heart-thumping jolt of coffee exploding in your mouth. It is short, black, and powerful. Americans, for the most part, do not drink espresso as intended by its creators a century ago in Italy. We consume, rather, a hot sweet milkshake designed in Seattle. The form of espresso we consume is based on an old Italian recipe of mixing a little coffee with a lot of warm milk for small children, Then, as now, that beverage is called “Latte” in Italy.
The American coffee idiom is still developing. American espresso blends are more diverse and of better quality than many espresso blends manufactured in Europe. America is a vast country. Milk-based espresso beverages are bringing the good word to the populace, but the proselytizing process is long and arduous. It is ongoing now, in earnest, only about 15 years. Starbucks, the nation’s largest specialty coffee beverage retailer, is opening new territories overseas, yet the American heartland is still espresso neglected.
The diversity of American tastes provides room for all kind and manner of coffee blends, roasts, beverages, venues, and price points. Espresso is only one of coffee’s spheres of influence in the U.S. Indeed even in espresso, there are several different original espresso cultures here - for example, Greenwich Village and Little Italy in New York. San Francisco’s espresso culture dates to the Italian immigrant community that predates the Earthquake and fire of a century ago. New Orleans’ dark roast heritage predates espresso and goes back to the City’s French roots. Miami became an espresso cultural center in the 1960s and in the last 30 years Seattle, Boston, and Chicago joined the ranks of U.S. cities with highly developed espresso cultures. Other espresso centers have developed as well, along with the roasters and retailers to support local consumer demand.
A handful of high-quality, direct-from-Italy import espresso blends, exemplified by Illycaffe’s (www.illy.com) 1980s introduction to the U.S., lead an invasive wave of lackluster Italian espresso products into the North American market. Some of Italy’s very best roasters of exquisite coffee are all but unknown here, as is Caffe Corsini (www.caffecorsini.it). Most of the Italian imports we see are blended with filler Arabica and Robusta coffees. For the most part, these provide a cup whose only claim to our attention is that they have a “made in Italy” label. Freshness at brew-point is another hurdle that many of the import products, with so long a distribution chain, must learn to conquer.
The big roasters, Kraft (www.kraftfoods.com/maxwellhouse), Sara Lee (www.saralee.com), and Procter & Gamble (www.folgers.com) roast most of their products for the common taste which is designed for other brewing methods than espresso even when the coffee is called “French.” There are few espresso blends produced, fewer still of the big brand products are ground for use in an espresso-maker. The bigger roasters in the U.S. are making comparable quality products to those made by commercial roasters in European markets including Italy. There is one large roaster only specializing exclusively in commercial production of dark roast coffees in the U.S., Rowland Coffee Roasters Inc, Miami Florida. They produce Pilon, Bustello, and El Pico. Rowland is also the producer of Medaglia D’Oro, (www.medagliadoro.com), the largest selling “espresso” coffee in the U.S., originally introduced by S. A Schonbrunn, New York in 1924. Other contenders in the supermarkets and bodegas include Café Caribe from Coffee Holding Company Inc., Brooklyn, New York, and Caffe La Llave distributed by F. Gavina & Sons, Inc. Vernon, CA. (www.gavina.com).
Smaller U.S. roasters often reach out to the foodservice industry as their primary market. Here blends offered usually top out at 100% Colombian, and drop off significantly in value as the price/value demand curve dictates. Espresso coffee is no longer an afterthought, but it is not a specialty of the house. Retailer support in the espresso area is still relatively undeveloped. This is exacerbated by a paucity of espresso beverage understanding among U.S. institutional roasters - particularly in the Eastern U.S. U.S. specialty roasters have been working with many origins, blends and roast colors for some time now and have been developing espresso expertise certainly since around 1980. What they lack is the resources to move with strength into the foodservice espresso arena.
There is an established group of espresso machine importers and manufacturers now in North America. They are being supported by the foodservice industry, and there are some roasters who are now also buying and placing espresso equipment in accounts on a sale or lease basis to support their institutional coffee businesses.
Illycaffe has become a leader among espresso coffee distributors in North America. They are now crossing over into drip-brewed coffee to restaurants, offering loan programs for drip brewers to secure the side of the coffee business that until now they have forfeited to local institutional roasters. Other espresso distributors, and espresso machine distributors, following the Illy lead, are becoming competitors for drip coffee in restaurant and institutional settings also.
There is some anecdotal evidence that U.S. roasters are reacting to the new diversity of espresso company products and services by offering espresso equipment on a loan basis to secure the business of potential important accounts. This is denied by the roasters, who may be willing to lend equipment in some circumstances but do not want it to become an accepted and expected practice in the restaurant supply coffee business.
Sara Lee Cinnamon Roll Cappuccino (www.superiorcoffee.com) and S&D Coffee’s Premium Gold Fat Free Vanilla Powder Cappuccino (www.sndcoffee.com) are examples of the instant hot coffee beverage mixes served from hot beverage dispensers that are distributed by most wholesale coffee companies today (including my own), and found in C-stores, and college cafeterias across the continent. They are manufactured by firms such as Brad Barry Co., Carson, California, (www.caffedvita.com), Cappuccine Inc., (www.cappuccine.net), and American Food Technologies (AMFOTEC), Alsip, Illinois.
