5.14.2010

Cultural Imperialism

Sigh... another example of mass media blowing it when it comes to coffee...

But wait... this one is interesting!
Because this time, the article is written by an Italian "espresso expert."
And as well all know.... no-one knows espresso better than the Italians.

Kind of like how no-one knows beer better than the Germans?

Hmmm....

So, wow.
Yeah - the article is largely a promo piece for Illy and the "Illy way."
But none the less... wow.

I'd never really thought about the idea the cultural imperialism could be applied to espresso. I guess I wasn't thinking big enough.

My thoughts (in order and point by point):

Italian espresso (what he calls "traditional" espresso) is different from American espresso.

And to me that's a good thing. Each is its own thing - with its own goals and criteria.

As has been written before, Italian espresso is a cultural product perhaps more than a culinary one. There are rules. It is not a place for experimentation. That's fine.

What is called espresso here sometimes really isn't espresso.

Complaining about the fact that American espresso is different is just silly. It would be like someone from Pilsen complaining about Irish milk stout and saying "it's too dark and too heavy." Yes.... they're both beer. But they are different. And that's fine. They're different kinds of beer.

But what I didn't expect were so many baristas using so many methods to prepare espresso, far from the authentic Italian technique.

The trouble with a piece of food or beverage becoming a cultural artifact is that you end up feeling a sense of "ownership." And you start talking about things like "authentic Italian technique" as if it had some meaning. I'll use food as an example.... If it were not for people who ignored these rules and ignored the "cultural artifact" status quo preservationists, we'd all still be eating Chicken Kiev and Steak Diane. And that would be a travesty.

Yes... here in the US (and big shocker for you - also in places like Australia, Norway, England, Denmark... pretty much everywhere other than Italy in fact) we've been experimenting. We've been breaking the rules. And we've found that there are other options when it comes to espresso - and guess what. We like some of the results better than what you prescribe.

The biggest mistake I've seen is an enormous quantity of coffee being used—way too much. I'm talking about 20 to 25 grams of coffee for a single espresso shot! It is like making a mojito with half a mint leaf, one ice cube, a few grains of sugar, and a gallon of rum. Undrinkable!

Yes... I think we all agree that this is a writing error as I've never (ever) heard of anyone using 20 to 25 grams of coffee from a single shot. But this is the problem with being published when you are not a professional. You miss shit like this - and it destroys the trust in the writer.

Beyond that, I understand the point of hyperbole, but his analogy would only be true if he were talking about making a 5oz cappuccino with 4.5oz of espresso. If he wanted to make the correct analogy, he would talk about the amount of sugar cane used to make the appropriate volume of rum.

More importantly... if the amount of coffee used varies from what Illy prescribes, that is not a "mistake" (unless arguably you're working with Illy's coffee). It's a choice. We're choosing to use more coffee just like we're choosing to not use robusta and we're choosing to experiment with single origin coffees and we're choosing to create blends from 100% washed coffees. It's that that we're unaware of your "rules" - we're just choosing to move past them.

Espresso made this way—well, it's not espresso, but I'll call it that—turns out overly concentrated, and because of that it cannot delight the drinker with the magnificent aromas of toasted bread, chocolate, red fruit, orange, and jasmine flowers that are all present in a high-quality blend.

Three points.

1 - Who the hell is he to tell me what IS espresso and what is not?
2 - If I were to describe the best shot of Illy I've ever had (from Trieste in this case) I would describe it as "caramel, light peanut and marzipan, hints of tangerine zest and light chocolate in the finish." In other words... his own coffee from his own home town fails to meet his "requirements."
3 - On the other hand.... I've had at least 3 espressos in the US that are almost exactly what he describes. One of them was dosed at 17g, one was dosed at 18g and one was dosed at around 19.5g. The flavor has to do with the COFFEE more than the dose.

The beverages I tasted were almost syrups, full-bodied but with a very sour, almost salty taste. I suspect that beans that were roasted too recently played a part. After roasting, beans need a few days to breathe and mature. These too-young beans are a big problem. Also, I've visited too many coffee bars that don't heat cups before serving, and in the process sacrifice flavor and aroma. Or that serve in wet cups, an espresso sin.

And so we get to the point.... Where has he had these coffees? He speaks for ALL american espresso based upon what sample set?

His description (syrup, massively updosed, sour, salty) doesn't sound like the shots from any of the top US coffee bars.

Wow.... beans need to rest?!?!?!?! That must come as a shock to us dumb rubes here in the US.

Listen up buddy.... if you've been getting shots that sound like your description, in unheated cups, from beans that are fresh out of the roaster -- then you've been going to the wrong coffee bars. How would you like it if I went to the coffee bar at the airport in Naples and said "Espresso in Italy sucks."

Oh... and as for your "espresso sins".... yeah... I got your sin right here buddy.

Update: Giorgio has written a new piece responding to the critiques - and I've blogged about it.

6 comments:

Billy said...

this douche bag was in Lake Oswego, Oregon a few weeks ago and got some press. really bugs me how the local media so easily succumbs to stupid crap like this. if they wanted to write a good article, they shoulda had a top barista with Stump/intelli beans make some coffee next to this guys' trash.

next.

Colin said...

Right on!!!

wavescrashashore said...

in cases like this i always make the pizza analogy: Italian Pizza and American Pizza are related, yes, but they are also two distinctly different things and shouldn't be judged by each others' standards.

Billy said...

yeah, except that italian style pizza tastes good...

chris said...

Hey Billy,

Maybe you should head down to Lake Oswego, taste "real" espresso from the place this guy endorses / trains for - and then get the Willamette Week to publish an article about it.

Aaron said...

great post chris. you're absolutely correct about experimentation. the german beer purity laws from the 1400s and king henry the 8th of england outlawing hops so beer had to stay at higher alcohols crippled the creative development from those countries for centuries, making belgium the center of progression through experimentation. we've had coffee for a long time, but espresso is still a baby in world history terms, and cementing its preparation at such an early stage in its development is a travesty. great post.