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Espresso: Why the Chowhound insistence on authenticity? [Moved from Manhattan board]

First: consider the way New Yorkers consume coffee. Exactly like the floppy deli croissant, the vast majority like it fast, cheap, and everywhere. The interest in good coffee, a largely west-coast phenomenon born in the 80s, was delivered here far after the boom (a raining of Starbucks), and without its substance. Most New Yorkers consider espresso a denser, yet faster solution ('rocket fuel' ...).

When Chowhounders want espresso, many want authenticity. They go to Via Quadronno, or Sant Ambroeus; establishments that might excel at serving nearly exact facsimiles of Italian espresso. It makes perfect sense; the search for authentic food is a frequent activity on these boards. But the problem with authentic espresso, I'd argue, is that it's an imperfect product, spoiled by overroasted beans. It was a beverage built for speed, and not for sublimity, but due to its history, and ubiquity as a luxury item, its faults are still largely ignored.

I'd like to voice support for coffeehouses largely uncredited (some more than others) on these boards: Cafe Grumpy, 9th Street Espresso, Everyman Coffee, Gimme Coffee, Joe. These businesses (some more than others) go against authenticity, and follow trends that are more vigorous elsewhere in this country. Grumpy (who I want to specifically praise) doesn't even roast their beans to an Italian dark, a degree where most of the flavor is burnt away. To drink a cappuccino (which eschews unnecessary foam; it is simply a smaller, stronger latte) at these businesses is to taste the bean — its roasting, grinding, and manipulation by the barista through brewing and adding of milk. At Grumpy, every aspect of the bean is considered, and delivered to the customer: the location where it was grown, the method of roasting. They also use local milk (Ronnybrook). This treatment blurs the origins of the beverage, but still pays tribute to it (in name); it also opens up new doors: for experimentation, for isolating the simplest, and subtlest aspects of coffee. This is a new, and largely American, philosophy, that will probably take some time to circle back to Europe.

It's a curiosity that New York Chowhounders, which as a group invest a great deal of money in restaurants supporting sustainability and locality, still prefer espresso from establishments that make no mention of its origin or process. Am I vastly wrong in this judgment? Does majority of this community live uptown (and thus embodies these deeply rooted traditionalist tastes for coffee)?. It is unfortunate; every time a coffee thread on this board rolls around, those who I can usually trust for great opinions fall right back into the authenticity camp.

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  1. Perhaps it is because a perfectly well made espresso is truly a thing of beauty?

    I would argue that a properly made espresso is not made with 'over roasted beans' but with beans roasted to the degree necessary for the magic to happen, the alchemy with which the combination of volatile oils and pressure bring a bit of joy to the espresso devote.

    As far as the cappuccino goes, why would one eschew the foam? A latte is a different animal altogether.

    There will always be the purists and there will be those don't mind their comestibles conforming to a standard other than the traditional.

    However, for me, I like to insist on the traditional as a bedrock and then improvise (if needed) from there.

    Perhaps a trip to Italy in the new year might be in order?

    1. I'm not sure about what you are getting at with the authenticity/origins discussion (I'm probably not reading carefully enough), but I certainly am one who repeatedly recommends VQ because I think they serve excellent cappuccino and espresso. Since I've never been to Italy, I don't compare it to Italian coffee, but rather I like it because it is never bitter or burnt tasting, but a luscious smooth cup of coffee. Their coffee beans are from Trieste, and when I feel flush, I buy myself a kilo to use in my French Press. I don't think they keep the origins of the beans a secret - the bags are on display. Oh - and I do live uptown, but I don't think that has any relationship to my taste for coffee.

      But - I'll have to check out some of the places you recommend. I tend not to seek out espresso generally - just sometimes have a morning craving and VQ is usually on our route to somewhere on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

      1. So, the gist of your post is that you feel people like what they think is good coffee (espresso, cappuccino, etc.) but good coffee is technically no good?

        You obviously have no respect for the craft and skill that goes into manipulating and extracting the desirable flavors and oils of a simple roasted coffee bean.
        From bean selection to roasting to coarseness of grind to portafilter fill level to tamping pressure to machine bar rating and temperature to extraction time and cup temperature to cold milk temperature to froth temperature....it's a serious process for those who care.
        Like fine wine: The rewards are very personal.

