My visit to Mr. Espresso was probably the most convoluted bit of planning I’ve engaged in for some time. After my full review of Coffee Bar (as opposed to my preliminary one), Luigi Di Ruocco invited me to visit Mr. Espresso’s roasting facility. At the time, I was feeling a bit too overwhelmed to take him up on the offer. By the time I was finally ready, several months had passed. We then both battled colds and a few other conflicts until finally, the tour actually happened. I should say that Luigi was incredibly accommodating throughout this process and both of us considered it something of a milestone that it ever came to fruition.
In case you haven’t heard of Mr. Espresso, you should know that Luigi’s father, Carlos Di Ruocco, started the business back in 1978. Mr. Espresso has been growing ever since, now sourcing coffee, especially their flagship Neapolitan Espresso Blend, to a sizable share of the Bay Area’s cafes and restaurants as well as a number of clients in areas beyond. Unlike the now ubiquitous second wave roasters (e.g. Starbucks and Peet’s), Mr. Espresso has trended largely towards medium roasted coffee even if they do offer a couple of darker roasts (Luigi told me that their French Roast is highly prized for use in Vietnamese coffee). In fact, their lighter roasting and skilled blending put them on the progressive edge of Bay Area coffee for years before Blue Bottle and the subsequent Bay Area third wave roasters burst onto the scene a few years ago. Mr. Espresso therefore falls into what I like to think of as the more progressive half of Coffee’s wave 2.5: they are striving to stay relevant – certainly Coffee Bar and some of their highly regarded single origin coffees are an example – even as they hold on to their traditional Italian Roots.*
For the tour, Luigi showed me around the roasting facility between a couple of shots of espresso since I needed some time to mitigate the effects of the caffeine. The space is large, but not huge and divided into their machine shop and several aisles, ceiling high with espresso machines, both brand new and models from years past. The roasting area is dominated by a couple of sizable roasters. In fact, Mr. Espresso roasts somewhere in the neighborhood of a million pounds a year, making them roughly equivalent in total volume, I believe (current numbers are hard to come by), to roasters like Stumptown or Counter Culture, baring any discussion of growth. Of course this roaster is far from big along the spectrum of roasters, but it is a real bo-hwea-mioth compared to the Probats you typically see in shops.
More interesting is the fact that this roaster runs entirely on wood, which I didn’t get to observe since sadly the roaster, which regularly ran on the day I visited, was down for maintenance (which happened when I visited De La Paz as well – what is this strange phenomenon?). Luigi explained to me that the wood imparts flavor but also gives the human roasters the ability to create a long, low temperature roast that helps produce a less acidic espresso. Of course, the learning curve for this method is understandably tough and I imagine that quality control must be a nightmare. Another reason they use is that it is the traditional Italian method Luigi’s father learned. I’m not sure I’m completely sold on wood roasters and probably wouldn’t take it up if I were to turn my coffee obsession towards roasting, but as long as Mr. Espresso can turn out tasty coffee with it, I’m not sure I’m in any position to comment.
The highlight of the tour for me, of course, was actually consuming the coffee. Luigi guided me to the equipment show room and espresso bar, where clients can check out various new machines, admire some antique ones, and take a look and the history of the company (I sadly didn’t get a good photo of the mechanical mobile tribute to Carlos which is a truly a wonder to behold). While there, Luigi walked me through a series of espressos and single origin coffees. Our session reminded me of the personalized service I received at the Slow Food Nation tasting pavilion or what’s being promised by the soon to be opening IntelliVenice (allegedly now opening May 15th with grand opening May 22nd). The big difference was that there were no lines and no other people waiting to be served.
Luigi pulled the shots of espresso on their two-group Faema E-61, which he likens to driving a classic car. It takes a bit of work to get it back into shape and since it’s old, sometimes you can never quite get these machines running smoothly. But when you get everything tuned just right, and you know how to drive it, the E-61 really sings. Of course it’s obvious that Mr. Espresso, steeped in Italian tradition would gravitate towards Faema’s and specifically, Faema’s more classic machines. Not only does it fit their overal image it likely works well with this roasters roasting style.
We started our session with Mr. Espresso’s classic Neapolitan blend, which I’ve had before on a number of occasions. This shot was solidly full of caramel, bitter bakers cocoa and bright without discernible flavors. A nice shot, but perhaps not my favorite blend – it’s lacking a certain je ne sais qua, er, whatever that might be in Italian? Then Luigi said something interesting: “Don’t be afraid to try it with sugar.” I’m typically an espresso purist, but these few words and my subsequent experience really crystallized a lot of what I’ve been reading and thinking about in terms of the intention of the roaster and just how flexible espressos can be. Just a touch of sugar really opened this shot up giving it a bright, orange acidity and an overall fruity sweetness that I didn’t previously detect.
The second shot was the Espresso Di Carlo blend. This espresso was very light with good stone fruit, early peach or perhaps apricot qualities. It’s clearly a shot meant to be savored straight although I imagine could prove interesting in a bit of milk. Overall, it stuck me as a more mellowed and balanced, yet far less punchy version of the peachy Colombian espresso from Ritual that I had last year.
The third and final shot was Mr. Espresso’s Golden Gate blend, which, despite its milquetoast name, packed the most bang for the buck of the three espressos I tried. It’s a medium-bodied espresso, somewhere between the other two in overall tone, but falling into a more spicy vein. What I appreciated most was the way these savory notes balanced extremely well with the sweet orange acidity. This was a very balanced, yet interesting espresso.
In addition to the espresso, Luigi and I tasted two of their single origin coffees: The Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Oromia and the Columbia Riserva Del Diablo. This tasting met mostly with disaster, however; my taste buds were fried from all the espresso – a few comparison shots were indulged in as well. Luigi gave me a bag of each to take home so that’s where I’ll resume this conversation soon.
*Although it’s from a while back, you can also read up on the Mr. Espresso roasting facility here.