The last time I took my espresso machine to the shop to get it cleaned and serviced, the shop’s owner gave me an important lesson in espresso. You shouldn’t use such dark, oily beans, he said. See here? All the gunk in the machine? They gum everything up, from the espresso machine to the grinder. Use lighter beans, he said.
And then, to prove his point, he gave me a demo on his beautiful in-shop espresso machine, using one of the bags of imported Italian beans that he swore by. It was a treat, sipping a cup of espresso that was more sweet than burnt, full of subtle notes that weren’t drowned out by the roast. I walked out the door with a kilo of beans and a newfound appreciation of what espresso can be if you tinker with your bean choice.
For some reason, there’s a collective delusion in North America that espresso requires a very dark, very intense coffee roast. Many mainstream coffee shops don’t help clear the confusion, often choosing to sell an “espresso” roast or blend that is almost always darker than it needs to be.
In essence, an espresso is simply a coffee that you make with an espresso machine using pressure to quickly extract a small amount of coffee from ground beans. Full stop. You’re free to use whatever beans you like, and it’s actually fun to play around with different blends and roasts to discover what works best. The espresso brewing process tends to bring out certain flavours more than others, and you may find that a coffee you normally use for drip tastes totally different when brewed under pressure.
One of these experiments lead me to brew espresso using organic Level Ground coffee beans from Tanzania, which are now available at Costco. I’d used them to make drip coffee before, and they were plenty good. When I used them for espresso, they produced a wonderfully balanced shot that worked like a charm in my standard Americanos. I’m glad I gave it a try.
While the bag claims it’s a dark roast, these Tanzanian beans are roasted to more of a dark medium shade with a wee bit of oil on the surface. The bag also claims the coffee is “full-bodied, powerful, wild,” but again, I’d beg to differ. In an Americano, it’s a wonderfully mellow coffee, a middle road between the slick-with-oil espresso beans commonly found in North American cafes and the lighter roasts often associated with Italian-style espresso. It’s got a nice earthy quality, with a touch of berry and toffee. Sometimes I can taste a bit of spice, like a very light dusting of cinnamon, and dark chocolate in the finish.
While I almost always use it as espresso for making Americanos, it’s also good for using in lattes (normal or egg nog, as ‘tis the season), or in my Mocha Valencia recipe. If you can’t get to Costco for the massive bag, note that these Level Ground beans, along with many others, are available at grocery stores in smaller bags.
Price: $16.99 for a 2 lb bag at Costco in Edmonton.
Value for Money: Amazing. How does Costco do it?
Availability: Costco for the big bags. Other supermarkets in Western Canada carry the smaller bags. I’ve seen Level Ground beans at Safeway.
Nutrition: It’s coffee, so not much unless you add milk and/or sugar.
Verdict: Great for espresso, which was surprising to me. It’s become a staple in my espresso machine.