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Jan 4, 2008 01:37 PM

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'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! '-)