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Building a balanced espresso blend

All coffee lovers have their own idea on exactly how a perfectly balanced espresso should taste. We are of course, divided in our opinions here at the DRWakefield office as well, but then coffee preference is a naturally subjective topic.

With an espresso as unique as the customers who consume it, the possibilities for diversity are enormous. It is of course what makes the coffee industry so unique.

However, there are several key components that go into creating a typical espresso, as discussed by our coffee trader Phil Searle in a recent interview.

Here, we take a look at a brief history of the espresso, what common traits a blend should contain and from which origin the best components come from.

The espresso

A rich history surrounds the espresso, which is a concentrated form of coffee, extracted under pressure. It is one of the most powerful ways to drink coffee, with its roots lying in Italy over a century ago.

From its humble beginnings in an Italian factory as a way of providing a caffeine hit for a workforce quicker than the typical Turkish style popular at the time, the espresso has become a much-loved drink in its own right, as well as providing the base for what have become the cappuccino and latte drinks favoured in the Western hemisphere.

The advancement and technical brilliance of the simple espresso machine since Luigi Bezzera’s steam-powered first attempt in 1901 has enabled the meteoric rise in coffees shops that serve predominantly espresso-based beverages. 

Today, a barista will look for more than just a good espresso machine from a well-known marque to produce an excellent espresso. Now, the attention is turned – and quite rightly so, Phil says – to the quality of the coffee itself.

He explained that the perfect espresso contains three key factors – body, acidity and sweetness/flavour.

"A good espresso should have a full body, with moderate acidity – not too much that it becomes acetic and sharp," Phil stated.

However, he added that trends in espresso flavours can change quickly, as in London at the moment for example, the movement is towards espresso blends that have been lightly roasted, allowing for the development of higher acidity levels, but releasing less of the coffee's other flavours.

Before deciding what coffee to use in a blend, first of all one needs to consider a couple of factors.

For instance, in the commercial coffee shop world, price of the overall blend is an important factor, as is considering how the drink will be consumed – as an espresso, or a milk-based latte?

Highly fruity and floral coffees are unlikely to blend well with milk, in contrast to coffees with rich dark chocolate and caramel notes, which will blend almost symbiotically.

The beans

Phil provided some recommendations for what he believes would be the perfect origins to contribute to the creation of the three vital espresso components.

He suggests that coffee sourced from a Single Estate Brazil farm would be ideal for delivering the sweetness element of the beverage, while also demonstrating some chocolate and nutty notes.

Beans from a Central American producer, such as El Salvador, would be great for providing a good body, which is the element of the espresso that provides the mouth with a thick syrupy feel.

"For acidity, you'd be looking more towards an East African or Colombian bean, but that'd probably be the lower percentage of the blend," Phil added. “These coffees also tend to be the more expensive component of the blend."

The beans that are used can be interchanged depending on personal taste though, with the sweet, acidic and body elements all able to be adjusted.

Many espresso blenders like to add a small percentage of Robusta into their blends to create a more heavy-bodied drink and also deliver a fantastic crema – the caramel-coloured cream that appears on the top when an espresso has been pulled.

The brewing process

In order to create the perfect espresso, the coffee must be ground into very fine particles, as this helps to reduce loss of flavour when the coffee is exposed to the air.

What's more, the smaller the particles of coffee, the larger the surface area the pressurised water has to pass over.

Other influencing flavour factors include extraction times and the volume of coffee used – and like the coffees themselves, these are as changeable as the baristas who make them.

The blend

Once the perfect base has been created, it can be used to add flavour and finesse to a whole host of other coffee-related beverages.

For instance, in our recent feature looking at how to create a festive blend, our head coffee trader Santiago Barahona explained how selecting beans famed for their nutty, caramel-esque or chocolate cupping profiles can result in an espresso with a taste reminiscent of Christmas.

However, this can easily be adapted to comply with personal taste or the changing seasons, as well as popular trends, allowing roasters to keep their customers' espresso needs satisfied throughout the year.

Photo credit: Thinkstock/Shaiith