Meow! Espresso?!
August 26, 2010 1:40 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between an espresso blend and regular whole bean coffee?

The reason I ask:

Earlier today I stopped in at my neighborhood coffee shop for an iced coffee. They were out of one of the usual options and had subbed in Intelligentsia's Black Cat, which is listed online as an espresso blend.

Usually, I dislike black coffee. I'm trying to develop a taste for different origins and roast profiles, so I usually take a sip or two before adding milk and sugar. But generally my reaction is, "ok, interesting... Milk and sugar nao, plz!" When I took a sip of the Black Cat, I had the opposite reaction and drank the whole thing black. It was the best iced coffee I'd ever had in my life.

Do I suddenly enjoy black coffee? Are the beans used for espresso fundamentally different-tasting as compared to beans used for other extractions? Is Black Cat just that amazing?

I tend to equally dislike black coffee from a drip coffee maker, press pot, cold brewed, pretty much any way I've ever tried it before. I don't usually order straight up espresso shots in cafes - if anything, I'll get a flat white or maybe a latte. So I can't compare my love of iced Black Cat with any particular feelings about black espresso shots.
posted by Sara C. to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Here are some articles explaining the development process for an espresso blend:

Espresso Blends

Building an Espresso Blend

Blending Basics (covers blending for various types of coffee: espresso and filter-drip)
posted by jedicus at 1:48 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to the things jedicus linked to, if the other coffee at the shop isn't Intelligentsia is may have been the general quality - Intelligentsia is really great coffee and it does make a difference!
posted by alaijmw at 1:50 PM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: There are probably about five different layers of discussion here depending on how much of a coffee geek one is. The conventional wisdom is that espresso blends are roasted darker, except that that's not really true. They are, however, often selected with darker roasting in mind, as well as for high-pressure extraction. And Black Cat's not a typical espresso blend.

However, in terms of iced coffee, you'd probably want to know whether they did a cold extraction that they then filtered and stored in the fridge, which markedly alters the taste of the coffee from a classic 198C pull. Ask them, and perhaps compare a pulled espresso on ice to your lovely iced coffee.
posted by holgate at 1:53 PM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: I don't usually order straight up espresso shots in cafes - if anything, I'll get a flat white or maybe a latte.

In the future, try ordering an Americano and see how you like it. That's the best way to compare the taste of espresso vs. black coffee. It's not concentrated the way a pure espresso shot is, and the flavor isn't obscured by milk.
posted by jejune at 1:56 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

(198F even.)
posted by holgate at 1:56 PM on August 26, 2010

Yes, Intelligentsia is fantastic artisan coffee roaster, and Black Cat in particular has a well-deserved reputation as one of the verybest espressos out there. You've discovered the difference between average beans/roaster and amazing beans/roaster.

But to answer your main question, espresso blends are comprised of several different beans, each of which is chosen to bring something distinct to the mix. In the case of Black Cat, that results in a rich, chocolate-y coffee with balanced acidity, syrupy consistency, and a lingering black cherry finish. Other roasters blend and roast differently, to suit their own goals for flavor, etc.

FWIW, as most espressos are quite balanced, they often make excellent drip, pour-over, and french press coffee. For instance, I'm sitting at Stumptown in Seattle right now, and their Hairbender (another outstanding, and well-respected espresso) makes stunning drip.

/pro barista
posted by fracas at 2:00 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: alaijmw - the other coffee used at this place is also Intelligentsia, and usually their cold brew is a choice of various single origins (either Sidama or Yirgacheffe, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Kenya). I've had a lot of Intelligentsia coffee in my day.

The coffee shop in question was Kaffe 1668, btw, one of the more highly regarded coffee joints in Manhattan.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, more general FYI-age. I've had a lot of premium coffee over the past year or so, mainly Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Cafe Grumpy's in-house roasts. I'm extremely aware of the higher quality of premium/artisan coffees. My surprise was not in comparing cold brew to refrigerated drip or Intelligentsia to Dunkin Donuts, but in comparing an Intelligentsia espresso blend to Intelligentsia single origin.

Or facing the possibility that I'd suddenly started liking black coffee overnight - which would not be entirely unusual for me (I started liking iced coffee pretty much the same way, and have a long history of suddenly discovering I love foods I used to hate).
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on August 26, 2010

The question, at Kaffe 1668, is whether they do the iced coffee in the Clover machines or not. I drink a ton of iced coffee there, but I've never thought to ask them. The answer is going to make a difference to the various coffee geeks posting above. What makes Kaffe so incredibly awesome is not just that they use carefully selected beans from single sources, but more importantly they brew the coffee in these amazing machines. It makes it the best cup of "drip" coffee (as opposed to espresso) in NYC.

