The Rorschach Espresso Project


The Rorschach Espresso Project

Posted on Sunday, April 20, 2014 - 2:45pm By Michael Harwood

Rorschach Ink Blot Card V

What do you want to perceive when you taste espresso? "Big bodied, bittersweet, and rich" is an oft-heard refrain, but do many of us say that because those qualities are what we actually like best or are we simply conditioned by what has come before? What if I told you that espresso could be something different, even something more? There's nothing wrong with the aforementioned profile, but the current prevailing thought is that only a more developed roast is appropriate for pulling shots. With the popularity of milk-based coffee beverages, it comes as no surprise that we stick to roasts offering heavier bodies and deeper flavors. But what about those folks who don't drink milk-based coffee beverages or those who simply want a sweeter and livelier espresso? I believe it's just as important to satisfy those customers. So that raises some interesting thoughts. If we take more of an interest in our non-dairy customers and the flavor of the espresso on its own, should we roast the same for espresso extraction? Further, would we see the same sales breakdown of milk versus non-milk drinks? And importantly, would that increased focus on and sales of non-milk espresso beverages be a good thing for all parties involved?

With these questions in mind, we set about pulling shots of our filter roasts and were mostly delighted by what we found (not every coffee works). Imagine the sweetest, cleanest shot you've ever had, then crank it up. We love more developed roasts for what they offer, but you can't escape the bitter, roasty flavors they leave behind. This roast pungency hangs around in your cup (smell your used demitasse next time) and on your palate like a guest who has overstayed their welcome. In comparison, an empty demitasse from a filter profile espresso smells sweet, clean, and pleasantly aromatic. You'll find the aftertaste exhibits the same sweet, clean quality. The reason is fairly simple - high quality green coffee seeds (read: ripe harvest, meticulous sorting, very few or no defects) are packed with sucrose. The further we take our roasts, the more we convert those sweet sugars into bitter compounds. This is what makes lighter, filter roasts literally sweeter. If you like sweetness, lighter roast espressos may be for you.

Rorschach Espresso

During our espresso tests, our Bolivia Apolo stood out for its exceptional sweetness. As a pour-over, Apolo delivers a delightful profile of nougat, honey, Nutella, and pear (check it here: With the same filter roast profile, an espresso extraction brings out a sweet bouquet of nougat, pear, and tropical fruit. We were very excited about these flavors, but wanted to see what would happen if we mixed a bit of the filter profile with an equal part espresso profile. The results were pretty mind blowing. We got the best of both worlds - some of the body, moderate sugar browning, and flavor depth you might expect from espresso, mixed with the high sweetness, liveliness, and clarity you find with a filter profile. When we found it pairing well with milk, we knew we were onto something.

This is how our Rorschach Espresso Project came to be as a blend of Bolivia Apolo Filter & Espresso Roasts. We're excited to offer this exceptional coffee experience as a roast mélange, something you don't see everyday. A "mélange" in coffee vernacular is simply a blend of different roast levels of the same coffee. We use blending to find greater balance and complexity. In this case, we are interested in striking a balance between conventional expectations (an espresso should taste like...) and imagination (an espresso can taste like...). When blending these different profiles near 50:50, this balance is attained, making this espresso both familiar and exciting.

To read more about why we blend, here's a blog post flashback:

But isn't lighter roast coffee really sour as espresso? One of the main tricks to extracting pretty much any coffee of any roast level is to understand the ratio of how much coffee to how much water you should use. Upping your water dose generally equals more extraction. A good rule of thumb is that the lighter the roast, the more water you'll need to extract the right balance of flavors from the coffee. The darker the roast is, the less water you'll need. Let's put some numbers to it:

For a Dark Roast (like a French Roast) - 1:1 dose weight to beverage weight ratio, about 1 fluid ounce, called Ristretto
For a Medium Roast (like our Destroyer and Mass Appeal) - 1:2 dose weight to beverage weight ratio, about 2 fluid ounces, called Normale
For a Light Roast (like our filter roast coffees) - 1:3 dose weight to beverage weight ratio, about 3 fluid ounces, called Lungo

See our Espresso Recipes chart for more reference:
Espresso Recipes

Imagine you're dosing 20 grams into your portafilter basket. For that dark roast, you'd extract 20 grams of beverage weight, which gives us our 1:1 weight ratio. For a medium roast, it's 1:2, so that 20 gram dose should yield 40 grams of beverage weight. A light roast would need to yield 60 grams. Does this oversimplify things a bit, given variation in seed density and other factors? Absolutely, but it is useful to start with these roast-based ratios to help you get in the ballpark. For a relevant comparison, we extract Destroyer and Mass Appeal to a 1:1.8 - 1-1.65, depending on the age off-roast. This falls between Normale and Ristretto. We like to call that recipe our Golden Ratio.

The reason why we use different amounts of water for different roast levels comes down to a few factors. For one, darker roasts are more porous, due to the expansion of the seed matrix during roasting. Water has better access to the core of the grounds with a more porous coffee. Since water has better access, it takes less water to get the job done. Two, darker roasts have a low percentage of bright and sweet flavors and a high percentage of bitter flavors. Medium roasts are fairly balanced between bright, sweet, and bitter flavors. Lighter roasts have a high percentage of bright and sweet flavors and a low percentage of bitter flavors. If we go back to the aromatic semicircle on the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, we can see that bright flavors extract first, sweet flavors second, and bitter flavors third. If we understand the order of different compounds in extraction and we understand the flavor palette a given coffee has to offer (as dictated by terroir, process, and roast - lots of brightness? lots of bitter?) , then we can see that it is better to extract a lighter roast to higher yields and darker roasts to lower yields. This helps lighter roasts get out of the bright flavors and into the sweet. A lower yield helps darker roasts from running into bitter flavors too quickly. No matter if this all sounds confusing or like a lot of fun, we'd love to have you over for our Introduction to Espresso and Bar Flow class to work with this concept more. Sign up here:

SCAA Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel

Now that we have extraction covered, here's a recipe we found to work really well with our Rorschach espresso:

Bolivia Apolo Mélange
50% filter profile/50% espresso profile
Ideal Off-Roast Dates: Filter - 3 weeks off; Espresso - 1 week off
Recipe: A 1:2.2 to 1:2.4 weight ratio, about 2.2 - 2.4 fl. oz., we might call this Normale Plus
Dose: However much fits comfortably in your basket (fill it up and level it off without settling to find out), we use 21 grams
Beverage Weight: If a 21 gram dose at the 1:2.2 - 1:2.4 range of weight ratios, then extract 46 - 50g grams beverage weight
Extraction Time: 40 - 45 seconds total extraction time
Brew Temperature: 201 F

We're running this project with a brilliant coffee from Bolivia, but nothing is stopping you from throwing any of our filter profile coffees in your espresso hopper. Is that filter bag on the shelf getting old? Pop it in the espresso hopper around three weeks off roast. When you do, simply remember that you'll likely need more water than you've previously used, probably around the Lungo (1:3) ratio. Dial-in for the recipe (probably 40 - 45 second brew time), then use your grind adjustment to dial up and down in time. Higher time heads towards sharp, dry, and bitter flavors. Shorter time heads towards softer and brighter flavors. Shoot for sweetness and balance in the middle between the two poles. The most important thing to understand is that you don't need an espresso roast to brew a delicious espresso. All you need is an open mind and a receptive palate. Happy tasting!