Offering further proof that “coffee is the new wine,” Murky Coffee held an espresso tasting in the Clarendon shop Sunday night. A few friends and I spent the evening there along with thirty other coffee lovers as Murky baristi served up shot after shot of nine different espresso blends from all over the country.
The event was unique for bringing together so many different espressos for side by side comparison. Having all those blends on hand is a rare occurrence in itself, but pulling the shots on Murky’s Synesso Cyncra really made this an exceptional experience. Thanks to the Cyncra’s state of the art temperature control, each blend was brewed at exactly the temperature specified by the roasters. This is essential for getting the full complexity and sweetness out of each one. Since the machine allows a different temperature to be set at each of its group heads, Murky was able to have two espressos flowing at all times (and it still took three hours to get through them all).
To highlight the differences between each blend, we were given tasting sheets to fill out as we sampled shots. They included spaces for notes on flavor, body, aftertaste, and the ineffable quality of brightness, a measure of acidity that’s hard to describe in words but easy to sense by taste. The sensation is like the tightening feeling you get in your mouth when you drink a citrus beverage. To enhance our tasting vocabulary and spare us from having to make notes like “has a distinct coffee flavor,” we kept a copy of the SCAA flavor wheel nearby. It came in handy, though I don’t think anyone went in for suggestions like “nippy,” “leguminous,” or “sweet basil anise.”
Our group of five included two current or former baristi (me and Wendy, a former trainer with Starbucks), one frequent espresso drinker (Julian), and two friends whose interest was piqued by my never shutting up about coffee. Of them, Justine had her first pure espresso shot that night. David, who was staying with me for the weekend while visiting D.C. law schools, had his first the night before when I insisted that he try a mediocre shot from another local cafe so that he’d have a basis for comparison. Yet despite our varying levels of experience, our impressions of the blends were remarkably similar. David and I both chose Zoka’s Paladino as our all around favorite, while Intelligentsia’s Black Cat, Gimme! Coffee’s Leftist Espresso, Metropolis Coffee’s Red Line, and Counter Culture’s Toscano (Murky’s store blend) received consistently good marks from our table. We all agreed that one blend was excessively bright and made for a less enjoyable cup. The night ended with David winning a t-shirt for his ridiculously long tasting notes and our group settling down with milk shakes at the Silver Diner. Estimated time that I got to sleep that night: 3:45 am.
It’s also worth noting that Wendy and Justine came to the espresso tasting straight from attending a firearms class offered by the National Rifle Association. What would David Brooks say about that?
That so many people were willing to devote their Sunday night to tasting espresso and that the various roasters enthusiastically contributed their beans to the event bodes well for the continuing improvement of American coffee shops. As Tyler Cowen would say, better educated consumers push up the quality of a good by refusing to settle for inferior products. If Sunday night is any indication, and I think it is, then the demand for gourmet coffee in the U.S. isn’t even close to peaking yet. Starbucks successfully developed the extensive market, but the intensive market for specialty shops is still wide open as more and more consumers learn to love great coffee. The best is yet to come!
The pictures are courtesy of David. At top, Murky barista and reigning Southern Regional Barista Champion Ryan Jensen gets the machine ready. That’s a lot of demitasse cups! Below, from left to right, David, Wendy, Justine, me, and Julian pause for a photo between shots.