Traditionally, most espresso blends are based on one or several high quality Brazil arabicas, some washed, some dry processed (or pulped natural). African coffees are added for winey acidity or enzymatic flowery, fruitiness, or a high grown Central American for a cleaner acidity. The past few years their has been a shift in the approach to espresso blends and even espresso roasts, with brighter coffees and lighter roasts.
Dry processed coffees are responsible for the attractive crema on the cup (crema is a result of other mechanical factors in the extraction process as well). Wet-processed Central Americans add positive aromatic qualities. Robustas, or coffea canephora, are used in some blends to increase body, produce crema and add a particular bite to the cup. The notion that true “continental”espresso blends have Robusta is nonsense! In fact the coffee samples from small Italian roasters Sweet Maria’s has (in green form) appear to be very mild, sweet blends with about 40% Brazil Dry-process, 40% Colombian and 20%+ Centrals, like Guatemalan. For bite and earthiness you can use a DP Ethiopian like Sidamo or Djimma. It’s fun to play with Robusta but they personally don’t like it too much beyond experimentation.
A Colombian-based espresso blend offers a sharper, sweeter flavor but won’t result in as much crema production.
You can blend by the seat of your pants (not recommended) or make your process of establishing the coffees and the percentages logical. Start by developing the base, the backdrop in terms of flavor and a coffee that provides the kind of body, roast flavor and crema you like. I suggest Brazils, although Colombian or Mexican coffees are also viable options.
A good approach is to roast your select base coffee to different roast degrees in then pulling shots of each to understand the spectrum of flavors this particular bean has. Get familiar with this cup and imagine what you would like to improve it (if you find it just fine as is, then you have no need to continue!)
- Do you want it to be sharper and sweeter, with more aromatics? Perhaps you will want to add Central American coffees. Watch out with percentages above 25%, particularly if you like a lighter espresso roast. You will be losing some crema and body.
- Do you want more body and sweetness? Use a clean Indonesian like a Sulawesi or a premium Sumatra. You will be losing some sharpness. You can go up to 50% with one of these,
- Do you want an earthy aggressive bite and more pungency? Try a dry-processed Ethiopian. Harar is brighter and more aromatic with fruitiness and ferment. Sidamo has great pungency in the darker roasts, fruitier in the lighter roasts. Djimma is not so fruity and less bright but adds earthiness. These produce great crema. I often enjoy straight shots of these coffees, but keep it to 25% or so in most blends.
- Do you want spicy pungency? Try a Yemeni coffee. These add ferment too, and great crema. Sweet Maria’s suggest keeping this to 50% or less (normally 25% or so) in blends.
- Do you want extreme bite? Try an Aged coffee, a Monsooned coffee or Robusta. Aged and Monsooned coffees add certain funky tastes that you will love, or perhaps hate. Give them a try to find out. Robusta – Sweet Maria’s suggest not going above 15% with them. The Monsooned Robusta can get up to 25%..
- An Italian blend is a very simple blend, as it should be. It is dominated by Brazilian coffee. Sweet Maria’s chose 50% of a clean dry-process coffee (not fruity, not a Poco Fundo type natural) and 50% of a pulp natural (avoiding ones with too much acidity, like our fine Carmo de Minas coffees). Then there is a Central America component to add structure and some articulation; they greatly prefer a balanced El Salvador coffee of Bourbon cultivar here, such as the Matalapa Estate. Again, avoid acidity and chose a coffee that is balanced. There are balanced Guatemalas that work well too. Finally, there is the Robusta! It MUST be a clean washed type robusta that cups well on it’s own. These are NOT easy to find, and are often more expensive than arabicas. We relied on India parchment robustas for this. The recipe:
- 70% Brazil (a blend of a clean dry-processed coffee and a pulped natural one)
- 15% Central America (El Salvador bourbon or balanced Guatemala for instance)
- 15% Robusta (clean, washed)
There you have it, the “Open Source” code for Classic Italian. Not that complicated, eh? Well, it comes down to a lot of work selecting the right coffees to optimize the cup quality and maintain consistency. That is the hard part my friends. If you want to build this blend yourself, just avoid sharp acidic coffees, avoid fruity coffees, and look for restrained, balanced flavor profiles. It will turn out well if you do … –Tom