Coffee Chronicles: Losing My Single-Origin Espresso Virginity

"Being into coffee means you have to put your feelers out there and try things you're skeptical of."


[Photo: HKmPUA on Flickr]

Every so often, a cafe will announce the arrival of a "guest espresso," which adds another layer to my quest for the perfect shot of espresso. Coffee is built for experimentation. You can mess around with all the variables and brew a coffee the way you want to, to find the flavor profile you want and a tolerable strength. With espresso, I'd prefer for someone else to do the experimentation, a barista who knows what he's doing, a respected shop with an edge. I looked to Kaffe 1668 in TriBeCa to school me.

I've been to Kaffe 1668 on many occasions for a triple ristretto shot of Intelligentsia's Black Cat, a seasonal espresso blend, also served at the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream/Coffee truck. This week was the first time I paid attention to their "guest espresso"—and a single-origin at that—which changes every few weeks. Meet Ecco Caffe's Guatemala La Maravilla.

I wondered whether single-origin coffees were even made for high pressure and brief extraction. Is twenty-five seconds enough for the earthiness to emerge from a Sumatra, or to awaken the essence of tomatoes from a Kenya? When I drink a single-origin brewed cup of coffee, even if I don't necessarily like it, I'm intrigued by the flavors that linger after four minutes in a French press. So maybe it won't hurt to try a single-origin espresso to see if I'm wrong—if it's roasted to the right level, then maybe I'll have the best macchiato of my life, something life-changing. Maybe twenty-five seconds is enough.

My first trip was for a macchiato, a good excuse to indulge in a couple ounces of delicious Ronnybrook Milk. Right after being pulled, the espresso had a relative thinness, not a good match for textured milk. My first sip was slightly citrusy (a characteristic of Guatemalan beans); it lacked the roundness normally associates with a great espresso, yet was enjoyable for a moment, since I had never had anything like it before.

20090929coffeechronicles.pngIt all changed with the second visit, as the novelty wore off. As a straight shot, the Guatemalan was nothing more than disappointing. The crema barely existed—one swirl, a tap and a quick sip, it reminded me of coffee from a stovetop espresso maker, and with the second sip, fell to the depths of a two-ounce pour from an over-brewed pot of coffee. Against the Black Cat, it was completely devoid of body. My partner-in-crime, a coffee aficionado, said it hit her tongue in all the wrong places. She wanted a shot with that inherent sweetness, the Northern Italian style, thick, caramelized. It didn't deliver.

The barista, who was quite skilled and passionate about his craft, asked us our opinion. Instead of nitpicking, we said it was interesting. Different. We had engaged in a half hour discussion about the espresso up until that point.

"Wacky, right?" was his response, and I agree. But wacky won't work every day. We also tried it as an Americano, just to give it another chance. Unfortunately, body didn't come from eight ounces of hot water. This coffee was begging for a longer extraction.

Kaffe 1668 is notable for featuring new espressos from varied roasters, because it keeps the palate alive in the search for novelty. Even Black Cat will change with the coffee season, so last year's espresso will taste slightly different than this year's. Being into coffee means you have to put your feelers out there and try things you're skeptical of, in order for you to find your go-to espresso, the shot to beat all the others. I'm still searching.