Bitterness is the peculiar sensory characteristic of coffee. But why is coffee bitter and why do we like this typically unpleasant taste in our favorite drink?
What happens when we drink an espresso for pleasure instead of out of a simple habit?
It happens that we learn to be more attentive and demanding and, cup after cup, from simple “drinkers” we want to be more and more “coffee connoisseurs”.
We want to know what we are drinking, trace its origin, and evaluate its quality.
The idea of “close-meal” coffee is gradually being overcome: today true luxury becomes treating yourself to the pleasure of enjoying a cup of coffee in a conscious way.
Therefore, attention is growing for the organoleptic properties of the blends, for the provenance of raw materials and, above all, for the quality of our espresso coffee cup.
But how to become “coffee connoisseurs”?
Certainly to become a professional coffee taster we need training, commitment and experience, but to recognize a good espresso is enough to pay attention to some particular features.
1. CREMA (visual evaluation)
Crema is often mentioned with reverence in relation to espresso. For Italian espresso professionals, the crema is the key to diagnosing the coffee underneath.
Have we ever tried to observe it carefully?
The quantity, consistency and color of the crema can tell us a lot about the espresso we are about to drink.
The perfect crema must be:
– hazelnut almost dark brown colored with reddish nuances and light veins
– thin and thick, with a very fine texture (with absence of large mesh and larger or smaller bubbles)
– the coffee underneath should not not be seen
– never be frothy, too light or too dark, nor should it disappear quickly
The appearance of the crema may depend on:
A crema made up of a few, large bubbles indicates that the espresso coffee has been brewed too quickly and is probably thin-bodied. Dense, clotted crema indicates that the espresso coffee has been brewed too slowly and may be burned.
The main management of extraction time is due to coffee grinding.
For the espresso it takes an extraction time of around 25 seconds. Therefore, coffee beans must be ground so that an espresso can be obtained in around 25 seconds.
A perfect espresso extraction removes only what is needed from the ground coffee in order to have a balanced and aromatic cup.
Otherwise, we will find an under-extracted or over-extracted espresso.
If the extraction time is less than 20 seconds, it means that the grinding is too coarse and the espresso will go fast and under-extracted, resulting in a weak aroma, cold, without body, empty and acidic, with insufficient crema and light color.
Conversely, if the extraction time is more than 30 seconds, it means that the grinding is too fine and the espresso will be over-extracted, resulting (too) hot, with a sharp and unpleasant bitterness, strong body accompanied by dark-colored crema and whitish bubbles.
A cup of espresso with a higher percentage of Arabica is different, even visually, from one with a prevalence of Robusta.
Robusta gives the coffee body, structure, and creates very dense crema, coarser, swollen, and frothier, normally formed by large and thick bubbles that give it the classic orange peel or sand dunes appearance, but that fades quickly.
When we add sugar, the crema is able to support the weight of the sugar crystals for a few seconds and when it falls in the cup, the hole remains visible.
Arabica, on the other hand, gives the coffee aroma and produces less crema, but more compact, elasticity with a brighter and more reflective color than Robusta.
If we put sugar on it, it will fall into the liquid below in a short time, but the layer of crema will re-form in an elastic way.
The coffee blend for espresso must have the right balance between the two coffee varieties (Arabica and Robusta).
Inside the crema there are different colors. These slight differences may be the result of the kind of roast used.
In example, a too dark crema can be the result of the use of a hard roasting.
2. AROMA (olfactory evaluation)
The aroma is the coffee fragrance you perceive when the cup approaches the face in the act of drinking.
The aroma is a key part of the tasting experience. For experts, in the sequence of the coffee tasting, the olfactory examination is the second phase of the espresso analysis.
The aroma of a good espresso coffee must be complex, which means rich with fragrances and aromas that have come together in a fine and perfect balance, intense and persistent.
Let us pause a moment and smell.
We will perceive the notes more varied and complex, all of which tell the shades of the blend’s composition. Our sense of smell can perceive numerous aromatic characteristics, both the coffee’s positive qualities and defects.
What are the signature aromas of the espresso?
A myriad of volatile aromatic substances derived from the roasting process give espresso the typical scented “fragrance of the roast”.
