The Americano

Years and years ago, I worked on the vast and bustling trading floor of a big bank overseas, part of a small trading team composed largely of nerdy Americans.  Every Friday, and to the great hilarity of those around us, a couple of enormous British bond salesmen would deliver coffee to us – short Americanos, of course.

Ah the wit!  Anyway these memories of a gilded age aside, prior to opening a coffee shop, I never thought much of the Americano.  To be frank, I used to consider it an inferior drink: usually crappy espresso diluted with boiling water.  As a cafe owner though, I definitely appreciate the rationale behind the beverage and now largely take issue only with its preparation.

There are plenty of good reasons for the Americano even for cafes with great batch coffee (like us!).  For many customers, this is just their default order.  Perhaps they’ve been traumatized by bad batch coffee, or simply like espresso but find it too strong.  Espresso, after all, is what to many makes a cafe special.  Or perhaps they like the “richer” mouthfeel of an Americano, given that more coffee oils pass through the metal espresso portafilter basket than the paper filter typically used in batch brewing.

There is a second category of “why” that is a bit more specific to our shop.  We don’t sell tons of decaf, and of the decaf orders, a number are “half-caf” (hard to accommodate with a standard set-up).  Rather than dedicate an under-utilized grinder to decaf (fated to be infrequently dialed in and either purged at the end of each day, wasting a ton of coffee relative to the amount used in beverages, or left with a full hopper of oxidizing beans) we always have small amounts of fresh decaf on hand which we single dose in our EK43 grinder (in a ratio of caffeinated to decaffeinated beans to suit the order).  We don’t do pour-overs, so the Americano is the most efficient way for us to serve decaf cups of coffee.  The second shop-specific reason is that we roast coffee on a spectrum from light to medium, but never dark.  The single origin we use as our “House” espresso is roasted a bit darker than most of the other coffees on our roster, and tends to have a more familiar “comfort cup” profile.   So when a customer asks for a “dark roast”, we generally offer them an Americano, which almost always makes them happy.

In any event, the Americano is a surprisingly popular beverage and something cafes really should prepare well, but I suspect too few do.  There are many pitfalls (at least to make the type of Americano that I enjoy).  First, many shops, even amongst the most progressive out there, use a more traditional Italian-influenced house espresso (a darker roast typically involving South American and naturally processed beans).  I don’t feel that these espressos translate well to Americanos as they don’t have a lot of flavor clarity; diluted with water, they can thus tasty murky and ashy.  Second, it is very hard to properly extract espresso.  To hit a 20-22% extraction (a pretty optimal range for the flavor balance you’ll really taste in the slowed-down experience of a longer drink like an Americano), you really need a first rate and well maintained grinder and a higher ratio of beverage mass to ground bean dose than typical.  Third, I feel that most Americanos are way too diluted, and in order to get the beverage strength right (ideally somewhere between 1.25-1.5% coffee matter), the Americano probably can’t be a full 12oz unless the shop doses their espresso with 20g+ of coffee (and extracts >20%).  And finally, the water used in the cup shouldn’t be >200F (even though many customers like their Americanos hot.)  With water that hot, the beverage will be a lot hotter than most batch coffee, and customers risk burns and can’t taste anything but “hot”.  Although I’d really like to use 175F water, to balance taste vs demands for “hot”, I prefer using 190F water.  And the water should never be drawn from the espresso machine hot water dispenser (both as this is way too hot and to preserve the longevity of the machine).

Anyway, these gripes reflect my personal preferences – but also a consistency with general principles of brewing and crafting quality beverages.