Wintertime is the time of year when it’s really nice to get cozy with your coffee, maybe even to add a little (gasp!) steamed milk in the form of a macchiato or cappuccino. For milk drinks, the way to go is with Seattle Coffee Work’s award winning house espresso, Seattle Space Blend. This versatile blend is great as a straight shot, or in a chemex, aeropress, vac pot, or any kind of drip/pourover.
To further discover why Seattle Space is so delicious in so many ways, we sat down with Seattle Coffee Works Head Roaster, Ponch Estrel, and
Assistant Roaster, Paul Ortiz, for a little Q&A to tease out the nuances that feed into this extraordinary and yet unassuming coffee blend. A lot goes into making this coffee – from the craftsmanship of roasting and blending, to the ethics of sourcing the component coffees, to the rigor of cupping every single batch to ensure quality.
Here’s a digest of what we learned:
Q: At first taste, Seattle Space Blend tastes like a basic espresso blend, but by the second sip, it starts to unfold and bloom all over the palate. Why is that? What do you put in Seattle Space Blend?
Ponch: Space Blend has three components. Guatemala La Esperanza which gives the blend balance and chocolate notes. We use one of our natural-processed Ethiopian coffees to add brightness, in the form of tartaric acid, meaning it has flavor notes of berries rather than citrus. This translates nicely in espresso because it is sweet and bright. Kenya Kiriga is the third component. It is roasted a little darker than the other two, adding depth and body to create the syrupy mouthfeel that is expected from espresso.
Paul: Space has high and low flavor notes with both fruits and chocolate. A good shot will be bright, chocolatey and earthy.
Q: What is the difference between blend coffees and single-origin coffees in terms of roasting?
Ponch: For espresso, we roast each component for 30 seconds to one minute longer than when roasting it as a single-origin coffee. It is also roasted 4-10 degrees hotter. This increase in time and temperature makes the roast darker. The result is that it rounds off and mutes the edges of the flavor, and moderates any grassy elements. It gives more body, which creates a nice espresso.
Paul: For example, we roast Guatemala La Esperanza at 418 degrees F, for 13-13:30 minutes. As a single-origin, we roast that same coffee at 410 or 412 degrees F, for 12:30 minutes. Espresso is such a concentrated beverage that it’s important to smooth out the flavor. This makes it so that no one flavor is over-bearing compared to the others.
Q: You say it’s an espresso blend but you brew Space Blend on all brew methods. Can you explain why?
Ponch: We are a light-to-medium roaster. Seattle Space Blend is roasted a shade lighter than our Emerald City Blend. It’s a medium light roast that’s really bright and showcases the acidic flavors we love. And yet it has depth. It’s a coffee that is sweet, has nice acidity, and a balanced finish.
Paul: It’s blended to achieve more complexity. Single origins can be fabulous, but you may want only one or two drinks. Seattle Space you can drink all day, like a bottomless cup.
Ponch: Space is like the BMW of coffee. … It might not taste like blueberries or floral like a Geisha. It’s coffee that just tastes like coffee. But really GOOD.
Paul: I drink Space every day I’m here.
Q: You both work as baristas as well. Can you explain why this is important to you?
Ponch: It’s important for a roaster to serve coffee, as well as to cup coffee. It completes the circle. When you have direct contact with the customers, you know how the coffee that you roasted is being consumed. We see a couple hundred people a day. Most of them are regular customers. Regulars get to know the coffee and can help give us direct feedback about what they taste.
Paul: It’s also good to practice dialing your coffee in. Hands-on experimentation is the best way to learn in such a sensory-centered industry. It’s important to see what the coffee tastes like in different drinks, like a cappuccino, a latte, etc.
Ponch: There’s no debate in my mind: if a roaster is a barista, they’re going to be better at both.
Q: One last question for today: you’ve told us about the components, the roasting, blending, and brewing. It still seems like there’s some secret to why Space Blend is so good compared to other espresso blends from other roasters. Can you share that secret?
Ponch: It’s really pretty transparent, actually. We choose super high quality coffees, striving for all direct trade. We are not quite there yet, but we are close. Both the Guatemalan and Kenyan components are already direct trade [ed.: according to our definition of direct trade] Sourcing Ethiopian coffees directly is challenging because they come from such small growers, in remote areas. We choose one that is a favorite of our whole team, such as Wote Konga.
Paul: The really important difference is that we don’t use “blender” coffees in Space Blend. A “blender” is a medium-scoring coffee, like an 86 [ed.: out of 100 points on the SCAA scale]. It’s a coffee that needs to be used up because it’s getting stale, or is of lower quality. We rarely use coffee that cups below 88 points for any of our blends.
Ponch: We try to use coffees in all our blends that would be great as single-origins. We buy coffees specifically for our blends, and our intention is to start with the highest quality coffee in our blends. The same coffees that cost $18 to $20 per bag on the shelf also go into the blend. We want Seattle Space Blend to represent all the values we hold dear.