        If you don't get it, do what works for you.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Chow Baby

          Sorry if you are having trouble reading my post, but where did you get the idea that I don't appreciate the craft and skill of a barista ? I used to work as one !

          My opinion is largely based in my preference for medium roasted, small batch, single origin beans. I'm sorry I overlooked that Quadronno imports their beans from Trieste (they do have delicious coffee — I wasn't commenting on that).

          There are two ideas here: how the coffee — the bean — is being conveyed in the cup; and the business serving it. There is a definite slant in supporting smaller businesses who put the majority of their capital in searching for and purchasing rare and high quality beans from independent and sustainable farms.

          1. re: cmballa

            Well, I was in the neighborhood, so after a quick lunch at Stand I went to Joe's for an espresso. I wanted to like it, but I'm afraid I didn't - I found it bitter and burnt tasting.

        2. With no intention of being confrontational, and freely admitting to being an interloper on this board (I live in the Dallas area, not Manhattan), I do feel that wherever one lives, a critical starting point is to understand exactly what espresso is.

          Here's an extremely well written and accurate article explaining it all:

          Simply put, "espresso" is a brewing method. "Espresso roast" beans is an American invention. They are terrible!

          7 Replies
          1. re: Caroline1

            I'm waiting for an "Espresso Automat." You walk in, a wall is lined with superautomatic espresso machines and over each one is a sign stating what kind of coffee beans are in that machine: Mocha, Java, Blue Mountain, Ethiopian Harrar, Kona, whatever... Oh, and how it's roasted; dark, medium, French. And then you take your cup, put it in place, swipe your credit card, then choose how strong you want the coffee and how many ounces, and voila! Great coffee every time exactly to your liking!

            1. re: Caroline1

              Superautomatics make horrible espresso.

              1. re: John Manzo

                Mine doesn't. It's quite programmable, and as with ALL coffees, how good it is depends entirely on the quality of the beans. You can't make a silk purse from a sow''s ear. '-)

                I'm curious how many super automatics you've owned or used?

                1. re: Caroline1

                  I've been in their audience all over the world- you cannot swing a dead, dying, or healthy cat in Germany without confronting these things, so just on that trip (3 weeks) I encountered dozens. I have had some drinkable espressos using them but never what I would call "good" espressos.

                  1. re: John Manzo

                    Well, you're entitled to your opinions based on your experience, but it doesn't sound as if you have much experience with a superautomatic of your own with control over the beans, the strength, the cup size and all of the other things that go into making a great cup of coffee. "Espresso" is simply a brewing method, same as French press, vacuum coffee maker, percolator, whatever...

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      You're right- even in situations where I can press the buttons myself and, say, pull the cup away before the blonding is excessive, the beans have been poor (like at airport lounges or in business meetings). If I had a superauto you could be sure that I'd use just as good beans as I do for my Elektra Leva.

                      1. re: John Manzo

                        John, I'm wondering if your first hand experience was with true for-the-home super-automatic espresso machines. Here's a website with the same brand as my machine, though mine is now old enough it's not available. There are other for-the-home superautomatics available, but I just like Swiss engineering.


                        As you see, they're a bit on the pricey side, BUT...! tote up the cost of a cup of frappemochaspressochino at Starbucks four or five times a week, and soon enough the machine pays for itself!

                        Coffee beans are another matter. Like any crop, the flavor and quality varies from growing season to growing season. Wholesalers at the world level vie for the best beans, and it's extremely difficult for a small quantity consumer to find out who got them. Years ago, before Starbuck's came on the scene and messed the whole coffee world up, it was much easier to find true quality beans. When I still lived in California, I had a coffee dealer who would blend my own coffee for me with 2/5 java, 2/5 mocha and 1/5 French roast. Wish I could still find that quality of coffee bean!

