Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sampling Espresso

I'm not much of a coffee drinker anymore. There's something in coffee that triggers an anxiety response in me. It's not caffeine, I can drink plenty of caffeine in other types of drinks without anxiety kicking in, and since I get the same anxious feeling after drinking decaf, it's pretty clear that whatever it is, it's only in coffee. 

I used to be a total coffee freak and lived with the side effect until I quit all caffeine drinks for a few months and noticed how much mellower I felt. It was only through clinical trials (adding coffee back) that I determined that coffee was the culprit.

Once in a while, though, maybe once a week, I get a hankering for some espresso. But finding good espresso is not always so easy, despite the proliferation of chains like Starbucks and Peets, as well as smaller, local coffee roasters and houses here in the PNW. 

How many people even drink espresso, and why does it matter? In Italy, it's mother's milk. Even truck stops are packed with burly men ordering and downing espresso. 

Which brings me to Issue #1: speed. Espresso means "fast" in Italian. You order an espresso, you get an espresso, usually within 60 seconds or less. But here I find myself standing line behind some tense soccer mom wearing a ball cap ordering a venti half decaf frappuccino, then waiting for the barrista to make that coffee-flavored milkshake. Frankly, that's anathema to the concept of speed. Coffee houses need to have two lines: a slow one for folks who order coffee with issues; and a fast one for the person who wants a shot of espresso or a cup of joe. 

Issue #2 is, of course, grown men ordering anything fancier than an espresso or a cup of coffee. Men, stop ordering sugary drinks with whipped cream on top and a straw. You're embarrassing yourself and you're an embarrassment to all men. Stop waxing your chest, tweezing your eyebrows, and grow a pair. Sugary drinks are fine for women and children, totally pussy for a man. 

So. Back to the matter at hand. 

If you don't like espresso, then what's so important about it? 

Simple: it's the backbone for nearly all the wussier drinks. 

If a pizza shop can't make a decent Pizza Margherita, which consists of only flour, salt, water, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil, then heaping more crap on the dough just hides that fact. Likewise, I know several Japanese men who order tamago (egg) when they visit a new sushi shop because you really can't get any simpler than that: if the chef can't get it right, there's some doubt about the rest of his offerings. By the same token, if a coffee house can't make a delicious cup of espresso, then adding other stuff to the drink is just window dressing, like putting perfume on a turd. 

That's what's so important about espresso.

So herewith, I begin my review of straight espresso sampled in downtown Bend. 

[Addition, 15 December 2008: a roaster for one of Bend's coffee shops emailed me to discuss the realities of meeting customer expectations. It turns out that Americans like their drinks so milky and so sweet that traditional Italian ristretto espresso -- the kind that I like, the kind that Italians like, the kind God, presumably, likes, my personal Gold Standard of espresso -- doesn't work so well. It never occurred to me that coffee shops have tuned their espresso to work best with girly drinks (another reason for me to despise the men who order them. Cut it out).  So is it even fair to review standalone espresso knowing that most shops have to address the larger market? I think so if only for the few, the heroic, the purists who like their espresso straight.]

Chocolat et Gâteaux: Tasted December 5, 2008. Lively and rich, with good balance between acid and body. The best I've tasted in Bend so far.  Owner Armand Speidel is an espresso purist and doesn't cater to the milk and sugar coffee crowd.
Bellatazza: Tasted December 10 (ish), 2008. Quite acidic, even sour. Not much richness. Not at all lively. 
Balay: Tasted December 14, 2008. Also pretty sour, but some mild bitterness and richness promote it a couple notches better than Bellatazza.
Thump: Tasted December 16, 2008. Yikes -- very sour. Like battery acid. 
Backporch Coffee Roasters: Tasted December 18, 2008. Tasted like the beans had been burnt in the roasting process, and with an overall sour taste. Second tasting, Feb 5, 2009: Yikes. Really really sour and bitter. 
Cafe Sintra: Tasted December 19, 2008. Pretty okay! Not quite Chocolat et Gâteaux, but not sour, either. 
Starbucks: To be fair I have to review it. 
Di Lusso Coffee Bakery (downtown): Tasted December 30, 2008. Like Cafe Sintra's, Di Lusso's espresso is quite drinkable. 
McKay Cottage: Tasted Jan 1, 2009. Feh. Remarkably bad. A flat, dull shot which suggested a cup of my mother's Maxwell House Instant more than it did espresso. 
Sarayu's: Tasted Jan 13, 2009. One sample was quite good, the second pretty bitter. repeatability is probably a challenge at some of these shops. 
Jackson's Corner: Tasted Jan 25, 2009. The nice fellow working the espresso machine did his best. He tried twice to pull a shot that he liked, and had no luck. He served me his second attempt but wasn't proud of it. The machine, he said, was old and sometimes it did a good job, sometimes not. Same for the grinder. Or it could have been the mass of onions they were chopping in the kitchen, maybe. Didn't charge me for the shot. It was sour, like Thump and Bellatazza. 
The Human Bean Drive-Thru: Tasted Jan 26, 2009. I asked for a short pull of espresso. What I got was 3oz of a dark brown liquid that tasted like strong instant coffee. McKay Cottage and The Human Bean both have quite a lot to answer for.
Sisters Coffee Company (Bond Street in bend): Tasted  Jan 31, 2009. Owner David was pretty proud of his new Faema espesso machine. His first pull was very acidic, so he tried again using a shorter pull and switching from a heavy stainless tamper to a ligher aluminum one and thereby not tamping the grounds as tightly. This one was much tastier. 

I plan to add to this page as circumstances bring me near commercial espresso machines. The establishments are listed pretty much in chronological order, as I visit them, and the comments reflect my purely subjective taste in matters espresso: I can't claim to be an expert, although I have been lucky to have had amazing coffee in Tokyo, Vienna, Milan, Rome, and Paris. 


  1. Hi Jack and Mrs. Elliott!

    My name is Tara and I work at Sarayu's!

    I found your blog while making the Sarayu's blog. Im glad you had a halfway enjoyable experience at Sarayu's and we hope you come back soon to do another tasting. Our espresso machine is fully manual so it takes a little getting used to (I'm pretty sure we are the only ones in town with a fully manual machine). Not that that is any excuse for your second bitter shot, but I thought I'd give a shout out and tell you to come on back and we hope to see you soon.

    Also, check out Sarayu's new Blog

    Thanks so much!


  2. Hi Tara -- I'll certainly swing by again.

  3. How about Dudley's on Minnesota St?

  4. I did have an espresso from Dudley's a couple weeks ago. It was pretty good! I need to make the rounds again with a re-calibrated palate.

  5. You have absolutely no clue what you are talking about. You have been drinking dark crap probably your whole life and enjoy the worst shots in town. Bug off and head back to CA.

  6. PS_ Never trust a barista that alters their tamp over altering the grind.


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