I’ve just been road testing a brace of quality coffees from a small and relatively new Irish supplier, Imbibe. Latin Espresso is a blend from Columbia and Costa Rica beans. The blend was described to me by Imbibe’s man Gary Grant as “a medium-to-dark roast espresso which is rich, sweet and balanced with notes of toffee and caramel” All of this was true. However the sample I received was slightly over-roasted for my taste, a phenomenon I’m coming across more and more.
The temptation to dark-roast is entirely understandable; you see, years ago, when we made the giant leap from Nescafe and its ilk to ‘real’ coffee via, firstly, the percolator, then the Cona machine, the filter, the French press or cafetiere, coffee was made in a similar fashion to tea. We poured a cup and added what was, by today’s standards, a small amount of milk, cold or hot. Eventually and it was bound to happen, we discovered the charms of espresso-based coffee. From the off, this was styled on the Italian principle and dammit why not; they invented the machine. The milky version is called cappuccino, meaning ‘little hood’. A cappuccino is a coffee drink topped with micro-foamed milk. Espresso is poured into the bottom third of the cup, and is followed by a similar amount of hot milk. The top third of the drink consists of milk foam, often decorated with artistic drawings made with the same milk and called ‘latte art’.Chocolate,cinnamon, or other spices are often sprinkled onto the top of the finished drink. In a traditional cappuccino the total of espresso and milk/foam make up between approximately 150–180 mL Commercial coffee chains in the US, seeing the potential of putting added value on milk – essentially a cheap ingredient – started to serve the cappuccino as a 360 mL drink, subsequently creating even more grotesque (and more profitable) milk fests.
Italian roasting of coffee beans invariably gets darker as you travel south. In Napoli and Rome drinkers like the ‘big hit’ whereas coffee drinkers in the north prefer a little subtlety. I know from my own experiences with home roasting (I roast 300-400g of ‘greens’ on rather more than a weekly basis) and from my long wine tasting experience that roasting in coffee introduces similar factors to the influence of oak on wine – the longer wine is left on oak and the higher the degree of ‘toast’ on the barrel, the more the flavour of the finished wine is influenced by the oak aging. So with coffee. The darker the bean is roasted the more it tastes of the roasting process and the less of the character of the beans used. In a perfect world, coffee would be roasted for no longer than it takes to tease out the aromas and flavours inherent in the bean. These are complex – ranging from wine to caramel, woodsmoke to morello cherries with a myriad of complex nuances in between. Alas, life’s not like that. Commercially the need is for a coffee that will cut through the big buckets of milk so dark roasting is ‘way to go’. All that said, the quality of Imbibe’s Latin American Espresso is a given and cafés and restaurants would win friends by substituting it for the popular Italian brands, many of which are, in all honesty, truly woeful.
The other coffee was labelled Triple Cert. This coffee is Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified, as Gary says “Quite simply, it’s the most ethical coffee you can drink.” It’s a three bean blend comprised of beans from Brazil, Sumatra and Peru. Brazilian coffee forms the base. Soft and mild with a low acidity, it combines well with the more vibrant Peruvian bean. The third bean is from Sumatra and lends backbone and character. I liked this coffee a good deal.
Coffee beans, as I’m sure most know, can be sub-divided into Arabica and Robusta. The conventional wisdom is that Arabica, grown at higher altiudes, brings quality and flavour to a blend whereas Robusta gives strength and the beguiling ‘crema’ that people like to see atop their espresso. The desirability of incorporating some Robusta into the blend is stressed by some producers, largely I suspect because Robusta comes much cheaper. I’ve never found any difficulty getting strength into a pure Arabica blend where needed, nor crema – as long as the coffee is fresh and the brew not over-extracted,
I have myself experimented a good deal with incorporating Sumatran beans into a blend. I find that 5-7.5% of Sumatra in the blend brings a slightly smoky quality, which I love, to the mellow Honduran, El Salvador, Nicaraguan and Brazilian aromas and flavours. The espresso machine is a powerful tool. In the hands of a properly trained barista using good coffee it can deliver exquisite results. However, in many cafes and restaurants, in the hands of under-trained staff or those who have no interest in or love for coffee it produces coffee that’s as subtle as a mad dentist with a chainsaw. The trade is well aware of this – hence the invention of the Nespresso machine.
Why coffee is so neglected in Ireland, in the average cafe and even in restaurants serving stellar food, I just do not know. It is the last thing you consume before leaving. Surely the restaurant has the responsibility to conclude the meal on a high note? But all too often, it fails.
Good Irish coffee suppliers whose beans I’ve tried and tested include: