Why Espressos in America are not Good?

I was born in Rome, Italy but now live in San Francisco, CA where there is a big focus and excitement surrounding coffee; not just American coffee but Italian Espresso, Cappuccino and everything in between — unfortunately the espresso coffee is mostly terrible.

Fancy Marzocco machines…

Coffee shops/bars spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in interior design, purchase fancy $40,000 Marzocco machines, and offer pre packaged coffees designed like Apple products. At the peak of this frenzy is “Purple” Bottle Coffee and similar new brands where baristas, embracing their inner hipster, pour your morning cup. Everything seems perfect, except…

You won’t find this espresso in Italy. And baristas in the U.S. take forever.

I’ve asked myself many times, why do Americans fail to deliver a simple good espresso coffee?

Potential variables as to why espressos are so bad here include barista mistakes, water and poor quality of materials. In my unscientific sample of European visitors, nobody understands why espressos taste so different here.

Let’s analyze the whys!

Controllable Variables

  1. The beans are just plain wrong. Purple Bottle Coffee (and similar) won’t sell a package in Italy. Their coffee has a weird, strong backdoor taste (that comes from unroasted green center of the bean). It’s not authentic. They want to look superior like a mix of a coffee and a fruity Sauvignon Blanc, which is covering the coffee’s true flavor. Sometimes it’s even salty! This American third wave of coffee brew method is terrible, reacting to Starbucks dark roast by aiming for a lighter roast but still get the bean roasted all the way through without much purpose. Most common brands in Italy are Danesi, Lavazza (cheapest), Illy and Kimbo, these brands, whose beans are sourced from South America, are available on Amazon. Use those. No fancy packaging. If you want to go to another level try Passalacqua “in Naples” or Eustachio “coffee is wood roasted using a blend of South American beans; the beans are not too dark and not too oily, there is an essential spicy and also somewhat woody sweetness to them; and there’s a bit of acid that melds perfectly with the foam of their Grand Caffe”. In US the beans are over-roasted, tending to bitterness.
  2. Baristas push too hard on the coffee grounds. This process must be done with a delicate hand; ultimately, the machine will press the coffee. Don’t over press. Let the grounds breathe a bit.
  3. Wrong Machines: Grinders are the most important tool. Baristas need to grind the coffee as fine as possible. Coffee machines don’t matter much as long as they are strong professional lines. Marzocco has a great marketing strategy in the U.S., but in Italy No One buys these transparent, expensive machines. They all have a Cimbali. There is nothing fancy about a Cimbali, but the coffee is perfect. Once a year I get to return home and visit family; upon landing, I immediately get an espresso at the airport from a Cimbali machine with Danesi beans. In the first sip I get back all the true tastes of a quality coffee.
  4. Be fast! In the U.S. baristas take around 3 minutes to make an espresso. Insane! A barista would be fired if they did that in Rome (which btw has the best coffee bar in the world, called Eustachio. People who have been there from every party of the world recognize the unique experience and the superiority — it’s a small place, with only 2 machines it does 400 coffees per hour at peak times, ). Making a regular espresso should take 30 seconds from grinding beans to being served. Here they take too much time making fancy moves, pressing the grounds too hard, and making it too long. Coffee is not a red wine that needs to be aged, it should be made and served quickly.
  5. No turnover. One reason service is faster in Italy is because the same barista and machines have been making coffee for many years, sometimes even decades. The barista has made an espresso so many times their movements are damn fast, like a boxing champion. By working at the same bar and using the same machine for years they become a master. Like a sushi chef that takes 10 years experience to make good rice, a great barista must practice their art.
  6. Machines are old and used hundreds of times per day. The more you use a machine the more its mechanics inside will taste of coffee and produce better quality. Don’t buy a brand new machine. It takes years to have the internal cylinders and tubes smell like coffee.
  7. Too long. Espresso has to be short, very short. A perfect pour is no more than half of an espresso cup, not 3/4. Sometimes I’ve been handed an almost full cup. Forget the “Double Espresso” mania. Nobody drinks those in Italy. A single shot espresso should be strong enough. Double espressos ruin the quality and the original taste.

Outside Variables

  1. Air, Humidity and Pressure. Believe it or not air pressure and humidity impact a food’s taste as much as the ingredients.
  2. Water. Water quality is probably the biggest factor on why coffee, pasta and pizza taste better in Italy. The water has more calcium and a different combination of minerals; additionally, Italy has less added chlorine (the Bay Area has a strongly chlorinated water). In most cases it’s pure by default, as its already filtered by mother nature (Naples for examples has great pizza and coffee because they have volcano filtered water with tons of good minerals). An entrepreneurial coffee shop owner could import water from Italy (not commercial bottles but tap water — I know, it’s crazy).
  3. Brands. Some coffee brands and tools aren’t available in the U.S. market, thus the choices are limited.

To be honest there are many things local baristas do right:

  • Warming cups upfront
  • Using thick cups
  • Art/Design on top of the Cappuccino foam (they still have to learn this on the other side of the world)
  • Serving the espresso with a cup of sparkling water (this culture comes from the old days of Naples, where we used to cleanse our mouth with fresh, sparkling water before testing all the good aroma of the coffee).

Ultimately, why do espressos cost $3.50 in SF? In Italy an espresso is $0.90 (Eur-USD conversion). Yes SF is expensive, but 4X more (plus tip), for water and beans?

At Mashape’s office we have adopted the La Nuova Era Quadra ($1,500) machine — it’s compact and makes a good espresso. The La Nuova is perfect for an office where you need something minimal, not professional grade. The machine delivers good quality without the need to have a connection to direct water.

In my opinion the only true Italian Espresso in the Bay Area is made at Cavalli Caffe. It’s a simple small bar with no interior design, no fancy coffee beans, and no extravagant machines. Cavalli is owned and operated by one man from Naples. Located in North Beach the cafe has great handmade tiramisu and cannoli, often their cappuccino is actually better than in Italy.

The big business lesson?

Focus less on the form and more on the substance, the essence.


PS: Cavalli’s owner doesn’t look on Houzz for a better bar design, but every morning he pats the simple coffee machine and checks the humidity outside to know if it’s going to be a good or bad coffee day.