How do I know what good espresso should taste like?
As always, my answer was "go have a shot of great coffee pulled by a great barista." In hindsight - this is a somewhat glib response. It was pointed out that, if you don't know what good espresso tastes like you're also unlikely to know what a great coffee is and even more unlikely to know who a great barista is - or how to identify them.
So I started to think about how to address this. If I wanted to make sure that someone were able to taste a shot that gave them an idea about what great espresso was all about - who would I send them to?
I realized that the best solution would be to ask the people that I think are great baristas and great judges of baristas who they thought were great baristas. More than that.... to ask them who they would be excited to get a shot of espresso from - who they would look forward to a shot from.
So I asked this question of 30 people in the business whose opinions on the matter I deeply respect. This was a mix of great baristas, WBC/USBC judges and coffee professionals.
I then took the answers and created a list of the people who had more than one mention from this group (figuring that if two or more people vote for one barista - that's validation). Ironically, almost everyone on this initial list was someone on the "voting panel." In some ways, I think this is a good validation of that panel itself. I then sent the first cut of the list back out to the group along with the list of people who had only one vote - and asked for any suggested corrections. After a bunch of back-and-forth, I arrived at what we all seem to think is a good list.
It's important to note that this is not a list of who we - or I - think are the "best" baristas. This is instead a list of the Baristas' Baristas. These people might not, in fact, pull the absolute best shots in the world - but they are the people who we believe always pull good shots. They're the pros' pros.
In alphabetical order:
Billy Wilson -- Barista, Portland OR
Bronwen Serna -- Hines Public Market - Origins Coffee / Joe Bar, Seattle WA
Chris Baca -- Verve, Santa Cruz CA
James Hoffman -- Square Mile, London UK
Klaus Thomsen -- Coffee Collective, Copenhagen DEN
Mike Phillips -- Intelligentsia, Chicago IL
Scott Lucey -- Alterra, Milwaukee WI
Stephen Morrissey -- Intelligentsia, Chicago IL
Tim Wendelboe -- Tim Wendelboe, Oslo NO
Now... there is one important caveat and one important disclaimer that need to be mentioned.
Caveat - because of the "multiple vote" criteria, this list punishes people who work in remote areas and don't compete in barista competitions. In addition, because I got minimal response from contacts in Australia and New Zealand, it entirely leaves out the great baristas in those countries. Just because a barista working out in the backwoods isn't on here doesn't mean they're not amazing. And just because a barista who works in Sydney (or Christchurch) isn't on here also doesn't mean they're bad. It's a flawed system - what can I say.
Disclaimer - these baristas do the best they can with what they have, but they're only as good as their coffee. This list does not attempt to judge either the coffee these baristas are using or (as a result) the quality of the shots they are pulling day to day. It's simply a list of the baristas that baristas love and respect. I'm considering how to apply this same approach to coffees next. If I can pull it off - that should give a more useful final list.
In the end - however - this list should provide some direction for people who want to taste what espresso should and can taste like. It should help people calibrate.
At least... that's what I hope.