We, as an industry has come a long way from the traditional concept of espresso. It doesn’t have to be something strong and bitter anymore. Or perhaps, more importantly, it can be a lot more than that. Let’s start by acknowledging that all different styles of espresso have its place and that the important part is the segmentation and re-invention of the drink that has been happening over the last few years. In the end, the world is a big place and we all like different espresso.
That being said and to make sure we stay on topic – because this is a piece about how to choose green coffee for your espresso products – the most important innovation in the history of espresso I believe has been the process of realizing that it can taste a lot better as long as we use better green coffee. Something that is just as true for any other coffee product. Whatever you do in terms of roasting and brewing, it will never taste better than the green coffee you are using. Realize that and you are already halfway there.
But, there is a lot of diversity even between the really good green coffees. The acidity level can be different, some varietals and terroirs generate more body, processing approaches and so on. The list is long of variables that will ultimately affect the quality of your espresso as with your filter coffee at the end of the day I am not looking at sourcing green coffee for espresso as different from sourcing green coffee for to example filter coffee. The rule, that your brewed coffee is never better than your green coffee is equally applicable to both.
However, for the sake of this blog post and the fact that a big portion of you that are reading this are looking at espresso differently then I am. Let’s have a look at how to find some attributes that you – or at least your customers and guests – will be looking for in espresso. I would argue those are:
- “lower” acidity
- chocolate/ripe fruit driven flavor notes
The character of your espresso is to a large degree decided by the green coffee but it’s not as easy as just factoring in flavor quality, acidity levels, and balance. You also need to factor in consistency and logistic. For a lot of roasteries they have one or two main products, often an espresso blend or in rare occasions a Single Origin espresso and then you need to make sure to buy a green coffee from a producer that is consistent over seasons and in larger volumes.
In the past year and a half I have worked with a line of espresso that I refer to as “Milk espresso”, these are simply coffees that have a flavor structure and character that works well with milk. In my case, that means a lower amount of acidity, balanced and sweet. More than often that means a washed processed Central- or South American coffee (Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador or Colombia).
At the end of the day, the structure of your espresso is not just the green coffee but also based on your roasting and brewing. It is always a combination of each factor. For example, if you argue that a Kenya espresso will always be too acidic, that is not necessarily always true, since the level of perceived acidity in the roasted coffee can be decided when roasting (I will most likely write a post about that sometime in the future as well)…
If I were to approach the following products (Blends and Single Origin), this is how I would do it. That being said I am moving further away from these “concepts” and I am not working with blends anymore, but regardless, I believe that an espresso should be sweet, balanced with a clear flavor structure and transparency, and 99% of the espresso I try today is not that. And blend or no blend there is still a lot that can be improved.
Blends are usually intended to be a high volume product. Which means you are looking for consistency. For most roasteries, they also seem to be in a “lower price point” which means that you will be more price sensitive with the green coffee you are putting in there.
If your goal is to find the high volume, “well priced” and consistent green coffee I would take a closer look at El Salvador and Ethiopia (I might as well say Brazil also but since I am not working with Brazilian coffee I have a hard time recommending it). El Salvador and Ethiopia are both producing a very high “low level” in terms of quality and the coffees are very consistent over time (ages up well). A Gr. 2 from Ethiopia (washed or natural) still usually cups up better than most other origins and they are at a very favorable price point.
They are also very good at natural processed coffees which seems to generate a taste profile that most customers and guest really appreciate.
Stay away from origins like Colombia, Burundi, and Rwanda if you want components in your blend that are consistent over several months, as these origins are not known for their ability to age well.
I would argue that the purpose of a Single Origin/farm/producer espresso is to highlight the unique taste of the green coffee. There shouldn’t be any rule as to what coffee you are using. That is a personal preference.
If you are looking for very sweet espresso focus on natural processed coffees from either Ethiopia or Central/South America. If you want more vibrant espresso with more acidity focus on washed processed coffees from Africa or Central America (+ Colombia).
There isn’t any right or wrong here, just keep in mind that the green coffee decides the character, so don’t rush finding the coffee that suits your taste profile.
Here is where most espresso products fail. Getting a tasty espresso is difficult enough as it is, adding on a really light roasted version of a coffee where the definition of a light roast being “I will just shave off some time in the end”. Usually, tastes terrible.
I would argue that it gets even more important to work with really good green coffee when it comes to roasting “lighter”. Simply because espresso as a brew method is amplifying what is in the coffee, and any negative characters from the green coffee will come out very clear.
Even the darkest of roasts will still be better if the green coffee is of a high quality. A lot of “darker roasted” espresso is getting a lot of undeserved shit, personally (even if I prefer my espresso not to taste like an ashtray) I see the choice of green coffee as being the biggest obstacle together with attention to detail when roasting. Or simply just maintenance of the roasting system. The darker you roast on average the dirtier your roasting system will be, and the more time you should spend cleaning it.
You would be amazed in terms of what one can do with a really good green coffee and a well-structured roast with a well maintained and clean machine.
My final point for this post would be that you should always start with deciding what character you want on your espresso product and then trace back from there. There isn’t any green coffee (as long as it is of good quality) that wouldn’t be suitable for espresso. It is simply a matter of finding one, – or multiple if there is a blend – that fits what you are looking for.