Espresso may very well be the tequila of the coffee world. To some, the word alone evokes memories of late nights in college spent guzzling bitter, amber liquid, not for the flavor, but certainly for its desired effects. To others, appreciating the drink is a mark of sophistication. Despite the small proportions of the beverage itself, espresso plays an enormous role in the coffee world.
I would argue that espresso is a lens through which all other elements of the coffee industry (including green coffee quality, service standards, proficiency in roasting, and skill in preparation) are magnified. Here is an introduction to four fantastic espresso blends available at your favorite Phoenix area cafes -- and one that you should go ahead and pass on, forever.
Before we start, let's clarify a couple of things. First, "espresso" refers to a method of preparing coffee. It does not refer to a particular type of coffee bean, and it has nothing to do with how "dark" or "light" a coffee is roasted. Simply put, espresso is any coffee that is brewed by applying pressure. Espresso beans are usually ground fairly fine, which allows tiny coffee particles to dissolve more readily in hot water. The force of the water applied to the coffee, plus the increased solubility of the coffee particles, result in an intensely flavorful cup.
A "blend" is any conglomeration of coffee beans that do not come from the same general growing region. As with wine, unique soil conditions, temperatures, elevations, and cultivars of coffee plants produce wildly different cups of coffee. Pulling a coffee as espresso essentially turns its volume up to eleven; if a particular bean from a particular region has a tendency to be sweet and fruity, pulling it as espresso may emphasize its more acidic qualities. Similarly, if a coffee possesses any defective traits, those negative qualities will be amplified in the espresso. Blends allow roasters to balance sweetness, acidity, and bitterness within the espresso shot.
One last thing -- sweetness is absolutely crucial when it comes to analyzing coffee quality. I could write about where sweetness in coffee comes from and how it can be enhanced (or destroyed) for days -- but for now I want to emphasize that good coffees have sweetness, inherently. Bad ones don't. More about this a different day. Let's get to the goods.
Royal Coffee (Biltmore Coffee Bar) I recently moved back home to Phoenix after being gone for almost seven years. When I left, the Biltmore was a place you only went if you were a high school student who needed a place to make out. Either I've gotten old, or the Biltmore has gotten way more rad. Royal Coffee at the Union pulled me easily the best shot of espresso I've had since I moved back.
Royal's current espresso blend is a mixture of coffees from Peru, El Salvador, and Tanzania.The Tanzanian coffee sticks out most of all, lending a bright fruity note to the otherwise grounded espresso. The flavors were syrupy and well-balanced, and the caramel-like finish waltzed the shot away slowly and gracefully.
I taste: Blackberry, toasted almond, dark chocolate. Try it if: You're the kind of person who eats dessert first.
This espresso is the only one on this list that was not roasted locally, but I had such a great experience at Giant that I felt it needed to be included. Giant serves Four Barrel Coffee's Friendo Blendo espresso, which is currently comprised of coffees from Ethiopia, Colombia, and Bolivia.
The staff at Giant was informative without being pretentious, and the espresso itself was beautifully extracted. This espresso had a playful quality; bright, zesty notes dominated, but were perfectly balanced by sugary sweetness and rich nuttiness. But what made this espresso really stick out was its smell -- the shot was permeated with intoxicating rosewater and baking spice aromatics.
I taste: Meyer lemon, macadamia nut, powdered sugar Try it if: You are sick of iced coffee, and want a refreshing, lemonade-like espresso experience.
Press Coffee (Scottsdale Location) I am not a fancy person. I became acutely aware of this fact when I drove to Scottsdale to visit Press Coffee. Fancy ladies wear their hair in perfectly polished top-knots; I have a mop of fur on my head that looks, at best, like a crooked wig. Fancy people drive fully functional automobiles; I currently have to roll down my driver's side window to let myself out. Fancy women also wear very expensive exercise clothing, even when they are not exercising. I don't actually understand this phenomenon. I was happy to find that at Press Coffee, I was made to feel like one of the Fancy people.
The staff at Press were exceptionally hospitable. They explained their espresso offerings thoroughly. When something went wrong and they needed more time to prepare my espresso, I was notified immediately and given a complimentary drink (I wasn't even upset!). Press actually offers two espresso blends: Spitball (an Ethiopia / Colombia blend) and Twitch (a blend of two Brazilian coffees). Both were great, but we'll focus on Twitch.
This espresso was undeniably interesting, and broke free of the traditional espresso blend pattern (two full-bodied American coffees, one zany African coffee). It had a savory, ginger-like quality, which gently grounded its fruitier notes. The body of the shot was a little thin, but it still managed to pack layers of sweet, complex flavor.
I taste: Green grape, ginger, peanut butter Try it if: You love great coffee, great service, and needed to go to Lululemon anyway.
Lux Coffee To be frank, I had my doubts about this one, given that Lux is better know as a good hang out than as a place for a good cup of coffee. Their current blend is a mixture of coffees from Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
My fears were quickly alleviated -- no obvious defects in this cup. This coffee was less sexy than some of the others on this list; it lacked that "Pow-Bang" quality that makes a shot memorable, but was a solid, well-crafted espresso nonetheless. It was more bitter and roasty than some of the other options on this list, but not particularly unbalanced. The finish dropped off abruptly but did not contain any unpleasant flavors. The body of the shot contained a great deal of sweetness, and a thick, rich floral flavor that added depth and complexity to an otherwise straightforward espresso.
I taste: Dark chocolate, cinnamon, lavender. Try it if: You're new to this whole espresso thing, or want to relive what a really great shot tasted like five years ago.
Lola Coffee (Roosevelt Location) I entered Lola's beautiful Roosevelt space knowing that I'm a sucker for exposed brick, big open windows, and pretty branding; I left just feeling like a sucker. Lola's current espresso blend is a mixture of coffees from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Brazil, and Colombia. I expected this coffee to be roasted slightly darker, and pulled to more traditional standards. I did not expect the coffee itself to be as miserably unpleasant as it was.
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Here's the situation: There is a defect present in many coffees, particularly those from Brazil, called Phenol. Phenol doesn't produce any physical changes to the coffee bean, but produces a strong, putrid flavor that is very easy to detect if you, you know, ever bother to taste the coffee. I find drinking phenolic coffees somewhat akin to what eating rotten peanuts out of a dirty rubber bag might be like.
Lola's espresso was rife with phenolic flavor, with little to redeem it. The shot came served with a visibly dirty demitasse spoon -- it was covered in fingerprints and sticky residue. I did find some subtle sweetness in the espresso; some milk chocolate, some burnt sugar. And the barista clearly had skill in preparation; the drink, much like the cafe itself, was beautiful to look at. Sadly, the fact that the shot was pretty did very little to negate the rubbery, dirty, rancid nut qualities of the coffee.
I taste: Rubber, milk chocolate, burnt sugar, scalded cream. Try it if: Scratch that. Don't try it.