A morning spent at the Williams Sonoma technique class on learning and understanding coffee and espresso was more than what this writer had bargained for last Sunday. The brief but intensive class was conducted by Merchandise Specialists, Tracy Bellwood and Sen Lim, attended by around 10 of us with my newfound friends, Frances Kuo, Joanne Wright, Pat Prescott and others, including a lone gentleman coffee aficionado..
According to the Williams Sonoma brochure handed out to attendees, “both coffee and espresso are made from the seed (beans) of several species of an evergreen shrub of the coffee genius. When ripe, coffee berries are picked and dried to yield the beans inside. The beans are roasted to varying degrees, depending on the flavor desired and then ground. The grind determines whether they will be used as coffee or espresso.
Coffee is made by the flow of water over coffee grinds, whether it is accomplished by thorough brewing, percolating or slowly pouring water over the grinds to soak them. The grinds used for making coffee are larger than those used for making espresso, as the water and grinds typically spend a relatively longer time together – typically 3 to 8 minutes – which means the water has more time to extract the flavors.”
Our class was amazed to learn that, “espresso is made by forcing a shot of hot water through very finely ground coffee at high pressure over 10 to 15 seconds. The high pressure yields a more concentrated, thicker, darker and more strongly flavored beverage with a higher concentration of dissolved and suspended solids as well as a defined crema (a frothy mixture of aromatic coffee oils and water, emitting a burnished amber foam) on top. Often served as a 1-, 2- or 3 – ounce (30-, 60-, or 90 – ml) shot, espresso may also be used as the basis of drinks such as: latte, cappuccino or macchiato.”
Further on, we also learned that “espresso is described by coffee connoisseurs as poetry in a cup, which embodies the heart and soul of coffee. This dark, rich elixir is said to have derived its name from its rapid brewing method and the word espresso’s second meaning comes from the French word ‘expres,’ indicating that each cup is prepared expressly when ordered. Thus, it is considered both a beverage and a technique. And, one of the best ways to explore the world of espresso is to sample the various espressos produced by different coffee beans and methods.”
On one of this writer’s trips to Europe, our college sorority group learned that when ordering coffee in restaurants, the servers would automatically bring espresso or cappuccino, unless one would specify “cafe Americano” which meant “light coffee,” with additional cream and sugar when necessary. We found out that the difference between espresso and cappucino was that espresso meant “a single shot of rich aromatic espresso,” while cappuccino is “a shot of espresso crowned with a frothy cap of milk foam.”
For espresso lovers, the perfect cup of espresso starts by selecting the beans with “freshly roasted , properly ground Arabica coffee beans, typically made from a blend of beans from different coffee-growing regions in East Africa and Arabia. These beans have rich flavor, bright acidity and medium to full body.” However, coffees from Indonesia and the Pacific are often described as having smooth, earthy flavors, but low in acidity and a full body. In contrast, coffees from Central and South America, as well as Hawaii have “fresh, lively taste with low acidity and light to medium body.”
Roasting the beans is essential in eliciting the full flavor of coffee. It requires “meticulous care and precise timing. As coffee beans roast, their color slowly changes from straw green to a rich chestnut brown. The most important transformation occurs in the flavor of the beans, as their aromatic essential oils rise to the surface. Roasting time varies with the bean variety as well as with the intended brewing method. For espressos, experts typically recommend a dark roast, which focuses the flavors of the beans and caramelizes their natural sugars.”
Grinding the beans is also essential in achieving a well-brewed espresso because “it determines how quickly the water will flow through the coffee. An overly coarse grind will cause the water to flow too rapidly, producing a weak, underextracted espresso. However, if the grind is too fine, the result will be an overextracted espresso with a harsh, bitter flavor. The perfect espresso requires a powdery grind that allows water to flow through at a smooth, steady pace, extracting full flavor and aroma.” A note of advice: always grind coffee beans before brewing, to achieve the best result.
Tracy Bellwood and Sen Lim, both patiently showed us the various brewing methods of producing the perfect cup of coffee, along with samples of their tasty oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies. We also learned to distinguish coffee flavors through a variety of roasts. The standard American roast, or breakfast roast is a “medium light roast, which produces coffee that is neither particularly strong nor dark Medium dark roasted beans produce darker, richer coffee, although full-flavored, does not have the full body of the darker roasts. Brewing coffee with dark-roasted coffee beans usually called French or Italian roast, results in a black, full-bodied cup of coffee, thereby calling it espresso.”
The Sunday morning class at Williams Sonoma on understanding coffee and espresso, certainly made coffee lovers like us grateful to learn how coffee can get our bodies become energized, refresh our minds and lift our spirits to enable us to look forward to brighten our working days ahead.