The Italian Barista Champion Fights Back!!

A couple weeks ago, The Atlantic Magazine published a (puff) piece by Giorgio Milos (Illy employee and former Italian Barista Champion). This piece was... umm.... insulting to many people in the coffee community. I wrote about it in my Cultural Imperialism bit.

Well.... Giorgio is back.
And this time he's a lot less condescending. Which is nice.
But he's still kind of missing the point.

Note: I am assuming that some editor at The Atlantic actually came up with the title of the piece ("Espresso 101: An Expert Responds to Readers") - but if not then I'll retract my above "less condescending" comment.

Anyway... to the piece and my point...

He starts off with a long bit on his background, his credentials... basically defending himself and establishing that he actually does - in fact - know what he's talking about.

At the center of my 20-plus years of training and knowledge is illycaffè. Certainly my views on coffee have been influenced by the company's scientific environment, created by three generations of chemists; a research and development unit covering agronomy, botany, physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, and computer science; and laboratories dedicated to dedicated to the study of coffee, in areas like sensory perception (not just taste, but aroma as well).

The thing is... none of us were arguing that you don't know a lot about Italian espresso. I mean... come on. Illy is arguably the most respected coffee company in the world when it comes to the science of coffee. And you're the Italian barista champion. So we already knew that - if we had any questions at all about Italian espresso - you're the shit.

The problem is that you still don't seem to get that Italian espresso is not equal to espresso anymore. Espresso is global now. We all have our own styles. We owe a debt to Italy for creating this incredible way to prepare coffee. Thank you. But we're doing our own versions now. And, sadly, it seems that not only are you not an expert in other styles of espresso - you still don't even see that there are (in fact) other styles of espresso.

And so we get to the main points.

But some baristas prefer making double espressos with more than twice the amount of coffee--20 grams, not the 14-18 the SCAA guidelines would suggest--and only the amount of water for a single espresso, one ounce. The idea is a power-packed espresso, with half the one ounce of extraction being crema. It might sound good to espresso fans, but this idea has numerous problems.

Not to be a dick here, but 20 is not twice 14-18. In fact, 20 is only roughly 12% greater than 18 (not 100% greater). So, in fact, if one were to dose 20 grams rather than 18 grams (the upper end of the commonly accepted scale), one would only be increasing dose by roughly 12%.

Now... I agree that a 1oz shot from a 20g dose is unlikely to yield a good flavor experience (not impossible, but unlikely). But let's be realistic here... 1oz doubles are very (very) rare among good coffee bars. What is more common here is the 1.5oz double ristretto from 17.5 to 18.5 grams of coffee. While this is, in fact, slightly outside of your range for both volume and potentially dose - the variance is extremely small.

But anyway, what are these "numerous problems"? Well... it seems like there are two (not exactly "numerous" but whatever).

First... the "too much caffeine" problem.

No matter what you call this concentrate, the caffeine content is much higher than what we have come to expect with a traditional espresso. For years people thought espresso contained more caffeine than brewed coffee. Now, most professionals and coffee lovers know this is not true of Arabica espresso prepared with the traditional formula, which contains 60 to 70 milligrams of caffeine. Overdosing the espresso, even using Arabica beans and not higher-caffeine Robusta, the caffeine content could reach 200 milligrams. As logic would dictate, extraction time--how long coffee and water remain in contact--is a major factor.

As the editor (finally doing his job - thank you) correctly points out - extraction time in fact does not impact caffeine (at least within the range of variance we're talking about).

What the editor fails to point out is yet another math error. So... let's assume the same (gasp horror) 20g dose. This is an increase (as noted) of around 12% over the "accepted" range. The high end of the range he provides for caffeine is 70 milligrams. To get to 200 milligrams of caffeine, we would need to increase dose not by 12% but in fact by almost 300%. In other words, the dose would have to be roughly 50 grams.

Okay, so he's wrong about one of the two "numerous" problems being increased caffeine (or at least increased beyond an additional 12% or so.

What's the other one of these two "numerous" problems then?

For a double espresso, the formula calls for using twice the amount of coffee and twice the water. If the water isn't increased in proportion, the resulting extraction will have too little liquid and too much crema, as in the photo here. The beverage is too concentrated, its aromatic components not optimally released and mixed. Effectively, the aromas overlap with one another, creating issues like an extremely sour taste that can be perceived as salty. With this overconcentration, only a few pleasurable notes can emerge in the cup, masking others produced during roasting like chocolate, toasted bread, cocoa, and caramel. Lost is that ideal balance of bitter and sour.

The above statement is 100% accurate.
If you're using Illy coffee.

The problem is that leading non Italian coffee companies have diverged from the Italian traditions when it comes to the formulation of their espressos. Not only are more and more of these companies working with single origin (not blended) espressos, but the blends are also diverging further and further as well (with a larger and larger percentage of the coffee being washed coffees and fewer and fewer roasters working with lower grown natural and pulped natural coffees from Brazil for these espressos). These coffees are not stored and aged. They're not selected purely for their stability and low acidity.

Because the beans being worked with are so different from what Giorgio is used to - and because the flavor profile of these beans is wildly different -- the method of extraction has to be different.

The result in the cup is - logically - very different from what you would get from Illy. But this is not a barista error. It is the result of a series of conscious decisions (from bean selection, through blending, through roast style, to preparation and drink style) all to get a desired coffee experience.

The result is highly unlikely to taste like Illy.
That doesn't mean it's "wrong".
And it doesn't mean it is not espresso.



Anonymous said...

Illy has made a science out of producing drinkable espresso. While there are many interesting espressos in the US that are more than just drinkable.. the norm is a bit disappointing. And as long as espresso is more an ingredient than a final product I think it's a much tougher battle than improving the general public's experience and perception of drip filter coffees. You might as well try to tell a certain Italian that different is not wrong

Chris - you're lucky enough to be stuck in a world where drinkable=uninteresting.

Tim Wendelboe said...

Great post Chris.
Although it is not my battle, I love how you beat Illy at their own game by using numbers and science in the argumentation.

Talking about espresso as one thing is just silly. Every single espresso is different, so one would have to discect each one in order to argue the pros and cons.

But hey, this is why we can have a competition in preparing espresso drinks.

jeremybb said...

A minor point, but when he said "But some baristas prefer making double espressos with more than twice the amount of coffee", I think he means more than twice the amount appropriate for a single.

Everything this guy says is based on a rigid formula.

chris said...


Actually - his "recipe" calls for a double being twice the amount of coffee as a single. So.... I am afraid that he either has math problems or is exaggerating to make his point.

And yes - he has a "rigid formula". That's a large part of the problem here.

Anonymous said...

Great insights Chris.

Even before you start reading Giorgio's article, the picture of broken/chipped and over roasted beans gives you a sense of foreboding.