Demystifying Third Wave Coffee in Malaysia – Part 2

I once heard someone say, “It’s black; short, slick, and syrupy when done right. Acidy, fruity, nutty, sweet, juicy, and bright; resonating emulsified heroin.” When you read this description, you would then realize that it’s a far cry to the espressos being served at typical chain-styled cafés. Most Malaysians have a perception that espressos are bitter, burnt, smoky, ash-y and would generally shy away from ordering them and it might have been a true description of espresso previously. Most might also be curious to why such a small drink would cost so much. However, with the current influx of ‘third-wave’ cafes and their pursuit for that elusive cup that’s been termed ‘the god shot’, I believe the general perception of espressos is about to change.


“The God Shot” is what would be referred to by many baristas as the perfect espresso shot – a cup that would taste like heaven, whether to the seasoned coffee connoisseur or an inexperienced espresso drinker. Most baristas aim to achieve ‘the god shot’ but rarely succeed due to the volatile nature of coffee beans as well as the many variables involved, some which are out of a barista’s control. In order to achieve ‘the god shot’, a barista would have to consider the many variables that could affect the extracted cup, from water quality, temperature, equipment used, extraction time to even storage. Other variables, which so often affect the quality of the beans and are out of the baristas control, could be anything from the coffee farms, to the processing methods, roasting, packaging and even shipping.


While the main attraction of the coffee trend begins with latte art, many would realize a latte guises the taste of what the coffee should be. For an espresso to be perfect, it takes a full understanding of the coffee, roast profile, machine capability, grind technology, coffee origin and brewing parameters.


An espresso hides nothing and accentuates the very skill of the barista as even the smallest change to the brewing parameters would affect its flavour. This is known as ‘the butterfly effect.’


The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines an espresso as a “30 ml (1 ounce) beverage that is prepared from 7 – 9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 192˚ – 198˚F (88˚ – 92˚C) has been forced at 9 – 10 atmospheres of pressure, where the grind of the coffee has made the brewing "flow" time approximately 22 – 28 seconds. While brewing, the flow of espresso will appear to have the viscosity of warm honey and the resulting beverage will exhibit a thick dark gold cream foam ("crema") topping. Espresso is usually prepared specifically for, and immediately served to its intended consumer.”


So what is an espresso? David Schomer, in his “Espresso Coffee” book, calls it a “polyphasic colloidal foam made by forcing pressurized brewing water through finely ground, tightly packed coffee.” In Wikipedia you will find that an espresso is defined as “coffee brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans. Espresso is generally thicker than coffee brewed by other methods, has a higher concentration of suspended and dissolved solids, and has crema on top (a foam with a creamy consistency). As a result of the pressurized brewing process, the flavors and chemicals in a typical cup of espresso are very concentrated.”


As described by SCAA, a traditional espresso would use 7 grams of finely ground coffee for a single 30 ml shot of espresso, brewed within 25 to 30 seconds. However, in many ‘third-wave’ cafes today, it is not surprising to find them using 18 to 22 grams of coffee to enhance the experience and to cater to the rising demand for stronger coffee. Suffice to say most baristas would find ‘the god shot’ elusive with the number of variables to consider. Today, the knowledge of the bean and its origin helps to facilitate a better understanding of the changes needed to make great espressos. Still, depending on what the café owner wants to achieve with the coffee, many baristas would opt for either a double espresso (doppio) or a double ristretto (short espresso) in their coffee based beverages.


So what should a great espresso look like?


Firstly the balance and harmony of sweetness, bitterness, body, acidity and aftertaste. It should present itself as decadent but pleasant, a true hedonistic drink. An espresso should never be too bitter in taste. The acidity should be bright but not piercing or sharp, and the body should be syrupy and thick.


Overpowering bitterness may be caused by over extraction, high temperature levels, overly fine grind sizes and over-dosing. Dark roasted coffees could be one of the factors as well. An under extracted espresso might taste sour, flat and watery. This may be caused by under-dosing, low temperatures, coarse grinds and a shorter extraction time.


Sometimes people equate the thick foam called crema as an indication of a good espresso. On the contrary, the crema is flat and bitter. It does indicate a few things; a thick crema could mean that the beans are very fresh and the opposite usually indicates stale coffee. A thick and dense crema could also indicate that there are robusta coffee beans present in the espresso blend.


Are all great espressos good for milk based coffee?


Absolutely not! There are some amazing espressos made with single origin beans which may not work in a café latte or cappuccino due to the synergy of flavours between the milk and espresso. From my observation, it could take a while for a barista to really understand the beans; through calibration, experimenting with various grammage and brew times. Only through experimenting would a barista be able to fully gauge the full potential of the beans they are working with.


So go ahead and ask your barista some of these questions. What do you have in the hopper? What brewing parameters are you using? What flavour profiles will I expect to find in your espresso? How was it roasted? What do you like about your espresso? Would it go well with milk? Would it be nice as a ristretto? How fresh are your beans? Where is it from?


All said and done, have a great adventure in tasting espressos. Stay thirsty. Stay curious.

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Daniel Liew

Barista Guild Asia

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