Espresso! My Espresso!
A Beginners' Guide to Tasting Espresso
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2006 - All rights reserved

      A recent discussion on concerning what defines a quality espresso got me thinking, and then got me writing (what else is new?). There are places in the world where you can go into a coffee shop and order an espresso straight up and be fairly-well assured that it will at the very least be drinkable. Quite the opposite is mostly true in the United States.

      But how would you know if you did get a good shot if you have never had one before? There have been entire books written on the subject, but the ones I have seen are mainly aimed at the professional who needs to test the coffee with a controlled set of parameters. It's very important if you are about to buy a truckload of coffee beans that they be of the quality you expect, but for the citizen consumer just looking for a cup of espresso, here are some general guidelines to help the search. If nothing else, you will be able to tell the PBTC (person behind the counter) at the coffee shop what the problem was when you spit the tincture of coffee you were just served on the floor.

      There are lots of words and phrases that would describe what a really good or great espresso should be. We have heard similar nomenclature when a television sitcom makes fun of wine tasters. Things like, "It has a rudimentary flatulence that is only overpowered by its inability to masticate its oaky overtones." OK, so I don't drink wine, but you get the idea. But knowing what to call a taste element is not going to assist you in finding a good espresso or knowing one when you do. And if you think wine is difficult, there are actually more identified taste elements in coffee!

      I am not a trained cupper nor an espresso expert in any form, but I present below some of the methods I use to sample espresso that I have picked up over the years that seem to help. I offer this guide to help your quest-

      VISUAL - Espresso is a delight to behold as it settles into the cup. Unfortunately, few shops specialize in espresso straight so getting a shot in a clear cup so that it can be observed is a rare occurrence.

      The crema should be briefly examined. It should be dark in color (more like mahogany and dark oak than maple or pine in color) and somewhat mottled with very small bubbles showing the gases that have been released during the brew cycle. It should not have a pair of light-colored spots indicating that the pull went too long. It should viscous enough to support sugar sprinkled on it and it should last for some time, although you don't want to sit there with a stopwatch because as the crema is lost so is some of the flavor.

      But don't get lost in the crema. A shot with think, gorgeous crema can still taste disgusting. The lack of crema, light tan or whitish crema, or a very thin layer of crema are indicators of a bad shot, but the presence of crema does not guarantee anything.

      AROMA - To begin with, exhale fully, put your nose close to the cup, and take a long deep inhale through the nose. Cupping your hand over the cup can just add the aroma of your hand and anything with which it has been in contact to the mix. It is important that the length of this olfactory sampling be long because some of the elements are difficult to discern and some need to be pulled deep into the nostrils to be sensed. One little sniff won't do it. Pay attention to the aroma. Repeat as needed to get a sense of what the espresso will be like in the mouth. To as great of an extent as possible, the aroma should reveal what the taste of the espresso will be when sipped. I have tasted some coffees which I should never have sipped. I should have paid attention to what my nose said. But I sipped anyway, and it was like my nose saying to me, "SEE, STUPID!? I told you that it was going to taste burnt!"

      The aroma of the espresso should be deep, rich, and complicated. It is common for it to go through changes as you inhale the aroma. There should be no hint of a burnt, foul, or chemical odor. If it smells like burnt rubber it is best to put it down and walk away as it indicates the use of cheap Robusta beans which actually do taste like they smell.

      HOW TO SIP - This is important because espresso should be consumed differently than a cup of coffee. I am talking about 'social sipping' and not some competition standardized method to sample coffees. This is more aimed at enjoying and "drinking" espresso and not "cupping" it for a competitive judgment.

      As soon as you are through inhaling, exhale a bit and take a small, gentle sip. Remember that smell and taste are closely associated and that is why you sip right after you finish an inhale through the nose. Let the espresso gently flow from the front to the back of the tongue then gently swish it around just a bit to get it to cover as much of the mouth as possible and then swallow, and gently inhale through your mouth. That is why it is important to exhale a bit after sensing the aroma- so that there is room in the lungs for this inhale. This brings the volatile elements in deeper, revealing all that might be there.