Depending on variety, quality and preparation, from this aromatic base one can perceive the aroma of caramel and cereals that give the coffee the fragrance of toast, biscuits or bakery treats or there may be slight hints of butter and vanilla and the smell of cacao evoking chocolate in all its luscious forms.
The sophisticated fruity aromas of coffee call to mind fresh citrus tones like lemon, but also others similar to the sweetness of the fruit pulp. And the fragrance of dried fruit will not go missing, revealing hints of figs, prunes, raisins, dates and apricots.
At the outset the wide range of delicate floral aromas surprise the sense of smell with fragrances reminiscent of jasmine or wild flowers, even veering at times into notes of honey.
The crema of the espresso coffee can release hints of roasted walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts, or the aromas can range from the tones of oriental essences to the austere scent of seasoned wood and to nuances of wine and spices such as pepper, tobacco and rhubarb.
3. FLAVORS, BODY and AFTERTASTE (tactile and taste evaluation)
The taste is based on four basic elements: bitterness, acidity, saltiness and sweetness.
Sipping coffee we can assess the balance between the flavors as well as the proper harmony of bitter and sweet.
A cup with a strong and bitter taste, with hints of wood and earth and an aftertaste of dried fruit and cocoa, may have been prepared with a blend consisting of a high percentage of Robusta.
An aromatic and fragrant cup, delicate and soft, almost sweet but at the same time a little acidic, could instead be the result of a blend containing more Arabica.
In a good espresso coffee, flavors are well mixed, with a bitter feeling, which is clear and clean. Acid (not to be confused with bitter) is poorly perceived and astringency, the feeling/sensation of wrinkling and dryness in the mouth -like when chomping on an unripe fruit- must not be noticed.
Coffee is not only to be observed, smelt and tasted, but also “felt”.
The step of touch analysis takes place practically at the same time, in fact with the same sips of coffee as that of the tasting.
With the first sip we can therefore examine the tactile balance of the coffee, especially the consistency and structure perceived in the mouth which determines the coffee’s so-called “body”, the density results from the concentration of dissolved substances in the liquid.
The body of a good espresso must be round, mellow, firm, smooth and velvety.
A coffee with more Arabica will usually be fairly “aqueous” (this is not a demerit) while one with more Robusta, will result substantial and consistent.
Among tactile sensations, the temperature can affect the perception and evaluation of our espresso coffee. It must be examined hot, a few moments after extraction.
As the minutes pass, cooling of the beverage increases the perception of bitterness and astringency.
Finally the aftertaste, the sum of taste + aroma + tactile sensations.
We perceive it when, after drinking a sip of coffee, we exhale and we feel the flavors (aromas) of coffee again, in a more complex and intense way.
4. COFFEE CUP
And then there is the espresso cup, that must be selected with care in order to fully enjoy a quality coffee experience.
The best shape to exalt the flavor, aroma and appearance of the espresso is the truncated-conical one which helps achieve a more compact and long-lasting foam allowing a better release of the aromas. To keep the crema intact and preserve its compactness and color longer, the bottom of the cup must have the classic “egg-shape”.
The most suitable color for the inside of the cup is the bright and glossy white of the hard feldspathic porcelain since it easily facilitates visual assessment of the strong color contrast of the espresso crema.
The thickness of the cup regulates the temperature of the espresso by lowering it slightly at the outset and then maintaining it throughout the degustation.
The cup must be dry and hot, to maintain the espresso’s cohesion, temperature, and crema color.
Service is also a fundamental variable in determining the excellence of espresso. Especially when we drink it at the bar.
Firstly, because the barista’s hand is the last step in the supply chain, but also because a good service represents an added value in the evaluation of an espresso coffee.
When we enter a “bar”, there are needs that we take for granted, such as drinking coffee from a clean cup or choosing between different types of sugar and sweeteners.
And then, there are needs we are not aware of: to be greeted with a smile, discover a professional and prepared person behind the counter (who maybe tells us something more about what we are drinking), find a clean and welcoming place, with atmosphere lights, comfortable tables and seats and a pleasant background music.
All of this helps to improve our experience. A coffee served in a professional way with competence, attention and, why not, even a smile, is always tastier and it has no price.