4.11.2011

espresso - bastard stepchild of US coffee?

A quick message to the folks working at and running the high end, quality focused craft coffee companies in the US.

I know that a lot of you think espresso is "over".
I know that the cool new thing is the V60. Or is it the Aeropress? Wait... syphon? Well... let's just say that brewed coffee is the new hotness for you all.
I get it.

But here is the thing...
Your customers still drink espresso.
Some of us (shocking I know) actually prefer espresso to brewed coffee.

So the fact that some of you are either ignoring your espresso or half-assing your espresso pretty much sucks.
It's unprofessional and it is disrespectful of your customers.

We want good espresso.

Espresso in the US has, in my opinion, declined in quality over the last 2 years. There are exceptions, of course, but in general I can conclusively say that the espresso I've tasted over the last 6 months (from many of the "best" roasters in the United States) is worse than it was 2 years ago.

Don't be lazy.
Don't be selfish.
Make good espresso.

19 comments:

maximumgrindage said...

Beans or baristas or both?

chris said...

Yes.
Both.
More.

sLucey said...

Dear Chris,

I'm hoping not to come across as flagrant in any means, but when I read or hear discussions such as this I can't help but ask about exactly how and what you're basing your statement on.

Perhaps you're not intending to do so, but when I read this I gather that you are generalizing the entire USA? The entire Specialty Industry?

I certainly wouldn't ask this question if you just came back from a trip around the US, and maybe you have.... but I can't help but ask that you explain more, otherwise a post like this seems to be more valuable for shock value rather than for creative criticisms.

I realize it could be a can of worms you'd rather not open, and if so I respect that - it should be a disclaimer to the post.

sL

chris said...

Hi Scott,

Fair comments. I'll respond quickly...

First - absolutely this is in no way based on complete and total understanding of all roasters and all espressos in the US "high end" market. I honestly don't know if such a claim would be realistic for anyone. As a result, there are absolutely gaps in my perception.

Second - that being said, I've been turning this whole idea over in my head for almost a year. So this isn't a "spur of the moment" post at all. I've been trying to disprove my perception for probably six months.

Third - I have the fortune (or perhaps the curse) of traveling a lot for work. This allows me to experience a ton of different espressos prepared in many different ways all across the US.

Fourth - as I have the (perhaps undeserved) reputation of having a strong palate for espresso, roasters also tend to send me coffees to taste quite frequently.

Fifth - I also happen to know a lot of coffee professionals, and they often send me samples to taste and consider.

As a result - I've been lucky enough to taste a lot of different espresso over the last year. A completely non-inclusive list of US roasters sampled would include (but not be limited to) (and in no particular order):
- Counter Culture
- Ecco
- Intelligentsia
- Klatch
- Zoka
- Terroir
- Vivace
- Caffe Fresco
- Stumptown
- Ritual
- Four Barrel
- Barefoot
- Verve
- Gimme
- Sightglass
- Vita
- Coava
- Heart
- Olympia
- Paradise
- Metropolis
- Grumpy

For correlation's sake - I've also been lucky enough to taste coffees from a bunch of non-US roasters (Wendelboe, Sq Mile, Coffee Collective, Mecca etc).


In looking at the coffees sampled and tracking the coffees over the last 7 years, I feel reasonably confident that my claim (US high end espresso *as a whole* has declined over the last year or two) is an accurate representation of my perception.

Sure... there are roasters who are exceptions.
But as a whole...

The Ghost said...

Everyone I talk to says this years Pliny The Younger is not as good as last years Pliny the Younger. The same conversation goes for Hacienda Esmeralda.

At a certain point, you have to wonder if the quality is actually lacking, or are our tastes changing. Better yet... Are our expectations rising?

I actually believe the quality of coffee has gone up in the last couple of years. However, due to my critical nature, I can't say I've had that many great or memorable cups of coffee in the last 12 months.

This makes me think of Gwilym Davies "espresso is disappointing" line...

I'm not arguing against your point. We do need to keep focused on both espresso and brewed coffee equally. I just can't agree with the idea that espresso is not getting enough attention.

The Ghost said...

Everyone I talk to says this years Pliny The Younger is not as good as last years Pliny the Younger. The same conversation goes for Hacienda Esmeralda.

At a certain point, you have to wonder if the quality is actually lacking, or are our tastes changing. Better yet... Are our expectations rising?

I actually believe the quality of coffee has gone up in the last couple of years. However, due to my critical nature, I can't say I've had that many great or memorable cups of coffee in the last 12 months.

