Espresso heaven

Leave it to the Italians to invent espresso, that thick coffee extract so sublime and ethereal that one cannot imagine God having his (or her) morning coffee any other way.

Given the almost religious fervor that espresso commands in Italy, you’d think that the beverage has a history as old as the papacy’s. In fact, it has been only a mere century since Luigi Bezzera patented the first espresso machine.

Bezzera’s machine made it possible to quickly produce, while the customer waits, a cup of concentrated, full-bodied coffee with the viscosity of warm honey. The signature feature of espresso is the reddish-gold, foamy emulsion of coffee oils, known as the crema. Properly made, an espresso balances sweetness with bitterness and has a pleasant aftertaste.

While an espresso machine can transform ordinary coffee into an extraordinary elixir, the machine cannot work other miracles. An oft-repeated claim is that espresso contains less caffeine than drip coffee. Believe that if you like, and while you’re at it, tell the pastor that whiskey has less alcohol than altar wine.

Yes, it is true that a two-ounce espresso contains slightly less caffeine than a seven-ounce cup of joe. Make it a seven-ounce espresso, on the other hand, and your nerves will jangle with a caffeine dose equal to about 21 ounces of coffee. Don’t be fooled—espresso is the caffeine equivalent of a shot of booze.

Making excellent espresso demands adherence to the Four Commandments:

Thou shalt blend. Many roasters believe that single-origin coffees do not provide a sufficient spectrum of flavor profiles to produce great espresso.

Thou shalt finely grind. The grind must be fine enough to permit full extraction of the desirable flavor components of the beans without being so fine as to clog up the filtering device.

Thou shalt use the right machine. The machine must combine hot water at the right temperature with sufficient steam pressure to produce an espresso within approximately 22-28 seconds.

Thou shalt be a conscientious barista. The machine operator must quickly and expertly perform a number of tasks, including tamping the grounds, extracting the correct amount of water and cleaning the equipment after each use.

Fortified by the espresso gospel, we set off on a pilgrimage to compare the espresso of five coffeehouses in Midtown. We examined cost, presentation, quantity, temperature, crema and flavor. We visited the 800-pound gorilla (Starbucks), an independent that uses non-locally roasted beans (The Naked Lounge), an independent that uses locally roasted beans (Capitol Garage), an independent that roasts its own beans (New Helvetia) and a local roaster-turned-corporate-chain (Java City).

We ordered two double espressos at each coffeehouse. We asked that one of the drinks be prepared “to go” so that we could immediately measure quantity and temperature without making the coffeehouse look like the setting for a laboratory experiment. Given the discipline necessary to make great espresso, it is not surprising that we found wide variations in quality.

Starbucks (1601 P St., 447-1968) charged $1.65 for a double espresso, which measured a paltry one-and-three-quarter ounces (the other coffeehouses averaged three ounces). All of Starbucks’ coffees are served in disposable containers, which is disappointing for espresso traditionalists who prefer a heated cup and saucer.

The temperature came in at 144 degrees, plenty warm, but easily gulpable. The crema nicely blanketed the surface, and the flavor was smooth, balanced and strong, with a dark-roasted, bittersweet chocolate flavor. Other than the disposable container and small quantity, this was a respectable espresso.

A sign at The Naked Lounge (1500 Q St., 442-0174) claims that their baristas put in 100 hours of training prior to touching an espresso machine. Jeez, the owners must be seminary-style taskmasters. The sign also said that The Naked Lounge only uses “grand cru” beans that are in the top 2 percent of all coffee produced.

For $1.75, you get three ounces in a heated china cup. The thermometer read 157 degrees, which we found to be a pleasing level of warmth. The crema floated thickly on the surface and coated the palate with each sip. The flavor was full-bodied, well balanced and clean finishing. The Naked Lounge’s espresso was heavenly, worthy of canonization.

Capitol Garage (1427 L St., 444-3633) was a comparative letdown. Three-and-one-quarter ounces of espresso ($1.85) were served rather carelessly in a regular coffee mug, with a few spent coffee grounds clinging inside. The espresso, served at 158 degrees, was strong and balanced, but the crema disappeared within moments, leaving behind a brew that did not achieve espresso viscosity.

New Helvetia (1215 19th St., 443-2239) served up the espresso ($1.60) in a cup and saucer. The three-and-one-quarter ounces of espresso came in at a scalding 179 degrees, by far the hottest of all espressos sampled. Like Capitol Garage, the crema vanished quickly, though the flavor of the coffee was balanced and strong. Again, however, the effect was that of an especially strong cup of coffee, rather than a thick espresso.

Java City (1800 Capitol Ave., 444-5282) doesn’t sell a true double espresso. You can order a “short” (single espresso) or a “long” (same amount of coffee grounds as a single, but more water is released from the machine to produce a quantity equal to a double espresso). We ordered the “long” ($1.94 with tax).

The three-ounce espresso, at 149 degrees, came in the same type of china cup we liked at the Naked Lounge, and even included a heated saucer. The thick crema equaled the best of the evening. The “long” looked promising.

But one sip indicated that the balance was out of whack, with bitterness leaping to the foreground. We suspect that Java City’s policy of running extra water through the grounds leaches out additional bitter oils. They should repent and make a true double espresso, rather than a single espresso with double the water.

So there you have it. We genuflect to The Naked Lounge, a coffeehouse with seminarian-style training and grand cru beans. As for the others, well, a multitude of sins can be hidden by steamed milk, hot chocolate, whipped cream, sugar, flavored syrups and other frilly vestments. But we suggest that the coffeehouse brethren re-read the Four Commandments, and set their gaze on the Promised Land.