Coffee House Five – Giving Benefit of Doubt

Coffee
When you drink a sub-par espresso at a neighborhood coffee shop, do you assume the flaw is in the roast or the barista?

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There are too many factors to be objective. The coffeehouse is a neighborhood hangout, so I assume it’s popular for a reason. The young girl on the other side of the bar looks for approval from the supervisor, so I assume she’s inexperienced. They are both confused and surprised when I ask “what’s on the grinder?”, so I assume they serve a clientele who are less particular than I am. So of course I cringe when they slide a full 2 oz espresso across the bar.

We purchase three half-pound bags from coffeehouses and convince Alex at Coffee House Five to grind, pull, and evaluate each. The hypothesis: the roasts are better than I think, and several Portland coffee roasters are being held back by their baristas.

The visuals are clear: we are dealing with two very dark roasts and one lighter one. The two dark roasts are espresso roast, but the lighter roast is a single origin. The shine on the far right roast tells us it was roasted far beyond the second crack, especially because it was roasted recently.

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The first roast shows the most promise, but it still hits us with a heavy dose of diesel on the nose. Alex drops the temperature to eliminate some of the bad components we are extrac

ting, and then raises the temperature back up at small increments. The redeeming flavors are scarce and come in the form of tobacco, bitter chocolate, and a frothy cream aftertaste when the temperature remains low. Smoke and diesel with high temperatures.

The second roast smells grassy.  It gives us a shot of acidity but a solid chunk of flavor at the back end; smooth chocolate, some fruit. Overall, however, it is bright and underdeveloped. The sugars never caramelized, and although it is more in line with what we normally see in Portland, the roaster simply went too light.

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Unfortunately at this point we are underimpressed with the first two roasts, but still the final roast looks the least pleasing. There are several jabs about how the oil on the beans stick to our hands and how the beans shatter instead of breaking in two, and then we drink. The espresso is smokey and sour, and the finish lacks sugar and was instead burnt and bitter. We all make a show of contorted faces and spitting in the sink. It is truly undrinkable, everyone says.  It lacks any kind of character and elegance of flavor that you can find elsewhere in town.

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This is also where I should note that I have gone to great lengths to conceal the identity of the roasters. We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking we can take a half-pound from their shop and make some sort of conclusion; they know coffee more than we do and they are vindicated each day with packed cafes and wholesale accounts. Nonetheless, next time I am served a bad espresso I will be less likely to assume a barista can salvage the roast and pull from it flavors that simply are not there.

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