The art of espresso

The perfect shot - by Sarah Ostwald

I would like to introduce you to espresso.

There are many misconceptions as to what an espresso is or should be.  Many think that espresso should be a very dark roast, or that it is a type of bean, many would say that it has to be a blend.  Espresso is actually a method of brewing coffee.  It is a quick and efficient extraction of a small amount of coffee brewed under pressure and when ground, dosed, tamped and pulled correctly espresso can blow your mind with it’s intensity of flavour and body.  I wanted to share what I learned about espresso during my experience as a barista judge.

I first experienced a barista competition 3 years ago as a spectator.  During the competition the baristas seemed unnecessarily nervous and obsessive, and the judges too tightly wound and, dare I say, pompous.

After having two staff members compete at different levels of this competition, I learned that I too could be nervous, even as a spectator. I was extremely proud of the dedication involved in perfecting this craft.  They both worked so hard to represent our shop and to showcase their skills.  Though I am a skilled barista, not being a competitive person meant I would not sign up to participate in these events.  So the next year, when I was invited by the Canadian Barista Championship to judge at the regional level and then onto the national level in Montreal, I jumped at the chance!

Though many judges are experienced baristas, the training was intensive.  There are so many rules and the academy wanted to make sure that we would distinguish quality, balanced, well-prepared and well-presented coffee and that we would judge without bias.  We were taught what to look for in a great barista:  dedication, passion, professionalism, knowledge, and skill.

During the training for the national competition, we had both the 2007 Canadian Barista Champion from Vancouver and the 2008 World Barista Champ from Ireland pulling espresso shots to help with the calibrations.  We had to taste espressos that were both excellent and poor and anything in between to calibrate our judging.  I think it was difficult for either of them to produce and serve anything that could taste bad, but they did!  We also cupped a few varieties of coffees to test our taste palates.  There were no spittoons involved as would be in a wine tasting, so, let’s just say, I drank large quantities of coffee that weekend.

As a sensory judge during the competition, I experienced a broad range of espressos.  I knew what to look for in the perfect shot, I wanted to see a hazelnut reddish hue, some tiger striping and a thick persistent crema.  There had to be a taste balance of sweetness, acidity and bitterness.  This is where blending of coffees comes in to play.  I think that most espressos are blended to bring out and sometimes smooth out strong characteristic flavours of the straight coffee varieties.  But sometimes a straight variety of coffee can be just as well balanced as a blend.  

I was afraid going into the competition that I would experience one espresso after another that was dull, flat and ‘typical’, that there would be no real discernible difference from one competitor to the next.  My fears were quashed. I had the wonderful chance to experience expertly pulled espressos from various regions in the world.  None of the espressos were ‘typical’ but most of them were balanced and had their own life and character.    I tasted single variety espressos from Ethiopia Yrgacheffe, Costa Rica and Ethiopia Sidamo.  I tasted blends from roasters in Vancouver, Quebec and our very own Torontonian Dark City.  The coffees for the most part were so different from each other that each tasting was surprisingly refreshing.

Coming back to Toronto, when there is a new variety of coffee or a new blend in our store, I try to enjoy it first as an espresso.  The first sip of the sweet, golden crema usually carries the unmistakable descriptive taste; when sipping Ethiopian Sidamo, you will be struck by the fantastic blueberry aroma, and El Salvador delivers lingering notes of cooked raspberries, and in the Peru Feminino you’ll experience the richness of deep dark chocolate.  

I have come away from the competition armed with a broader and more critical palate. Coffee is grown around the world in fabulous tropical locations and, like wine, it can be enjoyed as a blend or as a single variety.  Why not enjoy what the world has to offer?