So, O.K., American espresso isn’t always all it might be. It is delightfully glib, but equally silly to suggest, as a recent article in The New York Times did, that American espresso as epitomized by the New York espresso bar scene is clueless. It is rather fairer to say that on any given day it is - sadly - possible to visit any number of cafés in any number of world cities and be treated to a lesser cup than the one for which you were hoping.
Espresso is going to be an integral part of coffee business for the foreseeable future. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, Quality Coffee Institute and The Roasters’ Guild stand as an infrastructure of faith in the future of the American cup. Here the trade studies, and experiments, debates and embraces ideas from the world over, develops programs, resource materials (written, audio, and video) provides seminars, field trips to origins, and a yearly conference and trade show that is the largest and best attended in the world. Both SCAA and The Roasters’ Guild publish, for its members, a newsletter of value and substance. Specialty coffee is nothing if not committed to raising the standard of all coffee in this land.
The toughest burden in the fight for a better cup is on the shoulders of the retailers for they alone encounter and interact with consumers every day. The quality of espresso beverage served over the counter in the U.S. has markedly improved during the last 20 years. Improvement is always desirable. Improvement will continue as the public becomes savvier about what espresso coffee qualities to value, and retailers become educated to espresso preparation techniques, and equipment care.
The American commercial version of espresso with milk (cappuccino) was invented in New York’s Cafe Reggio in the mid-50. where the first La Pavoni machine (www.lapavoni.com), in the U.S. had been installed in 1927. Fifty years later there is still only one Café Reggio. Its original cappuccino took 25 years to become a national craze. Howard Schultz’s introduction of espresso/milk beverages at Starbucks put espresso acceptance on the fast track in the U.S. It took Schultz’ Starbucks only about a decade to go from about 25 to 2,000 outlets. Starbucks’ aims to have 10,000 stores operating world wide by the end of their 2005 fiscal year.
Espresso in the workplace can be a joke: “You know you work in Silicon Valley when your workplace vending machines dispense ‘100% natural twig-bars’ right next to Jolt cola and Instant Espresso mix.” But real espresso equipment and particularly super-automatic machines are finding their way into the prep-kitchens of the nations hottest corporations.
At-home espresso has seen exponential growth in the last five years with the sales of both designed for home and designed for espresso bar espresso makers finding their way into kitchens, finished basements and garages across the country. Nespresso, a single service encapsulated espresso product and delivery system by Nestle first found in the office has proved to be an easy-entry, fool-proof espresso maker for the home as well as office. Nespresso (www.nespresso.com) is a pricey way to make a perfect espresso, but the system, and its nine espresso blends have a growing following among espresso lovers who want to make it at home and who lack “Brown-thumbs”.
The home espresso phenomenon has a high-tech end too, where espresso enthusiasts both share and compete in their race to find the perfect bean, supported in its growth by a community of serious espresso on-line web sites including non-commercial sites such as the espresso top 50 web sites (www.espressotop50.com); a web site dedicated to evaluation and discussion of espresso equipment for the home user (www.CoffeeGeek.com); and David Bogie’s home espresso information page, (sovrana.com/minifaq.htm) among many. There is even a growing community of consumers whose love affair with espresso is expressed in their personal web sites, including Columbia University student Dave Bayer’s personal web page favoring the Pavoni and other hand-operated tools, (www.math.columbia.edu/~bayer/coffee.html) and web-designer Fortune Elkin’s, Bread Coffee Chocolate Yoga, (www.home.earthlink.net/~frelkins/). The usenet newsgroup alt.coffee continues to be a web site of interest to consumers who have a special interest in espresso.
Cold ready-to-drink espresso (RTD) from the Starbucks/Pepsi-Cola relationship appears to continue to grow its category lead in RTD coffees, begun with Frappuccino (www.starbucks.com/grocery/frappuccino.asp), with the introduction of its new espresso and cream Doubleshot entry. And while Nestle and Coke have backed away from their recent entries in the U.S. RTD markets, others including Folgers Jakada (www.jakada.com), press on. Some regional players as Havana Cappuccino, from New Jersey and Borgnine’s Espresso Coffee Soda from California appear to be doing well. Brooklyn’s own, Manhattan Special (named for the Brooklyn street and not the borough across the river) original Espresso Coffee Soda continues to have a strong local following.
Espresso has been around in the U.S. since the early days of the last century but it had basically stayed an ethnic novelty enjoyed by Italian Americans, beatniks, Cuban immigrants and Brazilian and European visitors (when they could find it). It took a specialty coffee revolution, and some very ingenious recipes and marketing to break through with a new way to think about that old American standard cup of coffee. The North American espresso cup today is not perfect every time, but it is good enough at its best to rival the world’s best, and it is produced by innovative forward-thinking entrepreneurs that have some significant triumphs under their belt. American espresso is an illustration of the will and the skill of America’s specialty coffee community.
Tea & Coffee Trade Journal specialties editor, and specialty coffee guru Donald Schoenholt, has been an observer of the espresso scene for over 40 years. He applies what he has learned at Gillies Coffee Company, Brooklyn, New York (1)(800) 344-5526.