                        The world of coffee has a lot in common with Perrier water. When I first began drinking Perrier a gazillion years ago, the supply was very limited because the natural spring that produce(d) it only produced so much water in a day. Do I believe that same spring produces Perrier in the quantities you can find it in the world today? Not a chance! Coffee is only a little better off than Perrier. You can plant more coffee plants (assuming suitable land is available) and at least you will have real coffee beans... '-)

          2. Perhaps we ought to keep in mind that the "specialty coffee/espresso" thing is still in its' infancy. People turn to "authentic" places and Starbucks because they haven't tasted the difference. The question is: who's fault is that? Is it the consumers' fault because they don't know any different? The retailers' fault because he doesn't know any different? Or is it this "new wave" of coffee and espresso professionals' fault?

            Personally speaking, I think the responsibility lies upon the latter to "get the word out" and present their product in a fashionable light.

            It does very little to chastise and demean the general public for not knowing any better. All it does is put them on the defensive and makes your job of spreading the "good cup" much harder because of that newly inspires resistance.

            I liken the current crop of coffee professionals/baristas to that of the 1980s generation of chefs: toiling in relative obscurity with lots of passionate ideas that are ready to explode on the scene. The chefs of those days worked hard on presenting their craft in a professional manner which built to the respect and celebrity status chefs enjoy today.

            And Caroline1 - your "espresso automat" is almost a reality. Just look for a shop "featuring" an automated brewing machine called clover.

            1 Reply
            1. re: onocoffee

              "And Caroline1 - your "espresso automat" is almost a reality. Just look for a shop "featuring" an automated brewing machine called clover." onocoffee

              Might be interesting to look in on, but I'm not a likely customer. I have a Capresso super-automatic machine at home and friends who drop by instead of going to Starbucks. "All of my coffees are better," she said modestly. I even grind my own coffee powder for Turkish coffee. AND often roast my own beans. I LOVE good coffee...!

              As to your very reasonable questions about who is responsible for the misinformation floating around the U.S. consumer's coffee world today, I blame the consumers. Doesn't matter whether you're buying a pair of shoes, a house, an insurance policy, or a pound of coffee, the only reasonable way to go about it is as an informed consumer. When you don't and you get taken, and you asked for it.

              And I'll go ahead and say it here, knowing full well it will illicit all kinds of howls and yelps, but TV cooks like Ina Gartner who reach in the cupboard and pull out a container of pre-ground coffee are not in serious pursuit of culinary excellence. It's the Rachel Ray class of cooking. Not my cup of tea. Or coffee! '-)

            2. cmballa, Grumpy gets lots of attention on coffee-focussed boards (coffeegeek,com et al); there is certainly an audience in NYC that considers it a new mecca. Whether people on this board appreciate is another matter of course, but it seems to be doing great among the coffee aficianados. In fact I've been under the impression that it's the only proper third-wave coffeehouse in NYC (and 4 days in Manhattan in August confirmed that there is too much horrible espresso in NYC, not that this surprised me).

              I have to mention that in your screed against espresso ignorance you make an important mistake yourself. Grumpy does not "roast its beans" light, dark, or anything in between. Grumpy sources beans for espresso from the estimable 49th Parallel coffee roasters in Vancouver. The idea of a real espresso hound not mentioning the espresso's roaster is a huge oversight.

              1. Hola kids! I own a coffee house in NE Ohio and I am the main Barista. There are tons of variables regarding what one deems "perfect espresso". To each his own. Espresso can be very smooth with a gorgeous creme and a nice palate. It can also be near black beaned with a grainier crema and a bitter shock. Depends on the roast of the bean, number of the grind and method of brewing.

                I, personally, use a medium roast from my roaster in Cleveland. It suits the demographic and the drink range that I am serving. I also use fresh pulled espresso shots in every one of my hot, cold or frozen drink creations (33). I don't use cold brew, I don't use a concentrate and I don't believe in mass brewing and using shots from a giant pitcher like most coffee houses do. Fresh shot, every single drink.

                Sample around...go visit your local roaster and see what there is to offer. Ask to attend a cupping. Espresso is like cheese...some you love, some you just hate. Its a trial and error kinda thing.

