The bright blue lights of a WBC edition Simonelli espresso machine stare back at me from behind Caffe Umbria's bar as I order my solo espresso from the barista. It is, for all my espresso-themed Seattle adventures, my first visit to the historic Umbria location in Pioneer Square. Or I should say, Umbria's location in one of Pioneer Square's historic buildings, as Umbria itself has only been occupying the space by name for a few short years.
(All espresso should be served with chocolate.)
The barista sets my single shot of espresso on the bar, in a demitasse more full than many speciality coffee shops' doubles would fill it. The crema is thick, richly colored, with impressive persistence. I stir it inquisitively, pick up the cup, and take a sip. The flavor - following promising aroma with full body and complexity - hits squarely in the center of my tongue, with surprising bite. The beautiful, syrupy, perfectly scented shot is bitter, which brings me, after lengthy preamble, to the point: I need to print a retraction.
Caffe Umbria's "Italian Style" espresso, with its thick crema, reminds me that I wrote a blog several weeks ago defining the three parts of espresso: crema, body, and heart. I explained, in that post, that the heart was bitter and the crema sweet. And within a day or two, had received a note from Trabant Coffee's Neil Oney, requesting a coffee date.
The coffee date, it turned out, was his gracious way of booking an opportunity to correct me on my definitions. All conventional articles published on the topic put aside, after an hour or so spent sampling tiny bits of espresso, nabbed from various points and stages in the shot-brewing process, I was convinced: I'd gotten my facts exactly backwards.
The heart of the espresso is sweet. When hot water hits the grounds, the first thing extracted from them is sugar. It is dark, heavy, and settles into the bottom of the cup. The next layer of chemistry and molecules dancing about and playing off each other makes up the body of the espresso shot.
The crema - that last bit on the top, which makes the espresso shot so appealing and pretty, and which everyone obsesses over - is primarily composed of tiny molecular compounds, like cellulose, giving it its mottled color as well as an earthy, woody, startling flavor somewhat akin to roasted green peppers. Bitter. The crema... is bitter. A necessary, lovely component of complexity; and, bitter.
Caffe Umbria's espresso reminded me of this, because it was a perfect texture, a perfect color, and an utterly unexpected taste. It wasn't burnt; it wasn't bad. But it was startling to someone grown so accustomed to Northwest-style specialty, single-origin coffees which often strive for light, bright fruit-forward flavors, leaning on the sugars inherent in coffee and shying away from sharper elements which appear later in the extraction process.
The Caffe space occupied by Umbria is gorgeous and deserves a visit, even if you don't drink coffee. If you do drink coffee, Umbria's brew is quality, and (pursuing an Italian ideal that, in Italy, is determined by the inclusion of the far more stridently flavored Robusta coffees, alongside the Arabica beans we have come to know in this area of the world) provides a significantly different "target" flavor profile from much of what you will find on Seattle's coffee scene.
Caffe Umbria is located at 320 Occidental Avenue South. Stop by for coffee and a pastry from 6am-6pm on weekdays, 7am-6pm Saturdays, or 8am-5pm on Sunday afternoons.