company - education - coffee

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Brian Quinn on the ristretto

"I think ristrettos can be very limiting, and in many instances, are often compensating for poor green quality. Or, put differently, ristrettos often compensate for darker roasts, which are often compensating for poor green quality.

A traditional double - by traditional, I mean ~1.75 ounces of liquid pulled in ~25 seconds - pulled from high quality, lightly roasted beans can offer incredible nuances that make ristrettos taste dull and flat in comparison. You can get higher-toned flavors and aromas of citrus, berries, and flowers that are just crushed by the overwhelming mid-tone flavors in ristretto pulls. You appreciate the sense of balance and range in the coffee as well - those higher notes playing against the more "typical" flavors of chocolate, nuts, and tobaccos in the coffee.

I made a point about green quality, because ristrettos can also smooth out defects or detracting notes in a coffee. You can take a funky, fermented Yirg or an overwhelmingly earthy Sumatran, and knock down those flavors by roasting dark. You can also knock them down by overdosing the basket and tightening the grind. That high note of wild strawberry funk, and that deep note of wood and earth get knocked down - because, in my opinion and experience, the ristretto pull tends to underextract the higher and lower notes in a coffee.

And some coffees, in my opinion - even high quality coffees - taste terrible when pulled as a ristretto. Terroir's Southern Italian (yes, I mean the darker roast) tastes like ash when I push the dose into the 18-21g range. At 16g, you get a nice mellow cup with some great flavors of pecans and hazlenuts, with some chocolate and citrus on the edges. And in no way does that cup lack in flavor or intensity. It's just different.

I'd also say that in my experience, darker roasts and tighter pulls are actually easier to do at home than the more traditional double. Paradoxically, I find ristrettos FAR more tolerant of distribution issues than lighter doses and lighter roasts.

When I first got into higher quality espresso, I used to really like ristrettos. Lately, I find them to be pretty boring. I don't know if you're into wine at all, but for me, ristrettos remind of the whole California cab craze 10-15 years ago. You had these wines coming out with incredible body and extraction - thick, inky, tongue-coating wines. And some of those wines were great, but many were really relying on extraction to make up for lackluster / boring fruit flavors. They turned my head at the time because of the mouthfeel, but as time went by, I started to really appreciate the incredible finesse and clarity that a great Bordeaux or Burgundian wine offers, or a top quality California Pinot Noir. The latter three wines, for me, are the best analogy for what a great traditional double offers.

So, no, I don't think ristrettos should be the default pour at all."
Brian on