked at peak ripeness (when the coffee tastes sweetest) and processed gently, so the coffee cherry flavors get into the bean.

At some future time, the insistance on sweet coffees may turn into a bad thing, as the current over-parkerization of wines has become. But I think we are still a decade away from that point.

Abe Carmeli
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#5: Post by Abe Carmeli »

another_jim wrote: Ay some future time, the insistance on sweet coffees may turn into a bad thing, as the current over-parkerization of wines has become. But I think we are still a decade away from that point.
This is a good point Jim, and an important perspective. Wake me up when the pendulum swings in the other direction. Until then, I'll be hibernating in my cave, emerging occasionally for a bold cup of spicy bittersweet and flavorful espresso :wink: .
Abe Carmeli

SL28ave

#6: Post by SL28ave »

A couple thoughts...

IMO, even the sweetest coffees aren't sweet in any substantial "sugary" sense. The sweetest coffees have some sweetness and this sweetness stems mainly from the beans at least being all ripe.

Daterra's cutting edge coffees are supposed to be sweet. We're still trying to capture this profile at its best, and the new crop is our best shot yet. In addition to mindboggling processes I haven't heard of others doing, they measure the brix of the fruit. I asked Luis Paschoal if brix translates to a sweeter cup, because I was unsure, and he gave a confident "yes". The low acidity (and perhaps even softened phenolics through knowledgable care, to rid the "lemon peel") gives the ability to roast this coffee even lighter and bring out the sweetness even more. In addition, I swear I was getting substantial "amarone" flavors in one lot and substantial "sauternes" flavors in another lot. I think we're coming close to capturing a far more interesting profile this year. The three previous years had "waves" of quality, as Daterra even further improved and as we were learning to capture the raw fresh and roast it well. So sweetness is definitely what we're primarily after, but that's only because it's a sign that everything else went right, and it's sweet relative to the fact that coffee isn't a beverage that will ever be "cloying".

A lot of "dry" flavor profiles out there come from beans that I'd term to be unripe, low-grown with indistinguishable character, infections, staling of the raw, random varietals with natural vegetal, top-soil, cat pee, peanut or any other random characteristic etc etc..... But I also get a lot of "dry" flavors in some high growns that Terroir advocates, like El Injerto.

Sweetness usually comes with a multitude of other flavors. Kenya, knockout Yirgacheffes, and many CoE coffees are great examples of coffees with many, many pleasant flavors. A mild sweetness, or at least an impression of "ripeness", that peeks through a clean cup is our indicator that this coffee is at least worth exploring. This is the conclusion we've reached after naturally (through taste) coming to love the best ripe, well cared for coffees.

Sweetness is an awesome balancer for coffee too! Not always, but I'm surely looking for it more often than not. And the sweetness we're after also happens to be rare, because of what hasn't been developed yet. IMO.

Also, I personally never put sugar in my coffee :)
"Few, but ripe." -Carl Friedrich Gauss

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another_jim
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#7: Post by another_jim »

Also, I personally never put sugar in my coffee
I agree with you on that; I think of it like adding suger to a dry wine.

Peter, I've finally found a dry process you'll like ... DP Yrgs with the cherry dried on platforms like Kenyan post washed beans. They are phenomenal. imagine the florals and green tea flavors of an yrg turned into a desert wine or honey. You owe yourself to try one of these. The only drawback is that the flavor is more low keyed than a regular yrg, you won't smell the cup from across the room like a top grade wp yrg; but the honeyed, desert quality more than compensates for the loss. Miguel Hoza of Paradise Roasters is bringing in a crop now, and has kindly sent me a sample. I'll be reviewing for coffeecuppers in a few days; we use the conventional system of rating without a a catagory for sweetness; so I'll be awarding it lots of cuppers points to reflect that quality. The roast level Miguel is using is comparable to yours, so it's a coffee I recommend you might try.

I frankly have an agenda on this; along with the good Rwandas, these DP Yrgs are the most exiting new coffees I've had in the last few years, and I'm hoping they get a big following among the connoisseurs here so that I can get a good ongoing supply for myself.

PeterG

#8: Post by PeterG »

As far as sweetness goes:

In espresso blends, I agree that simple sweetness is only one aspect of espresso's myriad potential flavor characteristics. I think the reason it has gotten so common among good roasters to strive for sweetness is that achievement of a beautifully sweet cup has been a great way to distinguish one's coffee from the ubiquitous scorched, sour, fishy "espresso blends" so common in the '80s and '90s and still very common today.

The first time you put a sweet, caramelly espresso in front of someone who has only tasted dreck (and that represents most of the population) can be a monumental moment. Since sweetness is the most basic taste we have, and it is the only purely positive taste sensation, the lizard brain lights up and folks go nuts. This is the power of the simply sweet espresso.

Of course, there is a fine line between sweet and insipid, and most folks eventually graduate from sweet coffees (or wines, or beers) to more complex taste experiences, including such taste experiences as acidity and floral characteristics. For example, most coffee drinkers choose Indonesians as their first "favorite coffee", but after a few years graduate to bright, challenging Kenyas and Yirgacheffes.

Espresso blends are growing more complex, too. Ever tried Stumptown's Hairbender? It has a beautiful acidity to it, layered on top of a basic, fully ripe sweetness. In our tasting lab, we enjoy complex coffees with African or Latin American complexity layered above the base sweetness. Lem, the current South East Barista Champion, is bringing a blend to the USBC that has a whallop of Harrar fruit and fragrance. (you heard it here first) These may be controversial coffees, but they do challenge the sweetness dogma.

It has been correctly noted that when many coffee buyers cup, they use "sweetness" as a synonym for "fully ripe". This does not exclude such complementary characteristics as acidity, aroma, body, etc. In the cupping process, "sweet" and "complex" can coexist nicely. This is definitely different than wine, where sweetness exists as a byproduct of process, as well as fruit ripeness. There is no question about the fact that you cannot get great coffee from underripe fruit. This is the source of the "sweetness imperative" that coffee buyers speak of.

Great topic

Peter G

p.s. Peter L tasted my dry process Yirgacheffe "Misty Valley" at coffee fest, so I know he has tasted at least one dry process Yirg. I, too, am fired up about these coffees.

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another_jim
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#9: Post by another_jim »

PeterG wrote: p.s. Peter L tasted my dry process Yirgacheffe "Misty Valley" at coffee fest, so I know he has tasted at least one dry process Yirg. I, too, am fired up about these coffees.
Miguel slipped me about a 2 or 3 cups worth at the Great Lakes BC. It was amazing; with more legs than his current offering, which I'm still scoring around 90 - 91.

These coffees are going to be my exhibit A for sweetness, in this case the DP effect, making taste complexity, in this case the Yrg flowers and tannins, much more approachable for both tutored and untutored palates. I'll be laying up a supply for "proselytizing" good specialty coffee among friends and curious folks who occasionally stop by.

SL28ave

#10: Post by SL28ave »

We actually cupped new samples of DP Yirg (highly recommended by the importer) and Washed Yirg today.

You could smell the "strawberry" of the DP from 10 feet away (from ferment, no question). This coffee had nothing to do with the elusive Yirgacheffe profile I'm after. (the descriptors of the other cuppers were used fairly negatively: cow manure, spoiled fruit, mushrooms).... that's at least how it showed on our table today.

One washed sample was amazing. A strong perfume and apricot (along the lines of Panama Esmeralda on a good day, but also subtley different). The big question is how to get it into the US without losing its uniqueness, which is a consistent question with Ethiopia. I'll be praying!
"Few, but ripe." -Carl Friedrich Gauss