In the early days of coffee, everyone drank what we’d call filter coffee nowadays — which is kind of a misnomer anyway, because almost all coffee is filtered. In espresso, the little basket we dose the dry coffee into is the filter, hence the term ‘portafilter’ for the handle that holds the basket. But what we generally consider filter now is any coffee made at normal atmospheric pressure (or near it – Aeropress and Brikka adding a little more pressure, but nothing compared to what espresso machines add), at a brew strength usually between one and two percent. (‘Stovetop espresso,’ which is really still filter, brewed in a moka pot/Italian coffeemaker on the stove, is the outlier here as it’s usually brewed at a strength somewhere between other filter and espresso.) So, anything from the coffee out of a Mr. Coffee, a Fetco or Bunn machine, a French Press, a V60 or Chemex, etc., etc. — it’s all filter. And as I was saying, that’s pretty the way coffee was being drunk everywhere* until the early 1900s, when the Industrial Revolution hit Italy, and baristi were suddenly trying to serve coffee to hundreds of workers getting on trains to head into factories in the cities, and their coffee makers couldn’t keep up. So in order to serve a coffee faster (while still freshly brewed), they had the idea of adding pressure, which increases the speed that compounds will dissolve into a solvent, in this case, coffee into water. And that’s basically it. Espresso wasn’t trying to be a better coffee, it was just supposed to be a faster coffee, still made-to-order (I’ve read two main arguments for the origin of the word espresso — that it is because the coffee is served at ‘express’ speed, or ‘expressly for you,’ both of which still make sense in this case). Hence this iconic Victoria Arduino poster:
Why they also suddenly started brewing much smaller, more concentrated coffees may have also had to do with speed — in the days before takeaway cups, everyone drank standing at the espresso bar, so shorter drinks meant more thirsty/sleepy factory workers served more quickly.
And this is the way most Italians and many other Europeans still think of espresso — it’s not fancy, it’s just fast; you double-park your car or Vespa, hop out, walk into a café, order your espresso, drink it and go. It’s not meant to be a gourmet experience. But in North America, we didn’t really begin to be exposed to espresso until the second half of the 20th century, and not really en masse until the spread of Starbucks began in the 1980s. And as a marketing tactic that was designed to let them sell coffee for more than the dollar per cup being charged here to that point (and roughly the price still charged even for espresso in Italy), they introduced espresso as fancier, higher-end, more gourmet, a special treat. By extension, this seemed to relegate ‘old-style coffee,’ filter coffee, to a lower category: plebeian, boring, old-fashioned, dishwater.
But the thing is, it isn’t. There’s a very good argument to be made (and I’m gonna try to make it!) that filter coffee is the better way to taste and enjoy the subtleties of the higher-quality coffees we’re excited about today, to fully experience all the flavours of terroir that we’re trying to preserve by roasting lighter. First off is the fact that our palates can distinguish more flavours, and more subtle flavours, at a concentration closer to filter than espresso. This is why at a whiskey tasting, you will often be invited to add some still water to the glass, to ‘open up the flavours’ – basically to decrease the concentration of your drink in order to taste it better, because when something is very concentrated like straight whiskey, or espresso, it tends to overwhelm the palate. It’s also why coffee buyers, roasters, and other professional tasters evaluate coffee by ‘cupping’ it, basically brewing it to the strength of filter. It’s at that concentration that people whose jobs depend on it want to taste coffee. If a roaster is working on a roast for espresso, they will also brew it as espresso obviously, but first it is almost always cupped at a concentration in the filter range.
Next, there’s the fact that a cup of espresso is small enough that we usually finish it in a minute or two, whereas a filter coffee takes much longer to drink, and therefore tends to cool over the time we drink it. As a result of the majority of years of human evolution occurring before we discovered fire, we evolved to taste better at room temperature than at higher or colder temperatures. People that could better detect the bitterness of a poison plant or the taint of meat that had started to go off at room temperature were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Therefore, when a cup of filter cools, it often reveals more flavours to us (good or bad, depending on the quality of the coffee, roasting, and brewing!) — it becomes a longer, more progressive tasting experience versus the few minutes of espresso tasting that are blunted by the concentration and heat of the drink. (This is also why you should be suspicious of sushi that is served cold, but I digress.)
Finally, there’s the fact that brewing espresso using coffee that is more lightly roasted, more freshly roasted, and ground right before brewing (as we are all trying to do in progressive coffee), is considerably harder than brewing the same coffee as filter, for reasons that can and probably will lead to another blog post. So your chances of getting a better filter than an espresso in many cafés is much higher. Anecdotally, in all the cafés in which I’ve had both an espresso and a filter, the espresso has never been a better-brewed coffee.
For all these reasons, if you ask the barista in your neighbourhood progressive café whether they prefer espresso or filter, don’t be surprised if they say filter. I still enjoy my espresso — one area it really shines is in milk drinks, where its more concentrated nature results in a creamier drink. Lattes or cappuccinos made with filter-strength coffee would be weak in coffee flavour and watery. And as a quick post-lunch pick-me-up, an espresso can also fit the bill perfectly. And of course the other advantage of espresso is that it is always served freshly brewed, but with the increased offering in many cafés of hand-brewed filter, or small batch automatic filter served within minutes of brewing, this advantage is eroding anyway. So again, for really tasting and enjoying a particular coffee, I prefer filter. And I’d go as far as to say that any coffee professional that tries to convince you that espresso is the pinnacle of coffee extraction is in the business of selling espresso.
*There are actually older traditions of UNfiltered coffee, like that served in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, or Greece and Turkey, to this day, but they haven’t caught on worldwide like filtered coffee has.
If this post has made you curious about participating in a ‘cupping,’ in order to taste various coffees at a lower concentration than espresso, we’d be happy to see you at one of our ‘Tasting, History and Terroir’ classes. Or if you’re already convinced or at least much more interested in brewing filter coffee, there’s also our ‘Manual filter: Theory and Technique’ class.