Clouds in my coffee

An exploration into Atlanta's espresso offerings

Picture this: Three friends and I, on our way from Frankfurt, have spent a couple of days lazily driving through the Alps to Florence. The otherworldly, almost spiritual scenery of the Alps ultimately gives way to the Autostrada, Italy's system of high-speed toll roads. My hands grip the steering wheel of a ridiculously small rental, as we race in dense traffic going 90 miles an hour. My hair is standing on end. Every 50 miles or so we pull into an Autogrill where I swill shots of smooth espresso just in case my adrenaline dips beneath the mania-inducing level I need to sustain hyper-alertness.

We arrived alive! And I gained a new appreciation for espresso, the coffee Italy has been working obsessively to perfect since 1901 when Luigi Bezzera patented the first high-pressure machine that forced water through coffee compacted in a filter clamped to a valve. The idea was to rapidly extract all of the coffee's best qualities in a few strong ounces.

That brings me to my first point in this primer on espresso in Atlanta. Espresso is not a grind or roast of coffee. It is a method of brewing. The quality of espresso depends on the skill of the person making it, the coffee's blend, and the machine used. There is one place in town to talk to experts — Aurora Coffee, which Booth Buckley of Seattle opened here 12 years ago.

Although there is arguably espresso of comparable quality in a few other locations, I haven't found anywhere else in town with the same degree of artful consistency, particularly in the preparation of espresso drinks requiring frothed milk, like a latte, cappuccino or my favorite, a macchiato — straight espresso marked with a dollop of foamed milk. Aurora's latte is legendary because the barristas incorporate the frothed milk into the main body of the drink, producing an unusually creamy effect.

Aurora has, from the beginning, purchased its coffee from the roaster Batdorf and Bronson, according to Betsy Buckley, Booth's sister, who operates the shops. In fact, Aurora teamed up with the company to open a roasting plant here about five years ago. "Specialty companies send me coffee to test all the time," Betsy said, "but I've yet to find anything that's as good."

Most people presume espresso is a uniformly dark-roasted coffee but Aurora's is actually five blended coffees, some roasted dark and some medium. You can order Batson and Batdorf espresso at other places — Outwrite Books, for example — but the taste very much depends on the barrista. "Every barrista develops their own style," said Betsy, "but certain things have to be followed. The grinding has to be right, of course. It has to be tamped correctly in the filter basket. Then the heat has to be right. You can't pull the shot too slowly or too rapidly — 18 to 24 seconds, 26 at the outside for a double. The shape of the coffee as it leaves the filter should be concave on a double shot. We even have to pay attention to the humidity in the shop."

The result, if you've ordered a double shot — and you should, since doubles extract the coffee's best qualities — should be 2 to 2.5 ounces served in a warmed porcelain cup. A cool cup will instantly suck the heat from the brew.

My double shot prepared by Christopher Jones was nearly perfect, topped by a substantial layer of the oily golden emulsion called crema. The taste was smooth, almost sweet at moments, with some acidic notes. I caught a nutty aroma. Then I ordered a double macchiato. The milk seemed to smooth out the acidic notes.

"People don't understand that the darker you roast a coffee, the sweeter it is because the sugars caramelize more," Betsy explained when I noted that Aurora's espresso was sharper than Illy brand, the Italian import I buy at Williams-Sonoma for home use. "It's really a matter of taste but we go for something a bit more complex. There should be a light bitter note but nothing strong enough to leave an aftertaste."

I have noticed that Illy satisfies me more as an after-dinner brew. As far as I know, the only coffee bar in town serving it is the new Caffe Midtown on Peachtree (which also serves excellent lunch and dinner). Illy's smooth quality is flawless straight up after a meal, but when you want to meditate over something more complex by itself, it doesn't seem quite as satisfying. Further, Caffe Midtown's espresso tends to flatten when combined with milk. The cafe uses an automated machine, verboten at Aurora, though Betsy agreed that in high-volume shops with frequent turnover of poorly trained barristas, like Starbucks, they aren't a bad idea.

Illy coffee, by the way, offers a remarkable bargain if you subscribe to its home subscription service. You can buy a state-of-the-art Francis machine at a huge discount. Consult illyusa.com.

Italy's most popular espresso is Lavazza and it is the house brew at Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbagetown. I love the stuff. It has a very full body, substantial crema, aromatic complexity and a taste as playful as wine. The quality does depend on the barrista, though. I haven't found a local vendor of Lavazza but it is available from many Internet sites, including wholelattelove.com.

Starbucks does not serve the worst espresso in town that I've sampled lately though its brew as a whole is way too bitter much of the time. Its milk drinks are outrageously short on espresso. (But, hey, I love the creature comforts and staff at the Ansley shop.) Caribou's espresso is uniformly dreadful. I sampled it in two different shops and each time received an undrinkably bitter brew, probably from running the water through the coffee too long. The absolute worst I sampled was from the cafe inside Borders on Ponce de Leon. Its crema was a lonely little trail floating atop acid.

Finally, a word of caution. Don't drink 10 cups of espresso in a day, as I did for this column. Piedmont Avenue turned into the Autostrada and a cop issued me a warning for speeding.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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