((Starbucks bought Clover out and you can now get nasty, burned coffee made in a Clover machine in some Starbucks locations, but Kaffe has two of the rare Clover machines still in the wild. If you live anywhere near Tribeca NYC and you like coffee, it's worth the trip.))
posted by The Bellman at 2:26 PM on August 26, 2010

I think the word "espresso" is a bit of a red herring here. I think a lot of what you are tasting is the difference between single-origin coffees and blended coffees. Blended coffees often have a more "rounded" taste, and it is really hard to pull off a good blend with highly acidic coffees (and easier with darker roasts, in some people's opinions), which results in a higher likelihood that a given blend will lack that "ack! black!" flavor that some people dislike about black coffee.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 2:38 PM on August 26, 2010

The Clover machine is essentially a (brilliantly designed and engineered) single shot version of a vacuum coffee maker.
posted by jamjam at 2:50 PM on August 26, 2010

Response by poster: The Bellman - The iced coffee at Kaffee 1668 is cold brewed, as far as I know. I'm almost certain it's written right there on the menu in the shop. I've had Clover extracted coffee before, mainly when the Grumpy's location in Greenpoint had one about a year ago (they've since given their Clover to one of the other locations, sadface). That's actually how I got into premium coffee in the first place, and where my desire to start liking my coffee black got started - it always seems such a shame to add anything to a cup of perfect Clover-brewed coffee...

Ignatius J. Reilly - I use the word "espresso" because Intelligentsia describes the blend that way. I'm pretty sure I've had many a cup of blend-based iced coffee. As far as I know most of the places I get cold brewed ice coffee these days have the default house drip/press blend on offer - Kaffe is one of the few places I frequent which gives you a choice of several possible single origin cold brews. Which is the main reason I associated the particular awesomeness of this cup with the fact that it was Black Cat.
posted by Sara C. at 3:22 PM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: The simple answer is that an espresso blend is just another blend of coffee. You can use any blend to make espresso. Some cafes where I worked (long ago before the Earth cooled) offered light, medium, and dark options for espresso. Dark for the richest taste--light for the powerful zing of acid and caffeine.

Lighter roasts have more caffeine because the oil that contains the caffeine is not roasted out of the beans--that's why lighter roasted beans do not appear oily.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:18 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My best guess is that you like Black Cat so much because it's not at all temp sensitive compared to single origin coffees. The brew method or whether or not it's espresso thing doesn't matter. Your experience gets to the heart of the rationale for single origins and blends for their own brew methods and drink styles.

So the coffee I roasted for this week has the slightest taste of blackberries or currants or some fruit like that, but ony as it cools. It's not present at all in the first sips, nor when the cup has gone stone cold. Tasting notes like the ones down the page here also describe this phenomena. It's a fleeting and pleasant taste that makes this particular single origin (Ethiopian) special, and it's the whole reason I drink it hot brewed in a vacpot. It might kinda work as espresso, but it would be funky and crazy acidic. It might be okay cold brewed, or it might just be kind of boring that way. I wouldn't know because I haven't tried it, but as a rule single origins have particular aromatic compounds that make them special that are only going to show up at a particular roast level and brew method, and even then maybe only when the resulting drink is exactly the right temp. Blends, on the other hand, are made to be forgiving and adaptable. Black Cat tastes great cold because it was carefully engineered to have a whole pallette of complementary flavors without any one particular crazy attribute like blackberries that will dissappear if you get something wrong. The different beans round each other out and obscure weaknesses and flaws at any point before the coffee got to your cup. That doesn't mean blends are better, or SO is better, just that SO is sometimes more sensitive and will not work equally for all brews, whereas blends generally will because that's the whole point of a blend in the first place. Espresso blends came about to hide coffee that was downright cheap and bad as drip, but by extracting at pressure, only certain compounds make it into the cup and cheap ass coffee can taste better.
Just for fun, go back and try a cup of Black Cat hot and cold side by side. They will taste different for sure, but they will both be good, because those different brew methods will emphasize totally different things about the blend.

Also, do not discount the possibility that you got a more talented or careful barista that day, and it's not just the coffee.

Keep trying things without milk and sugar and you'll probably find an SO you like as much as Black Cat. Go for things from Central America if balance is what you're after.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:08 PM on August 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Slow Graffiti, that is an AWESOME answer! You rock! That is exactly what I wanted to know!
posted by Sara C. at 8:16 PM on August 26, 2010

Response by poster: I grabbed an Americano (well, actually, it was a Long Black, but same difference) yesterday morning at the little cafe close to my apartment. Which brews La Colombe, so nowhere near as swank as Intelligentsia. But WOW. Mind. Blown. Apparently I really do like black coffee?

I'm leaning more towards the idea that I just suddenly dig black coffee, by the way. Today I had a random iced coffee from a stand at a flea market and took it black. Not as life altering as the Black Cat, by any means, but totally palatable.

It would not be unusual for me to suddenly begin liking something I'd always disliked. This has happened several times over the past couple years. My tastebuds are having their Saturn Return, methinks.
posted by Sara C. at 6:25 PM on August 28, 2010

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