Miscela: Introduction to Espresso Blends
What is an Espresso Blend?
So you've made your investment in an espresso machine, grinder, and various barista tools, but what kind of beans should you brew with? This is one of the most commonly asked questions we receive, and it generally results in more questions than answers, at least initially. First of all, we want to eliminate the common misconception that espresso is brewed from very dark and oily beans. This is a myth that has falsely become "common knowledge" thanks in part to the success of the world's largest coffee chain (you know who). While there may be a few very dark roasts that deliver a proper espresso, the vast majority of espresso blends, or Miscela in Italian, will feature roasted beans that range from a light-colored chocolate with no oil on the outside to a dark chocolate color with a light oil sheen. Lighter roasts that appear light brown or almost tan-colored are unsuitable for espresso when they make up the entire blend. Again, we do want to point out that espresso has historically always been a blend, Miscela, something that results in a balanced cup with a full body and some degree of sweetness that is neither overly sour nor bitter.
So now you're ready to jump in and buy some beans? Not quite. One of the most important lessons to learn about espresso is that individual taste preferences vary. What you may love, someone else will spit out on the first sip, and vice versa. If you happen to like a particular blend that technically isn't a "proper" espresso roast, stick with it. Don't ever let some snooty perfectionist talk you out of something you enjoy just because there may be more "correct" kind of espresso. If you are open to experimentation, and have the proper brewing and grinding equipment, there is a world of flavor available to you.
So Really, What Espresso Beans Should I Buy?
Again, personal tastes vary, so we will really only be able to point you in some general directions. Never forget that coffee is a crop, and much like fruit, the same tree that yielded a specific tasting coffee one year may not do so the next. Except in the cases of the more cutting-edge American roasting companies, espresso is still a blend, sometimes ranging from 2 to 4 origins up to well over a dozen. The more local sources a blend gets its beans from, the more consistent the resulting espresso will taste from harvest to harvest. Regardless of what types of espresso beans you buy (or roast yourself) there is a limit to how long a blend will remain fresh enough to produce desirable flavors. Follow the directions from local roasters who roast to order, and then store your coffee properly to best maintain freshness.
If you are searching for a classic espresso, perhaps something similar to what you enjoyed in Italy, look for the famous Italian brands of Illy and Lavazza. These blends are crafted to deliver a chocolate or caramel flavored espresso with soft nutty tones and sometimes a slight twist of fruitiness. This is the way espresso has been done in Italy for half a century, and it is widely popular around the world. The way coffee roasters are able to deliver these flavors consistently is to blend beans sourced from as many as 18 different farms. These espresso blends are crafted in a way that their positive traits are most present in single shots of espresso, but doubles still taste good.
We are also frequently asked if one should exclusively use 100% Arabica beans. Our answer would be a resounding No! While Arabica beans are technically a higher grade than Robusta, the presence of Robusta in a blend can add balance and crema to the shot of espresso. Some roasters refuse to touch Robusta, but those who do tend to use less than 20%. Given today's trend of varying experimentation, it would be foolish to rule out almost any specific coffee bean of suitable quality. Many so-called rules have been broken in recent years, and there is no reason to put the blinders back on any time soon.
Buying Espresso From Local Roasters
While we sell many popular espresso blends, including SuperAutomatika® for Super Automatic espresso machines, we frequently recommend that espresso enthusiasts at least try some espresso blends from local roasters, or some of the more respected roasters on the east coast, west coast, and in between. American-style espresso roasting can sometimes mimic the Italian, but the current evolutionary trend has been to reduce the number of origins to create more pronounced individual characteristics in your cup. The benefits of buying local are three-fold: The freshness factor should be obvious. You also enjoy the chance to try-before-you-buy as an espresso cafe is usually integrated into the building. Finally, you receive an opportunity to talk to the true experts for that particular blend and what adjustments you might have to make to bring out the same characteristics with your home equipment. A coffee roasting company will typically have a handful of espresso blends, each with their own distinct aromas that the roaster believes should be present in a properly brewed shot. Many roasters who advertise online also include their recommendations for proper brewing including ideal temperature, dose of ground coffee, and volume of the beverage. It is important to note that many of these blends, since they have fewer origins, can vary throughout the year, so do not become discouraged if your favorite blend suddenly tastes somewhat different.
One way to tell if you are dealing with a roasting company that is fanatical and truly devoted to crafting cutting-edge espresso is that the roaster will offer single-origin espressos (coming from only one farm) and sometimes even direct trade (cutting out the middle man and buying directly from a farm). In the past, this may have been considered a big no-no, but this is America, and we know how to innovate. As of now, brewing espresso from a single-origin requires a more honed-in skill level on the part of the barista as well as higher-end equipment. Feel free to give it a try even if you don't consider yourself a pro, but it will be a lot like switching to a Pro Tour golf course from a standard municipal course. But we all love a challenge, right?
Water for Espresso
We would be remiss in our goal to help you brew excellent espresso if we failed to at least mention the need for proper water quality. Since your shot of espresso is still mostly water, you must start with water that tastes pure and free of odors if you want your espresso to taste as it should. Keep in mind that tasting pure is not the same as truly (or chemically) pure water. This is where things tend to get a bit complicated because water is nature's solvent, and as such tends to have impurities that it naturally picks up from its source (ground, river, lake, etc.). While there are enough factors to make you feel like you are part of a science experiment, the main issue that should concern you is the mineral content (this is what makes water hard). Technically pure water devoid of any mineral content will produce flat espresso and can damage certain metals in your equipment. Very hard water with too many minerals will form damaging lime scale in a machine and interfere with the espresso extraction. Ideal water for brewing will have between 3 and 5 grains of hardness (50 to 90 Parts Per Million). If you are on city water, at the very least you will want to use a type of carbon filter to remove chlorine, but we do recommend testing your water. If possible purchase or lease your own treatment equipment. If that is not in the budget, purchase properly treated drinking water (and test it just to verify it is suitable for your needs). For a more in-depth discussion on water quality please read our Water Quality Article.