Friday, December 25, 2009

Pitango's Espresso: It's All in the Mix

There has been a major evolution in U.S. coffee culture over the past two or three decades. In the post-war era, mass-produced Robusta coffee was over-roasted and brewed into a crude, generic hot beverage, consumed with much indifference. Then Starbucks introduced the "second wave," turning freshly ground Arabica beans into a consistent quality espresso. A "third wave" started where Starbucks left off. Its concept is to focus on single beans from specific farms, makers and roasters—much like wine aficionados follow preferred vintages of their favorite wines. In this third wave, producers, servers and consumers are treated with a degree of attention to detail and respect never before bestowed on coffee in the American marketplace.

While I applaud the trend to elevate the coffee experience to a higher plane, I do believe it's more of an American phenomenon than an Italian one. I think that the reason you are almost guaranteed to have a good coffee every time you order an espresso in Italy is simple: In Italy sloppy coffee will put any bar out of business, and any marriage in divorce court. On the other hand, U.S. consumers will politely tolerate almost any coffee. Therefore, a decent espresso in this country is more an act of love than an act of duty and arrives more often as a result of an individual barista's enthusiasm than from what the public considers an acceptable standard.

When we introduced coffee in Pitango's Fells Point location a few years ago, we started with Illy Caffè. My family is from Trieste, Illy’s hometown, so it was an automatic and safe choice. We also carried an organic coffee from a local micro-roaster, Zekes of Baltimore, just because we wanted to offer an organic product.

Thomas Rhodes (pictured below), the owner of Zekes, has succeeded in turning his company's small size into an advantage by roasting small batches of single beans in high-precision equipment, which is how I got sucked into the vortex of the “third wave” coffee experience. Over a year or so, we changed coffee varieties many times. I developed a special fondness for Huehuetenango's earthy and complex flavor, and Brazilian Poco Fundo, not only as a stand-alone coffee but also because it combines beautifully to create our Caffè Espresso gelato.

One issue that I had with Huehuetenango is that it produces less crema than other beans. (Crema is the creamy essence that tops a proper espresso.) With Thomas's knowledgeable help, we created a blend, adding Monsooned Malabar beans which imparted a distinct chocolate note and improved the crema dramatically. From that point on, I was totally sold on making our own custom blend, which we continued to fine-tune right in the store to get the best results out of our Faema 61. Although from then on, we were no longer purists about the “third wave” concept, the Pitango Miscela Bar blend was born.

We carefully monitored customer reaction, letting regulars know that we made a change to our coffee and asking for comments. This was important because while our tasting is done with straight-up espresso, much of our coffee ends up being consumed as a cappuccino and some beans will perform magic when blended with milk that others do not.

This pretty much sums up our approach to coffee. We learned that, paradoxically, you actually have to have lot of flexibility if your expectations are inflexible. Of course, it helps to have an enthusiastic roaster on board who is willing to build and maintain the mix’s profile as various beans change over time. For us, the true meaning of coffee's “third wave” is not having to rely on "good-enough" coffee from a big-name maker when we can instead produce our own extraordinary coffee from the best beans on the market today.

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