Decades ago, espresso coffee in the U.S. was more generic: dark roasted, and of unknown origin. In the late 1970s, Peet’s Coffee of San Francisco raised the quality level of the beans they were using; they didn’t view dark as a way to mask the poor flavor of inferior beans.

More recently, a trend has developed that has baristas brewing espressos with single origin coffees, and/or much more lightly roasted beans.

Leaving aside brew strengths for now, how do you go about determining your favorite espresso? Does that espresso shot have the character to hold up well if you want a cappuccino or latte?

When cafes are putting together a blend for espresso brewing, they understand that some coffees are tart, and some are softer. Using the espresso method of 130 psi, coffee beans are ground to allowed an enormous amount of the surface area of the bean to become exposed to the hot, pressurized water and steam. Intense flavors come through, and both the good and bad are revealed.

The West-coast coffee chains that grew in popularity in the 1980s & 1990s are hugely successful, and responsible in many ways for what’s called the “second wave” in coffee. Better quality, very darkly roasted coffee is now the norm for a majority of espresso, cappuccino, and latte drinkers. The “third wave” is easing up a bit on the roast, and using even higher quality coffees. Is there a certain standard flavor you expect from an espresso? Are you willing to take a walk along the cutting edge?

You can experiment by asking your favorite local cafe to pull a shot of medium, or full-city roasted beans – espresso ground, of course – and see what you think. Be prepared for the results though; this will be an entirely new (and hopefully fun) experience for your taste-buds!