published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Espresso is the foundation of coffee drinks, but few locals partake

Matt Skudlarek operates the espresso machine at Pasha Coffee and Tea in St. Elmo.
Matt Skudlarek operates the espresso machine at Pasha Coffee and Tea in St. Elmo.
Photo by Alex Washburn.

First off, there is no 'x' in espresso. The flavorful drink served in a tiny cup called a demitasse retains its Italian roots (and pronunciation) even on this side of the Atlantic.

A mainstay of many European cafes, the espresso shot hasn't caught on as well in the United States as bigger, sweeter drinks such as the cappuccino and latte, local baristas said.

For a drink that appears simple -- two ounces of water shot through 18 to 21 grams of ground coffee beans -- the fragile process of making a good espresso shot melds art and science.

Cafes typically mix multiple beans to bring out diverse and complex flavors in their espresso, which isn't a roast but actually the name of the brewing process, said Aaron Rauch, manager of Camp House Espresso on Williams Street.

Though bean selection is the first step and begins continents away in Africa, South America or Asia, the roasting -- dark, light or medium -- brings out the character of the bean, said Chris Anderson, roastmaster at Rembrandt's Coffee House on High Street.

Once the roast is perfected the next step, Chattz Coffee Co. co-owner Evelyn Wheeler said, is the the grind. Too coarse and water shoots through so quickly it can't catch the beans' flavor. Too fine and the water will sit in the portafilter longer than it should, creating a bitter aftertaste.

Wheeler said her baristas adjust the grind to balance the drink's taste throughout the day. Air temperature and humidity can throw off how a grind will release its flavor in the brewing.

Brian Turner, co-owner of Cadence Coffee Co. on Patten Parkway, said the barista must then tamp the grounds with the right amount of pressure to hold them in place as the water travels through. The cafe has a pressure measuring device ensuring exactly 40 pounds of pressure for the tamping.

An espresso shot is meant to be consumed within the 20- to 30-second window after it is pulled to capture the full flavor of the process, said Matt Skudlarek, manager of Pasha Coffee and Tea on St. Elmo Avenue.

A light, almost rust-colored dark foam called crema sits atop a freshly pulled shot and should stick to the sides of the demitasse when swirled, he said.

Drink the shot before the crema falls to savor the full quality of the beverage, Skudlarek says.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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