                3 Replies
                1. re: chelleyd01

                  I have to say that the term "authentic" always confuses me - regardless of the context. My family are italian and growing up we used to spend a lot of time in NYC's Little Italy and made regular trips home to visit our aunts, uncles and cousins and found great variety in what many Italians consider traditional/authenitc or, just the way our family/favourite cafe does it... When we were younger we had both the stovetop pot and the hand press for making espresso, later, at United Housewreckers our mother found a woderful brass and copper espresso machine that she had restored and installed in our kitchen for my father - all producing different brews even with the same coffee and grind. From Amsterdam to Vienna to North Africa and beyond, "espresso" seems to have a lot of interpretations - the beans, the roast, the method - stove top, hand press, modern pump systems, etc. I think that, like much of what makes food and wine a constant adventure, variety is what makes coffee and tea interesting. I may have my go to beans and roast but, I always like to try new beans, roasts, etc.

                    1. re: vonwotan

                      "I have to say that the term 'authentic' always confuses me - regardless of the context."


                  1. By contrast, I've tried just about every espresso blend roasted in my city (Pittsburgh). Surprisingly it's only a minority that are truly dark and oily, and those are typically from the same places that also provide the public with flavored beans. Most of the espressos served here are from beans roasted in the city to full-city range. Not that that makes them necessarily good (brewing skills are key) but it certainly indicates that dark char roasts aren't the most popular here. In fact, the most "authentic" and most frequently mentioned (on CH) espresso place here (standup tables, copies of La Stampa and nothing more than 12oz) uses a blend that's barely full city and it's always packed.

                    At least you're suggesting that there is an espresso culture in NY, so you're way ahead of every other city in the East. When I lived around there in the 80s/90s, I didn't see much espresso outside of the Village/SoHo. And I'd be surprised if more than 1% of SBUX business in NYC is in small capps/straight shots.

                    "Authenticity" remains subjective in many things, espresso included. Having been fortunate enough to have had espressos at both Tazza d'Oro and Sant' Estuchio this past July - the twin pinnacles of Roman espresso - I can tell you to my tastes a shot of CCC Toscano from Zachary at 9th St. in Chelsea Market beat both of those. But I drink Black Cat every single day so I'm probably jaded and not a good indicator of the general populace.

                    Caroline - just from reading your posts I have to think more credit goes to your personal bean selection and roasting practices than the Capresso. Those things are not exactly craft brewers. As to onocoffee's point about the Clover, if you really enjoy coffee, don't shut yourself off from new forms. Clover is a different brewing process not related to espresso per se, but somewhere close to a "cleaner" press pot or "richer" siphon, using a fairly steep dose per cup. So I'd suggest finding a cafe that has one and convincing them to let you dial in your own roast on their machine - if they're true geeks they might even enjoy the experience as they'll be learning something about your coffee while you're learning about a new brew method.

                    Btw, John... I think Grumpy uses more than one roaster. I know they've done quite a bit with Novo's Ethiopians to date. Possibly others too.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: Panini Guy

                      Correct- they use 49th Epic for espresso and other roasters for SOs. But since OP was discussing espresso, I brought 49th up.

                      1. re: Panini Guy

                        "Caroline - just from reading your posts I have to think more credit goes to your personal bean selection and roasting practices than the Capresso. Those things are not exactly craft brewers. As to onocoffee's point about the Clover, if you really enjoy coffee, don't shut yourself off from new forms. Clover is a different brewing process not related to espresso per se, but somewhere close to a "cleaner" press pot or "richer" siphon, using a fairly steep dose per cup. So I'd suggest finding a cafe that has one and convincing them to let you dial in your own roast on their machine - if they're true geeks they might even enjoy the experience as they'll be learning something about your coffee while you're learning about a new brew method." Panini Guy

                        Love your handle!

                        I absolutely did misunderstand John! I thought "Clover" was just another espresso machine. Looked it up on the web, and it does look interesting. And now I'm wondering if they'll ever bring out a home model. I hate having to get in the car and drive for a decent cup of coffee, hence I'm not much of a coffee shop lurker. Sorry about the misunderstanding, John!

