ImageOur Man in Milan, Carlo Picchio is roasting the Ottolina coffee. He was earlier working for Rancilio macchine per caffè. Carlo has now published an article on "Espresso Italiano". Please go on to read more.

It is a general idea around the world that real Italian espresso really exists. There even are recipes, certified organizations, gurus that pretend to have the authority to say what is the real thing and what is not.

Scientific and very serious studies have been made in the years to try to come to an univocal determination of what a real espresso is. Well done, I say but the truth, as always is, is that there are so many different ways of drinking espresso (and I’m considering a plain single shot) that giving a strict standard to the preparation of a shot always leaves blending and roasting an absolute freedom of choice of origins, method of roasting, degree of roasting, thus affecting the result in your cup. And this is the major issue when coming to the preparation of a good cup of espresso.

It is very easy to standardize machine parameters such as brewing pressure, water temperature grinding coarseness, ground quantity, but all of these parameters need to be adjusted to the blend you are brewing, which is in general ignored by most of the so called coffee gurus.

Now, back to the title. Italian espresso in Italy and around the world. I see espresso has an Italian origin, but is now so complex that what you drink around the world is something you will never be able to drink in Italy. Here in Italy, the espresso list of products in bars and restaurants is limited to a narrow choice of products, espresso (commonly named “caffè”), Caffè Macchiato (hot or cold), Cappuccino and caffelatte (totally different from what is now known as “latté” internationally). Ninety percent of coffee beans are brewed as espresso, leaving only 10% to cappuccinos and the rest of espresso variations. This should be enough to understand the differences you may find between the Italian way of drinking coffee and the international way.

In fact we have about 900 professional roasters all around Italy, each one specializing in his own area and having his range of blends. As always you can find excellent products and crap, depending on the reliability of the producer. This is to say that with a spread of 900 roasters each with at least 3 blends available, trying to standardize what is the real thing and what is not is nonsense. Espresso taste is different in regions, areas, it depends on the most successful roaster locally, which is in general someone operating on a local scale. We also have a way of serving coffee that has no equivalent in other countries. The Italian bar is somewhat unique, you will never find anyone offering you coffee in a paper cup, china rules unrivalled, Coffee though is a fast beverage. What I’ve found traveling the world is that the time between ordering your espresso and having a warm cup served, is in general much longer abroad than in my Country. A standard Italian bar will have you waiting for no longer than the time necessary to brew, no matter how crowded the bar is. And again the general quality of the espresso you receive is far better (to my taste) than what you find overseas.

Now, let’s come to blends. Espresso blends vary in different Italian areas. And the roasting degree changes too. It is difficult to standardize criteria that are universally followed, but in general we may say that: north to south the roasting degree increases, and blending varies accordingly.

The taste for espresso in Milan is far different from Naples. I was born, live and roast in Milan, so guess what’s my favorite. I’d say that northern espresso taste has a preference to a mild flavor, delicate and round taste, while southerners prefer a more definite, richer and stronger sensation.

The ways to achieve these two goals are either dependant to roasting and to blending. The choice of correct origins to compose your favorite blend is crucial. Then the degree of roasting comes in order to respect the origins and the quality you want to attain. Another issue that often misleads people in considering espresso blends is the content of Robusta beans. Pure Arabica blends are considered absolutely better for espresso, which is false. An excellent Robusta can be added, in moderate quantities, to your blend helping to correct the typical acidity of Arabica beans. This helps especially with deeply roasted blends, in which acidity comes out more. In fact Arabica beans need to be roasted lightly or at least medium if you do not want to alter the characteristic sweetness they have. A side effect is the production of an acidic component of the aroma, which increases with the degree of roasting. So if you need a deep roast (and I’m not speaking of the full city-oily black coffees or such roasting degrees) good Robusta does the job better and helps.

Now, what happens with milk: the more the blend is delicate, the worse it is for your cappuccino. In fact your cup will taste waterish and the rich milk flavor will kill all of the aromatic components that build an excellent and delicate espresso.

Using a stronger blend as a base for milk beverages helps improving their quality and giving your beverage a hint of taste, which is rarely attained with sweeter coffees.

This helps to clarify the difference between the regular espresso you drink in Italy and what you drink in the rest of the world, where milk based espresso drinks rule strong.

Of course there are many other reasons, due to blending, roasting, and brewing but there is a reason that maneuvers them all: local taste. Your taste target will guide you to select the correct blend, roasted at the degree you target needs, and brewed as the blend requires.

So, how to blend coffee origins now? And how to roast your blend? Well that’s another story and we’ll speak about it next time.