Why is it that McStarbucks continues to be the defining espresso experience in the United States? Sure they pump out a thick, potent brew, but anyone who has ever tried true Italian espresso is no doubt extremely disappointed each and every time they sip from that dreaded cardboard demitasse. Sadly, McStarbucks is our best option here in the US unless you are one of the few true espresso-heads who makes the investment into creating their own at-home espresso bar.
So what’s so wrong with standard American espresso? First off, its primary sin is that it is generally completely void of crema. Crema, for the uninitiated, is that thick creamy brown layer of oils that floats atop a true cup of espresso. It is only formed when all of the proper conditions are met. First you have to have the right beans.
Italian brands such as Lavazza and Illy have spent years researching the various properties of various strands of Arabica beans in order to ensure that their blends produce high-quality, thick crema. Though all high-quality coffee beans come from one plant, the Coffea Arabica, where the plant grows contributes greatly to the various qualities of the bean it produces. Coffees produced in Colombia for instance tend to have a higher caffeine content, while coffees from Africa are often described as wine-like or earthy. A single bean type does not a great espresso make. Espresso is complicated and needs qualities from several types of beans. Italian coffee blenders know this and their blends are accordingly highly sophisticated and crafted to suit the Italian taste buds. Not only do you have to have the right beans, but you have to roast them correctly.
If you take a close look at the coffee beans at Starbucks, you’ll notice one thing that virtually all of their various offerings have in common, viz. they are in general all roasted to a dark brown/black. This gives them a shiny appearance primarily because the heat from the roasting causes the internal oils of the coffee bean to come to the surface. Most people think that this dark oily beans are the way “true” espresso beans should look. Quite the opposite is unfortunately true. Go buy a can of Illy and check out the beans. They have a dry, light tan appearance with a nice matte finish. Italians know well that by not roasting the beans to oblivion, you allow the natural oils of the bean to remain comfortably preserved within the bean itself. This serves to preserve the oils that would otherwise spoil, and it ultimately helps to ensure that the beans will produce an excellent thick crema.
Finding the perfect beans is really just the beginning step in the pursuit of espresso bliss. There are a number of other factors to consider. Water, machine quality, grind, tamp pressure, and water temperature all play a vital role in the production of perfect espresso. Stay tuned to hear more about how you can create the perfect cup in your very own home.