                        My experience is that if you start with really good water, excellent coffee beans, bring the water to temperature and THEN grind the beans, chances are you'll get damned good coffee, whatever brewing method you use. And being somewhat lazy, these are all things I can do easily with my Capresso. My only regret about it to date is that it isn't "hard plumbed" so it draws its own water and has it's own garbage disposal to flush the grounds down its own drain. Am I lazy? You bet! So while I'm at it, I wish it had about five mini-hoppers for different kinds of beans. No. No coffee pods for me. I've never found a paper coffee filter I can't taste in the coffee.

                        Since you like dark oily roast coffee (if I read you right), Mexico produces some that are incredibly dark -- and oily! -- without being bitter, but I have no idea what kind they were, so I can't help by pointing you to a web source. When I lived in El Paso, I used to occasionally shop for coffee beans in Juarez, and there was always a dark roast that was so oily I didn't dare put it through my burr grinder for fear of clogging it for life! But maybe you're already familiar with Mexican coffee.

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          Caroline1 - Just to clarify, the espresso I normally drink, Black Cat, is decidedly neither dark nor oily. Maybe there was confusion because I started my response to the OP who was talking dark and oily. Normally I don't drink anything past a full city roast unless it's decaf or a roaster I totally trust. The home machine I use now, a Behmor 1600, won't even take beans more than a few seconds past second crack.

                          1. re: Panini Guy

                            Is dark and oily a preference for some in espresso? I noticed mention of it above as well - and that was part of what I didn't like about the one I had at Joe's yesterday.


                            1. re: MMRuth

                              Yup. I've never found a coffee house that didn't use dark roast beans. The reason I don't go to coffee houses is that I have never found a place that even offers a choice of bean roast, let alone uses it regularly.

                              I have to wonder what would happen to these establishment's sales of "cappucino exotics" if they served decent coffee in the first place.

                              1. re: MMRuth

                                I love dark and oily (although it is not a happy thing for my grinder). Norther Italian style is a lot lighter and dryer and many prefer it.

                              2. re: Panini Guy

                                Okay. Now you're REALLY confusing me! "Black Cat" is a blend of coffee sold under that name, right? And a "Behmor 1600" is a home machine that will roast one pound of green coffee beans to your preferred point, right? At least the only Behmor 1600 I can find on the net is a home roaster. Sooooo.... Can you buy the Black Cat blend of green coffee beans and roast them yourself, or do you do a second roast when you buy the pre-roasted whole beans? I'm now totally confused.

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  LOL... I do that to people.

                                  Sorry for the confusion. The espresso I drink is Black Cat. I experiment with roasting, but not blending for espresso, thus I basically roast for drip when I use the Behmor home roaster. Hopefully that clarifies things.

                                  But hey, I love the fact that you care enough to ask. The coffee world needs more Caroline1's!

                                  1. re: Panini Guy

                                    Clears things up greatly! Thanks. I was beginning to worry about you. :-)

                          2. Oy! To have your problems! I live in the middle of the midwest, and I'd kill to be in the position to try and make the distinctions that you are. I've had to start roasting my own beans to get anything decent -- and I do roast single origin espresso in my garage (when the weather isn't 20 below) in an old popcorn popper.

                            But, I'd strip down to my underwear and dance in the street to be able to saunter in somewhere and have a cup of the "lesser" super-dark Italian style espresso. . .

                            1. There seem to be some serious errors in these postings. Most notably the claim that Starbucks is to blame for "messing up the coffee world" and the claim that Mexico produces "dark and oily beans."

                              First off, the problems in the coffee world are a greater result of the "Big Four" companies that control most of the coffee purchasing in the world: Sara Lee, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, and Nestle - all of which continually drive the prices (and therefore, quality) down to the point that most farmers supplying the commodity market are literally taking it in the neck.

                              Secondly, a producing country, such as Mexico, does not produce "dark" and/or "oily" beans. That is completely on the error of the roaster and not the origin country or origin farmer/producer. Just as a farm/butcher provides the market with a cut of raw meat, it's up to the user to decide on the cooking level - the roaster buys green coffee and then roasts that coffee to whatever profile they deem "preferable."

                              And cooking a steak "well done" is akin to roasting a coffee to "dark and oily." It just ain't good practice.