      Yes, I have used the words like "gently" and "slowly" quite a bit. Espresso is a bit of a contradiction in a cup. Although it is one of the very most concentrated and strongest of coffee beverages, it also contains more flavor elements that any other coffee preparation method. Many of these elements are faint to the senses and handling it roughly in the mouth can mask some of them.

      There are elements in espresso that coat the tongue to mask the bitterness that is in all coffee- mainly from caffeine which is an exceedingly bitter element even in small quantities, but there are other bitter elements as well. The first sip may not reveal all there is in the cup, so sip, taste, pause and repeat a few times to get the full effect of the taste. If the first one or two sips taste unpleasantly burnt, thin, bitter, acidic, or have any other nasty effect on your palate, don't torture yourself further- these unpleasant tastes aren't going to go away regardless of how much you would like them to do so.

      FEEL - Espresso should feel something like melted butter in the mouth- heavy, thick, smooth, greasy, oily, but all in a delightfully positive way. It should have a weight, viscosity, and flow to it that is very different from water. Water feels like it is homing in on your stomach and in a rush to get there, but espresso should feel like it wants to stick around in your mouth for a while, enjoying the sites and saying "Hola" to everyone.

      TASTE - Yes, the taste is like coffee, but it is much more than that. For a person new to espresso it can be very difficult to describe, but you really have to pay attention because it changes as you sip.

      The way a coffee ends in taste can be VERY different from how it starts. I sampled a coffee in an educational session at the SCAA show in Seattle that was improperly roasted. At first I thought that it was pretty good until an experienced cupper told me to pay close attention on how it started. I sipped again paying close attention to the start and it was quite nasty, but the finish was so delicious it covered that early, unpleasant taste. We tend to remember the LAST part of a taste more then the first, so pay close attention to the beginnings of the flavor profile.

      As you sip the espresso expect it to be a lot of different things from the time you take the first sip until the flavor disappears. The flavors should dance and change as the espresso moves from the front of the tongue, to the back, and finally down the throat. Try to sense 'below' the "coffee taste," looking for earthy, flowery, fruity, woody, spicy, and other flavors that come through- pleasant or nasty, subtle or overwhelming. Since different parts of the tongue sense different flavors it is natural for the taste to change as it flow through your mouth.

      AFTER TASTE - The good taste of the espresso should stay with you for quite some time after the sipping, and that should be a good thing (but it will not always be so). You should have the urge to expectorate any spittle that builds in your mouth in fear that swallowing it might dilute the lingering aftertaste. A really great espresso should linger delightfully for as long as ten or twenty minutes after it has been consumed! If you feel a burning sensation or there is a nasty bitterness that you want to rid yourself of, then it's time to move on... and in that case it's fine to get a some water... and swallow!

      Finally, don't discount the shop based on one shot. Straight espresso is difficult to make well, and even more so to make consistently. I make two doubles each morning, and I often get one really great pull, and the other.. well, let's just say that if it weren't going into a milk drink it would never be consumed at all.

      Feel free to kindly discuss your taste experience with the PBTC and see what they say. I am certainly not the last word on tasting espresso. Be nice, though. Instead of saying something like, "I think your espresso came out of the toilet..." try an approach more like, "To me this tastes bitter..." Their reaction to your thoughts is more of an indicator as to whether you want to try another shot or try another shop than the taste of the espresso itself.

     At a local shop I witnessed a patron return with his take-away order. He told the "barrista"/owner that his drink tasted bitter. It was a very large milk-based drink which should have had only the faintest taste of coffee with all the milk, whipped cream, and chocolate in it! The "barrista"/owner told him he had ordered the wrong drink and to put some sugar in it, and recommended the beverage he should order next time he came in. I am fairly sure that his recomendation ws unnecessary as it was most likely the last time that customer visited that shop. I know it was my last.

      Good luck on your search. let me know if you find the Grail.