The other day I was at the store checking out with a rather inexpensive but decent-looking bottle of wine. When the person at the register noticed the bottle, she exclaimed, “This is an excellent wine! You’ve just got to let it breathe a bit.” I thought this a bit much for an eight-dollar red blend, but I took her advice and decanted it before dinner. It was very good, and this got me thinking. If just a few words in passing could elevate my experience with a cheap wine, why not make the same effort when serving an espresso?
Admittedly, I’ve become fairly particular when drinking coffee and prefer it to be just kind of warm-ish. We humans taste best when whatever we’re eating or drinking is close to body temperature or around a hundred degrees. This is why boiling lava hot pizza doesn’t taste like anything until it cools, and if your PBR becomes too warm it gets abandoned. For me, espresso tastes best once it has cooled quite a bit. I’ll usually stand at the bar stirring my espresso for a minute or two, after which it’s become so sweet, juicy, and delicious that it’s gone in nearly the same time it took to cool down.
But Doug, what about the Thirty Second Rule? Don’t you have to toss a shot and re-make it if the customer doesn’t pick it up right away? To say I don’t subscribe to that notion would be an understatement. Not only does stirring and waiting a minute or so bring the temperature down to an enjoyable tasting range, it also accomplishes something else: It allows the crema a bit of time to dissipate.
What is that crema, anyway? James Hoffman wrote a pretty thorough introductory article here nearly a decade ago detailing the foam that shows up on top of a fresh well-brewed espresso. In short, crema is emulsified gases—largely carbon dioxide—that end up flavoring the espresso so long as it was freshly ground and relatively recently roasted. Unfortunately, crema can be mostly flavored from carbonic acid (that stuff that adds the characteristic tartness to soda water) which will actually mask the flavors in the coffee. If you don’t believe me, spoon the crema off of your next espresso and taste it on its own. Not so good.
James Hoffman (same guy from before) in a 2009 post from his blog Jimseven went so far as to suggest skimming crema completely off before drinking the espresso. Corvus owner Phil revealed to me yesterday over beers at Grandma’s House (our neighboring Brewery) that he also prefers doing this. This seems a bit excessive to me, and others will argue that you lose some of the true expression of the coffee if you do it. I think the best compromise is simply to stir. At the very least, it prevents your first impression of the coffee from just tasting bitter and ashy.
Now’s the part where I say, “But don’t take my word for it… Try it yourself!” So the next time you’re in Corvus or wherever you get espresso, give it a shot!
By Doug Stone, Corvus Trainer