I don’t know if anyone else remembers this old Denis Leary bit about coffee flavored coffee… (I won’t embed the thing, but if you’re interested, click-a right-a here-a). A disclaimer – it is straight from the year 1997. When “www dot ____ ” jokes were cutting edge.
I only bring it up because since 1997, we have gotten fancier. Not that I have to worry about maplenut crunch, or hazelbean sunrise, or flavors like that… at least not at the espresso slinging joints I find myself in. I bring it up today because – like everything that starts out as a love / passion / joy… when pursued and studied and analyzed at such serious and imperial lengths… things get lost. I’m talking about espresso, of course.
Our touring route routinely brings us up I-5. This – happily – takes us through the heart of GreatCoffeeVille USA. Arcata, Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Bellingham – good coffee. I love espresso. I will walk blocks and blocks to find the espresso shack if options close and closer are only sporting the drip. The beef I am about to raise has to do with espresso and only espresso. Not drip. Drip away all ye mighty drippers! Do your thing! More drippy power to you! In a hotel lobby at the crack of noon, I may even join you at your watery and drippy quaffing. But – when I have my druthers – it will be espresso. Why espresso? Because I like thick, dark, roasty-roasted, rich, full-throated, volumptuous espresso, that’s why.
Enter the beef.
Recently – not only up and down our I-5 trek, but also, I’m sad to say, here at home – yay, verily, even in my little P-cow-town, our espresso is being made…. less espresso-y. The philosophy, as I understand it (as I’ve had many a barista explain as they look down their noses at me), is this: When you roast a bean (similar to roasting anything, I suppose) – you roast out the actual flavor inherent in the bean (or potato, or chicken, or bell-pepper – you get the idea.) If you roast it for a short while, you will have maximum flavor. If you over roast it – if you roast it until the beans are extremely dark (Italian roast, it used to be called, I believe) – it is akin (so the philosophy goes) to burning a delicate dish of roasted snapper, or fava beans. Gone is the flavor, gone is the delicate art of the roaster, gone is the bouquet, the high notes, the tannins and the hints of blackberry… And so the espresso that one finds at many a (you hoped) very-delicious-and-hip-and-with-it-coffee-shop is – sadly – not the espresso this bassist is looking for.
When I order espresso, I am looking for the dynamic and complex flavors of espresso: curvy, sensual, gorgeous, velvety coffee-ness. High notes, fruits, nuts, herbs, all that is well and good for the drip and the french press and the teas… but please oh please, coffee world, not for espresso! These hightened flavors that one boasts of are gone if you don’t drink the coffee drink in one swift shot. By sip number two, the bottom has fallen out of the flavor, and you’re left with an extremely bitter, foundationless, non-robust cup of very complexly flavored non-espresso.
I wanted to take this little soap box moment to thank Lighthouse Roasters of Seattle. They get it. They have all kinds of coffee there – they are serious coffee folk! They know about flavors and roasting times. They know about complexity and seriousness of coffee afficionados. And yet – and yet they roast their espresso with a full pair of cojones. There is a foundation deep and pure and sonorous as Nina Simone in their espresso. They didn’t hand out a light-roasted, maximum flavored, hoity-toity cup of bitter disappointment. Nay. They offered this bass player the best cup of coffee he has had on tour to date.
Thanks Lighthouse Roasters. Please send your roasting team out to the roasteries and espresso bars of the world to spread your good news! To share your secret lore! To embrace the world in a warm, dark, cozy womb of flavor and substance that is – in some places – in danger of disappearing all together!