When it comes to espresso, we all have our own personal preferences. Some enjoy a fairly traditional Italian-style profile on the darker end of the spectrum. Others prefer a more nuanced, lively shot. Some add milk; others sip it straight up. But when it comes to quality, three essential characteristics must work together harmoniously to create great espresso:
Acidity is that sparkle, the brightness present in coffee that gives it a lift on our tongue. It can come across as a fruit-forward quality, perhaps reminiscent of citrus (lemon, orange, lime, even grapefruit), berry (strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry), stone fruit (peach, apricot, cherry, plum), or even apple or melon.
Sweetness can take various forms in espresso as well. Think about the different flavors of white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, malt, caramel, honey, butterscotch, or agave. The sweetness in espresso may be presented in any of those ways.
In balance with the other two characteristics, bitterness plays an important role, completing the profile of an espresso shot. Certainly bitterness can be a negative thing; nobody likes a mouthful of acrid smoke. But when bitterness works in harmony with acidity and sweetness, it makes for a great shot of espresso.
Each of these three qualities does not necessarily have to be equal. One quality may be more present than the others; for example, a profile may begin with a dark cherry acidity upfront, supported by a bittersweet chocolate body and completed by a burnt sugar finish. Or in a different coffee, you may experience an initial caramel sweetness complemented by a crisp apple acidity, and after you swallow, a lingering note of toasted nuts. The point is that each quality plays a role, in partnership with the others, not competing for attention, not masking each other, but playing off each other and working together.
The next time you step into our Coffee Bar or any café, consider ordering a simple espresso. Then sip intentionally and thoughtfully, using these three characteristics as a guide. Happy tasting!