February 1, 2011
Hot Italian's superb coffee now available by the pound

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic

Hot Italian is known for excellent pizza as well as the style of its building at 16th and Q, done primarily in a palette of black and white, with large, inviting windows out front. It's also newly certified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, a designation by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Taking the Italian theme further, Hot Italian made sure from the outset that it would serve a nice shot of espresso, made with an eye-catching and meticulously restored vintage Faema espresso machine. What's more, Hot Italian gets its beans from Mr. Espresso, an Oakland-based roaster with deep ties to Italy. The coffee company has for years supplied some of the Bay Area's top coffee shops and best restaurants.

Recently, Hot Italian began selling the beans by the pound. As a fan of its espresso, I stopped by to purchase some and give them the once-over. One pound costs $14.50, which is in the standard range for premium beans.

In days of old, perhaps due to the influence of Starbucks and the many roasts dubbed "Vienna" or "espresso" or "full city," we associated this style of coffee with dark, nearly burnt beans. Dark, of course, suggests it will be smoky on the palate, and really dark means it will be the equivalent of puffing a cigar and then snorting what's left in the ashtray. Most discerning espresso drinkers, along with more and more proponents of standard drip coffee, are looking for a more balanced cup that allows the flavor characteristics of the bean to shine without being overwhelmed by heavy hand in the roasting process.

That said, I have had many espressos along the way that were syrupy, overly fruity and unbalanced - and then were defended by the coffee shop by arguing that's the way the bean is supposed to taste. So, a good roast can be lighter, but not all lighter roasts are automatically good.

Now that independent coffee shops have stemmed the tide of the Starbucks explosion and dominance, it's no longer cool to say that Starbucks was largely responsible for educating the American consumer about coffee. Yet Starbucks, for better or worse, set the table for savvy independents like Temple, Chocolate Fish and Old Soul, to come in and do better work.

Mr. Espresso, founded in 1978 by Carlo Di Ruocco and managed these days by his son, Luigi, was one of the roasters that said no to super-dark beans. The beans sold through Hot Italian are medium roast and have a balanced flavor profile without being sweet or floral.

Most coffee roasters are heated with gas. According to Mr. Espresso, the company is the only roaster in the United States to roast beans by burning oak wood. When I first heard of this process, I assumed that a wood-burning roaster would impart some of that flavor into the finished beans. That is the assumption with wood-burning pizza ovens and bread ovens, though Chad Robertson, in his new book "Tartine Bread," argues that the bread he bakes in a gas-powered oven at his bakery in San Francisco tastes the same as the bread he baked in the wood-burning hearth oven he used in Point Reyes Station years ago.

According to the Mr. Espresso website, using wood for roasting allows the process to be slowed down. For coffee geeks, here is what the company says:

The differences (between gas and wood) are not what one might initially expect. Unlike cooking with a wood oven or grill, where the smoke from the wood imparts a flavor to the final product, the main difference between wood and conventional roasting lies in the quality of the heat delivered to the beans. Heat derived from wood has higher moisture content and is better suited for slow roasting.

The more oil preserved within the bean, the more exquisite the final flavor will be. The natural humidity within the wood seems to envelop the beans during the roasting process, hence preserving more of the lipids within. Meanwhile, the slow roasting aspect ensures the coffee is lower in acidity and higher in body. The result is most apparent in our espresso, yielding more crema, fuller flavor, and a smoother finish. For drip coffee for which we actually wish to retain the acidity of the coffees, we subject the beans to a faster roasting time.

As I have said before, more coffee options translates into better coffee options, and that leads to a more demanding coffee consumer. Sacramento is continuing to mature as a city with decent, good and great options for coffee.

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