What's the deal with espresso blends?
Unless you have been avoiding civilization entirely over the past few weeks, you have probably heard about the next big thing at Starbucks; the Blonde Espresso. This lighter espresso roast has been presented as a revolutionary new idea. Never mind that us in the third-wave coffee world have been using light espresso roasts for years. I realize there is a lot of confusion about espresso roasts and so I will do my best to demystify this topic.
Espresso blends are as old as espresso, as coffee professionals very quickly learned that they could not get a perfect and consistent espresso with just one origin. The classic Northern Italian espresso starts with a base of natural or pulp-natural Brazilian beans. This is supported by mild Central American coffees (such as Guatemala). More intense coffees such as Sumatra, or possibly some Robusta coffee give the coffee a thicker body and more bite (or they may stick with something more mild like a Colombian). The roast level is generally medium to medium-dark. This is the style that you will find in Illy's Normale espresso blend. The Southern style uses darker roasts and favors coffee with more dark, bittersweet notes.
The American understanding of espresso has generally fit more in the Southern Italian camp thanks to many 2nd wave roasters (such as Starbucks) presenting a dark espresso blend. Still to this day, I think the majority of Americans assume the default espresso roast is a dark roast. I know I did before I was a coffee professional. And while there are many great dark espresso blends, espresso can really be made with any roast level, so long as the blend is done well, and the barista understands how to extract a good shot.
As the third wave picked up in the early 2000s, roasters started experimenting with lighter espresso blends and with single origin espressos. Many of the earliest 3rd wave roasters still offer a darker espresso and demonstrate the transitional step between roast styles (such as Stumptown's Hairbender, a medium dark roast). Today, you will find a medium to medium-light espresso blend at most 3rd wave shops.
The espresso blend requires a different approach than a standard drip coffee blend. The goal is not just great flavor and aroma, but also structure, body, balance, and good crema production (the light brown foam on top of a straight shot of espresso). The blend also needs to taste great in the highly concentrated espresso as well as mix well with steamed milk (though there are some blends that are made specifically for straight shots). The roast process is also a bit different as espresso blends are generally roasted slower to reduce brightness and increase body. In a concentrated espresso, a beautiful bright acidity can sometimes become overpoweringly sour.
Our popular Handlebar Espresso blend is our attempt at a slightly modernized version of that classic Northern Italian blend. We use a base of Brazillian pulp-natural coffees and opt for the traditional washed Guatemala. These two coffees give the blend balance and a great structure as well as the chocolate and caramel base notes. From here, we add 2 coffees that set the individual flavor profile. These coffees change based on what is best in season right now. Our current blend features our Costa Rica Sonora Honey/Natural and our Rwanda Kilimbi. This gives the blend cherry and floral high notes. This blend is constantly evolving based on the coffees we have available. We roast this coffee in two parts and blend after roasting. The first part is just the Brazils, these are given a slightly lighter and more gentle roast to keep the Brazils from getting ashy. The rest of the coffees are roasted in part two and are brought to the very edge of medium roast. The goal is maximum development without introducing any bittersweet notes that would be found in a darker roast.
We are very focused on the quality of our Handlebar espresso as this is the coffee that we sell the most. Espresso is the backbone for most coffee shops and it is often the first time someone new gets to try our coffee. We are all about making a good first impression.