The Baristas' Espressos

As I said in my most recent (The Baristas' Baristas) post...

This list does not attempt to judge either the coffee this baristas are using or the quality of the shots they are pulling day to day .... I'm considering how to apply this same approach to coffees...

Obviously, the value of the prior post was compromised by looking purely at the baristas (in the abstract). If the goal really is to give people a direction to go to understand what espresso can and should taste like, then the coffee needs to be considered as well. To answer the question of "what does great espresso taste like" by sending someone to taste great espresso from a great barista - I would need to look at the barista, the coffee - and the combination of the two.

So after some consideration, I went back to the same "panel" of baristas etc and asked them a similar question to last time - but in this case looking at the coffees.

You walk into a very good coffee bar to get an espresso. What espressos would you be most excited to see them working with?

As with the last time, all nominated coffees would require multiple nominations to be added to the list. Unlike last time, with the espressos I asked for folks to rank up to three of them in order. I then used a combination of ranking score and number of nominations to determine the final list.

In the end, the list of espressos that folks would be most excited to see on bar is:

Square Mile -- London, UK
Stumptown -- Portland, OR; Seattle,WA; Brooklyn, NY
The Coffee Collective -- Copenhagen, DEN
Wendelboe -- Oslo, NO
Ecco Caffe -- Santa Rosa, CA
Kaffa -- Oslo, NO
Intelligentsia -- Chicago, IL; LA, CA

Of course, again, the same major caveats apply.
There is massive under-representation from Australia and New Zealand due to low response numbers from that region.
Obscure roasters and roasters not known on the international scene are under-represented.
That means that there are probably some very good coffees being left off this list.

In addition, there are two additional caveats.
First, the people surveyed in general are excited about coffees they cannot get. So a lot of North American folks nominated coffees from Scandinavia. You get the idea. This might skew the results a bit.
Second, this is purely intended to discuss espressos - not all coffees and explicitly not coffees designed for other brew methods.

And the disclaimer.... this is not an attempt to claim these are the "best" roasters in any way shape or form or that these roasters produce the "best" coffee. It's simply looking at the other axis of information to address the original question "how do I know what great espresso tastes like."

So now we have the baristas - and the coffees.
What does this mean (other than suggesting it would be worthwhile to pack 5lbs of Square Mile Winter espresso or Hairbender for a flight to Copenhagen so you can beg Klaus to pull you shots)?

Well... it looks to me like the best options for understanding what espresso can and should taste like would be for you to do something like go to:
  1. Copenhagen and have Klaus Thomsen pull you some shots of espresso from The Coffee Collective, or
  2. Portland and have Billy Wilson pull you some shots of espresso from Stumptown or Ecco Caffe, or
  3. Oslo and have Tim Wendelboe pull you some shots of espresso from Wendelboe, or
  4. London and have James Hoffman pull you some shots of espresso from Square Mile, or
  5. Chicago and have Mike Phillips pull you some shots from Intelligentsia.

Hmmm... I guess I have my vacations planned for the next 2 years!!!


onocoffee said...

Gosh, I really don't want to come off as the only one with gripes in these comments - kinda reminds me of the old days on the CoffeeGeek forums (eh, Malachi...).


As much as I am (or would be) excited to have bags of Square Mile, Collective or Wendelboe (there's that "can't get that coffee" syndrome again), I hope we're not moving towards a feeling that the mere presence of those coffees in a cafe is some sort of "guarantee" for excellence.

When I think of this topic, I liken it to cuisine and chefs. Many chefs can source the same quality ingredients, yet it's their execution of those ingredients that makes the difference. And perhaps our community is a bit myopic when it comes to that level of execution.

Reminds me of an experience I had just this morning as we were taking a mini-tour of local coffeehouses. Stopped into a place serving PT's La Bella Vita espresso. The PT's LBV is a coffee I've had before that I've found pleasing. However, in the hands of this barista, it was utterly horrid: a complete disaster. Clearly, this can happen with any of the above-mentioned coffees.

My point is that we cannot discount the quality and execution of the barista from the equation. A coffee from a reputable roaster is not enough!

Further, one of the biggest issues I see emerging is the lack of sourcing on the part of the barista. If we review the list of baristas in the previous post, all of them (with the exception of Billy Wilson) are limited by their means - they only offer the espresso coffees that their companies produce. There is no real sourcing or vetting of the coffees. They merely are making do with the coffee given to them - because I don't foresee those baristas looking towards other companies (their company's competitors) to seek out the "best" or "ideal" espresso coffee for their coffee program.

Of the baristas listed, only Billy seems to be truly exploring all that our coffee world has to offer by tasting and vetting coffees from a variety of roasters.

chris said...


I thought I was reasonably clear that I was talking about the COMBINATION of espresso and barista. It is, after all, why I said the prior post was incomplete (as it only addressed the barista component).

But just to be clear...

It is the combination of the espresso and the barista that matter. Just as a great barista is only as good as the coffee they are working with, a great coffee will only truly shine when handled by a great barista.

And when the two come together (as in the combinations outlined above) it can be magic.

Unknown said...

The Billy Wilson argument is a bit empty.

Tim Wendelboe is the only one actually sourcing, roasting and brewing the espresso, so saying he isn't 'truly exploring all that our coffee world has to offer' is a little misguided.

I know James and Klaus are personally sourcing their greens, so not taking anything away from Billy, you could argue all he is 'sourcing' or working with is coffee already sourced and roasted.

Anonymous said...

As Scott said, its kind of strange to be lumped in with such folk, you all make me blush. In case you do wander into my shop however and I am not on bar, Dont go straight to a cappuccino... There are a good number of baristas on my staff that can and do stand toe to toe with my shots any day. As far as the sourcing coffees go I think you'll start to see things changing at least a little. At Intelligentsia we will always have black cat as a standard but our single origin offering is baristas pick and you'll see it change regularly as such. Combine that with the fact that our baristas have the ability to monitor the blend down to changes in agtron for individual components then give feed back to the roasters and I think there is room to consider them part of the process to some extent. I'd love to see that lineup of baristas and coffee on bar at an event someday

Anonymous said...

Things are changing a bit. Although I don't have the ability to pull the trigger myself, I am fortunate to be at a company that highly regards my (and a couple other peers) opinion on what coffees should be included in our espresso program. Jared, Sean, and I are by no means "green buyers" but we do have tons of input on what will end up in our grinders on bar. If I'm not mistaken Kyle's pretty much in charge of the overall espresso game for Intelligentsia and is indeed the green buyer for the Black Cat project. Even though Kyle may not work regular bar shifts I would consider this Barista sourcing. I'm not saying we're dealing with a perfect system but things are moving along.

Also Jay I completely agree with you (as I'm sure most others here will as well) about not discounting the quality and execution of a good Barista. Any coffee has the potential to be butchered in the wrong hands.

See you guys at conference!