This makes me think of Gwilym Davies "espresso is disappointing" line...

I'm not arguing against your point. We do need to keep focused on both espresso and brewed coffee equally. I just can't agree with the idea that espresso is not getting enough attention.

chris said...

I'm not saying that *coffee* is declining in quality or even that coffee in the US is declining.

Rather, that *espresso* has become an increasingly marginalized part of the coffee professionals' in the US focus. And the quality of that espresso has, as a result. declined.

Andrew said...

Over the year’s Chris has had access to a diverse selection of espressos from many of the world’s most renowned roasters. Many of our most respected pros and home baristas seek his take, especially when it comes to taste evaluation. Chris offers a unique perspective on flavor and quality. He’s an advocate for both the pro and the consumer. Most of all, uncompromised quality. For all of the amazing advances of the last 64 years, our espresso movement is still in its infancy, In order to press forward with greater flavor, it’s imperative that we remain open. Chris’s criticism is most welcome.

Andrew said...

Over the year’s Chris has had access to a diverse selection of espressos from many of the world’s most renowned roasters. Many of our most respected pros and home baristas seek his take, especially when it comes to taste evaluation. Chris offers a unique perspective on flavor and quality. He’s an advocate for both the pro and the consumer. Most of all, uncompromised quality. For all of the amazing advances of the last 64 years, our espresso movement is still in its infancy, In order to press forward with greater flavor, it’s imperative that we remain open. Chris’s criticism is most welcome.

onocoffee said...

Isn't this the same argument people had when the baristas were rising in 2002-2005 and the focus was heavily on espresso? Back then, people were bemoaning the focus on espresso and the lack of focus on coffee. Remember?

I'd be interested to read about the places you think have declined in quality over the past year or so. Considering that you're in SF, with access to a variety of shops, would those be at the top of your list in declining espresso quality?

As for myself, I don't know if I would categorize the espresso market "declining" but perhaps becoming more chaotic.

Back in the day, we used to see roasters crafting blends of coffee to meet a specific profile. Zoka Paladino, Hines Spro, Intelli Black Cat and Stumptown's Hairbender were formulated for profile - considering the yearly/monthly change in coffees, the blending of a particular blend was as challenging and craftworthy as the blending of champagnes.

Today, we seem to have forgone the challenge of blending in favor of something that, seems to me, to be an easy way out: The Single Origin Espresso and the Seasonal Espresso Blend.

Intelligentsia's Black Cat has historically been wildly varying, same with Counter Culture's Toscano. Both companies seem to have given up the craft of blending in favor of "seasonal blends" that change frequently in their Black Cat Project and Apollo lines, respectively.

From there, we see many roasters utilizing "Seasonal Single Origin Espresso" where it's very simple to take one bean, roast it and then extoll the virtues of that bean as an espresso. Don't like the profile? Well, that's the "beauty" of the seasonal espresso. It will change (as soon as we deplete our inventory).

Quite honestly, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with SO Espresso. It can (and has) been a fascinating journey through potential flavors in espresso, but much of it also falls flat. The dark side of the SO Espresso is that it relieves the roaster from the craft of blending coffees for a particular experience.

I'm glad that Origins still produces the Hines Spro, Stumptown the Hairbender, but I'm also glad that Intelli produces that strange beast known as Honey Badger too.

Personally speaking, I'd like to see roasters return to core blending for a particular profile. Seems that they've lost focus on this with the rush to SO Espresso and "seasonality."

sLucey said...

Chris,

Thanks for explaining a bit more where you're coming from.

It's an interesting discussion rolling out. I need to ponder more, but might also ask about your statement "don't be selfish."

Would this relate to a single-minded, narrow vision that might be the shift in balance from a given coffee company only excelling with their brewed coffee?

chris said...

Andrew -- you're far too kind.

Jay -- interesting and valid points that deserve more thought.

Scott -- in this case, by selfish I mean "it's not about what YOU want, but rather what the customers want"

Mike White said...

what are the exceptions?

CoffeePedaler said...

Solution:If you have consistently bad espresso, tell a shop owner/operator, not the internet. As an operator, I rely on my customer's ability to tell me when they aren't satisfied. Consumers hold half of the responsibility.

Direct communication is still the most effective way to effect change. This industry needs to grow up.

chris said...

Absolutely you should tell the coffee bar or the roaster if you have bad coffee. And believe me (grin) I've shared all these thoughts as well as direct feedback and opinions with all sorts of roasters, coffee bar people, etc. I'm not exactly known for keeping things to myself...