                              For example, I purchase green coffee from the Rancho San Francisco in Chiapas, Mexico and roast it to a "medium" roast which, I believe, brings out maximum nuance and flavor out of the coffee. However, the desirable characteristics will remain at their peak for no longer than two weeks after the roast. If I were to burn the coffee to "dark and oily", I would destroy those nuances and flavors in favor of bitter and burnt characteristics, BUT I could then package that coffee and the customer would be able to taste that burnt and bitter character for up to two years after roast.

                              "Dark roasting" coffee is a great way to mask the problems of low-grade, poor quality coffees, dramatically increase shelf-life and reduce waste.

                              On the topic of super-automatics for home - they are generally problematic and are difficult to produce a shot of espresso rivaling that of a properly made shot - and yes, I have played extensively with a friends' consumer super-auto. The crutches of these machines are due to compromises with design in order to keep the unit as small as possible and as inexpensive as possible.

                              Many of these compromises show in the form of: less-than-ideal bean hopper placement - which is usually on top of the machine where it is continually heated, speeding up the degradation rate of the coffee. Other problems can be that the hopper placement allows steam/moisture to reach the beans also causing faster degradation.

                              Smaller grinding burrs also means increased heat generation and the degradation problem again. The machines also may have problems grinding to the right degree of fineness, correct tamp pressure, correct brew pressure, brew path problems and volumetric dosing problems.

                              However, in spite of these potential pitfalls with super-autos, they have their place and while I believe it's got to be possible to produce a professional-quality shot, I think it is very difficult to achieve.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: onocoffee

                                Whoo gee... Where to begin. Oh, and my name is Caroline. It could save those new to the thread a lot of digging to see who you're talking to.

                                Well, as a matter of fact, Starbuck's is very much responsible for the amount of confusion and misinformation about coffee, especially espresso and drinks based on espresso.

                                If I have ever bought coffee from the "Big Four" companies, it would have to be restricted to a very occasional jar of instant coffee purchased for my first husband to take to work. We were divorced 35 years ago. For the last fifty years, I have bought whole bean coffee, NOT from the "Big Four," and today I try to buy primarily fair traded coffee beans over the internet. I am not responsible for what others do.

                                At no place did I say that all of Mexico's coffee beans are dark roasted. I did some occasional coffee shopping in Juarez, Mexico, when I lived in El Paso when I went to Juarez to buy vanilla and/or vanilla beans. Mexico produces GREAT vanilla, but I find my personal coffee preferences lean toward other continents. The main city mercado had a plethora of Mexican grown beans from all over the country and in all stages of roast and green. Some of the vendors in that Mexican mercado DID (and probably still do) sell several dark roasts, some of which are extremely oily (look like jelly beans) and as I said before, I would not dream of putting them in my burr grinder for fear of clogging it for life.

                                I do understand coffee roasting, but thank you for information about your preferences. But... Your way is NOT the only way. Coffee is a very personal preference, but I do feel that the Starbuck's "phenomenon" has sold a bill of goods to the general public. I have had ONE cup of some sort of "cappuccino" from a Starbucks when I still lived in El Paso. Eleven bucks for two cups. That was over 2 1/2 years ago. The plastic cup was interesting and I thought I would wash it out. It was useful as a "commuter cup." I could NOT wash out the crap they topped it with. Whatever the topping, I have had axle grease that was easier to disolve. The dishwasher could not get rid of it. My personal opinion about Starbuck's "espressso" is that if they made decent drinkable espresso, their fancy espresso drinks sales would fall off disastrously. The ONLY thing I like about Starbucks is that any employee who works 20 hours a week or more has health insurance. But I don't like that enough to poison my body with their product.

                                As for home superautomatics, I like mine. *I* think mine makes pretty damned good espresso. Maybe I got the one fluke from the factory that produces decent espresso. Or maybe I don't know decent espresso from indecent sewage. But apparently I'm not the only idiot on the planet. Jura Capresso doesn't look to be going out of business any time soon. And having an espresso machine at home is a LOT more convenient than having to go out for a cup. Especially at three or four in the morning... '-)