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Espresso Terms

The following terms often come up informally in discussions of espresso coffees. They relate as much to the effects of brewing and roasting as to the qualities of the original green bean and are less clearly defined than the technical tasting terms defined earlier.

The sensation this term describes is not the brassy monotone of refined white sugar, but rather a vibrant natural sweetness shimmering inside and around other positive sensations. Sweetness in an espresso is owing to inherently sweet beans that have been produced only from ripe fruit, to a tactful roast style that carmelizes the sugars in the bean rather than burning them, and to proper brewing technique.

The bitter bite of some espresso coffees should be distinguished from the acidy tones of a medium-roast coffee, since the bitterness described here is a taste characteristic encouraged by dark-roasting. It is not an unpleasant characteristic. Most West-Coast American and many Latin-American blends are bitter by design. Espresso drinkers in these regions find the lighter-roasted, sweeter espresso blends preferred by northern Italians bland by comparison. If the distinction between bitter and acidy seems abstract, an analogy might help. Acidity is like the dry sensation in most wines, a mild astringency balanced by sweetness. The bitter sensation that arises from dark-roasting is more analogous to the bitterness of certain aperitifs like Campari, for example; it is a more dominating sensation, and less localized on the palate.

A word to describe the pleasant, fresh-sweat, sweet-yet-twisty tones of a good West-Coast-style American espresso blend. If there is a Peet's coffee store near you, go in and sniff the coffee bins for a suggestion of the sensation I am describing. This aroma complex is seldom encountered in Italian espressos, but is a common characteristic of North- and Latin-American blends. It is apparently created by a dark roast achieved slowly. Bittersweetness might be another word for it.

Smooth is an epithet describing an espresso coffee that can be taken comfortably without milk and with very little sugar, a coffee in which a heavy body and the sweet sensation described above predominate over bitter and acidy tones.