Now... that being said... I tend to get listened to by the pros a little more than the average joe. It is sad to see how little interest some pros have in hearing input.

And... I cannot stress the following enough... I am NOT saying that consumers should badger people working in coffee bars with their opinions on coffee, coffee prep, etc. Be polite, be understanding, be respectful of peoples' time.

onocoffee said...

As a barista and operator myself, I would prefer the guest come to me or my staff with their drink/quality/service concerns. It gives us direct feedback and the opportunity to make an immediate correction to their situation.

That said, I also believe that the Internet is absolutely the place to rant or rave about a place - whether you have spoken to the staff prior to posting, or not.

The bottom line is that we must be on top of our game. We must always hold the line and offer our best experience possible. Fail in that, then we deserve whatever Internet lashings we receive. At least on most review sites you can comment and attempt to handle the situation, creating another opportunity to demonstrate to the public that your place goes beyond the norm.

Of course, how many operators/baristas think this way? I don't know.

coffeehorse said...

I've been wondering about this lately - a lot.

One of my newer theories, borne out by the comments of a couple of specialty roasters to me, is that the best coffees are now being 'reserved' for filter use only, while previously the roaster and buyer would've just had them as 'expensive espresso'.

Now they're being found 'wasted' as espresso when compared to the brew method where it's 'easy' to get clarity and complexity hand-in-hand.

Customers don't hold half the responsibility when confounded by operators who sometimes only respect the palates of people they already know and trust - I'm happy to have a palate which a few people respect, but I've seen people get cold-shouldered telling the barista the same thing I would've opened my mouth to say. They also don't hold responsibility when their palates aren't trained to pick up the deficiencies in their drinks - as the barista or the roaster you hold responsibility for ensuring the quality of your product, not the grower, not the consumer - no-one else.

John
twitter.com/coffeehorse

While US international postage rates mean that quality roasters rarely even bother to offer their coffees to the Australian market except for tasting by industry illuminati, US coffee's here have gone from being 'desirable at all costs' to 'pleasant if you can get them' in perception.

I hope roasters drive this perception to change back.

Psyd said...

I travel a fair bit myself, and have people sending me a few bags o beans, too, and I do have to agree with Chris' assertions. there is a tendency toward slack. Just a bit, but it's more noticeable when things should be moving forward. And I agree with Jay as well. SO's are an interesting foray into the ingredient of coffee, but the pinnacle of espresso (leastwise for me) is the blend. The Art is in the blend. Roasting and SO is a skill, and it's as Jay said, but still.
SO's are the radicchio, the arugula, the butter leaf of the espresso world. I'm fond of a mixed green salad myself.

A A Meza said...

The reality is (unless they are completely ignoring their business data) most companies are listening to their customers. I focus on espresso because it’s the majority of our business (even though we only offer 4-5 espresso at a time out of 25-30 coffees). I know there are other roasters out there where the opposite is true and they are probably investing most of their time in drip coffees. I don't think this excuses ignoring one or the other as I wouldn't want to sell something I'm not proud of. But it's a factor that probably ends up showing in the resulting product offerings. I don’t think anyone is intentionally ignoring espresso.
There are also factors that are out of a roaster's control - such as the coffee supply. I think last year's coffees were - overall - less spectacular than usual. This is partially due to increased demand for better coffees but also an artifact of the high c market prices as (some) growers see less benefit in putting work into a better coffee when they can already get high prices for their crop.
I do have to agree with coffeehorse somewhat... yes some coffee are reserved for filter use. This isn't done intentionally per se, there is simply more price resistance from espresso consumers that there is from drip consumers which limits what coffees can be put in espresso blends. There is a huge drop off in sales when espressos are more than $18/lb. For drip coffees, that resistance doesn't start until about $23/lb and it's less pronounced. On the extreme end this resistance is even more apparent. I can go through a greater volume of drip coffee at $100/lb than I can with espresso at $25/lb. That’s the market (i.e. consumer) speaking. I would love to put top auction lots in my espresso (and sometimes do as it does show in the cup) but sales simply don’t support this endeavor.
While one could produce a great espresso and make reasonable margins at $18/lb 2 years ago that is increasingly harder today. And because of the price resistance espresso has, one has to make a choice between maintaining quality and losing margins or maintaining margins and losing on quality. I’ve opted for the former but no doubt there are some roasters out there who wouldn’t even have the power to make that choice because of other strategic planning objectives.
These numbers will probably vary from roaster to roaster, but from speaking with others the trends still exist.

Aaron