THE GRANDS CRUS CREATOR, ALEXIS RODRIGUEZ, TOOK US THROUGH THE LONG PROCESS THAT PRECEDES THE CREATION OF NEW NESPRESSO COFFEES. HE HAD JUST FINISHED DEVELOPING THE NAPOLI AND TRIESTE LIMITED EDITIONS IN HONOUR OF A COUNTRY WHERE ESPRESSO IS AS CELEBRATED AS A NATIONAL TREASURE.
Alexis Rodriguez’s job is not that dissimilar to a maker of fine perfumes. Like his colleagues in that other profession, this grands crus creator can emphasise an aroma that suggests particular ideas to him, or take inspiration from a picture or thought which he patiently reconstructs through layer upon layer of different profiles. A bit like a detective who produces a photofit by combining the traits that most resemble the sought-after face. New approaches to harvesting the coffee cherries or special processing can also open up new combination possibilities, like for the Limited Editions Naora (which was based on a late harvest) and Crealto (which involved long roasting of a number of varieties suited to this level of firing). Not to mention coffees so exceptional in their own right that they need no adding to, like the Indriya from India, Dulsão do Brasil or Rosabaya de Colombia Grands Crus.
GRAND CRU CREATION
“We enter the characteristics of all the coffees we taste around the world into a database,” says Alexis, who is responsible for green coffee quality and developing new Grands Crus for Nespresso. “This forms the colour palette which we use to create our Grand Crus.” Creative work which involves a team effort from a number of experts. Once the style of the coffee to be developed has been determined, the next stage is to create a prototype which is submitted to the panel of experts for approval. They gather once a week for an informal but serious meeting in which new coffees are considered and must be unanimously accepted.
If they are felt to be too far from the original intention, they are sent back to “the lab” to be corrected. Each capsule contains the solution to a set problem, an equation with a number of unknown variables: the number of different coffee origins, the number of varieties, the proportions, roasting level, quantity and grind... The genesis of the two latest Limited Editions is a good example of the surprising process involved in the introduction of a Nespresso coffee.
With the Napoli and Trieste Limited Editions, Alexis Rodriguez’s teams have provided their own interpretation of the Italian espresso. But in order to do so, he and an inter-disciplinary panel had to actually go to Italy to discover it. As far as he is concerned, Italy maintains a deliberate tension between bitterness and acidity in strong coffees.
This elegant quirk of the national palate can be felt in differences between provinces, and even between coffee-sellers. In this deeply creative culture, roasters often come up with their own house blend, and it is not uncommon to find a little coffee roasting factory behind the bar.
The further he went into the Italian boot, the more Alexis was able to see the cruel refinement of Florence, the Latin charm of Rome, the Lombardian sobriety of Milan, the unsinkable technology of Venice, and Palermo’s Near Eastern heritage reflected in the local coffee.
So he had to accept that it would be impossible to relay so many distinctive flavours through a single blend. In order to hint at them without including them all, it was decided to conserve only the two most distinctive regional styles. These two ends of the same colour chart would at least make it possible to provide a general idea, like the ancient mariners who always started by mapping an unknown coastline before landing.
Through his exploratory tastings, Alexis had been struck by the power of the espressos that he discovered in two seaports with deep roots in the coffee tradition, separated from each other by both geography and culture: Trieste and Naples. Trieste is tucked between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, and for a long time was a rival of Venice, with whom it also wrestled for dominance of the coffee trade. It is hard to find a place more different from this city of Balkan influences than Naples, the prize of Italy’s other shore and of southern Italy.
Here espresso is valued as the pillar of a most ancient society where it is as essential for life as wine, dried pasta and olive oil. The Italians may have invented the latte macchiato and the cappuccino, but they still love this short coffee. At barely 25 ml, no more than two little mouthfuls worth of liquid that you down at the bar, its aftertaste and length in the mouth have to literally fill the throat in order to create strong sensations in the short amount of time it takes to drink. This high intensity requires a high proportion of Robusta and roasting level to fulfil its aromatic promises. The distinguishing feature of Neapolitan espressos is their high density body marked by Robusta, and the dark red colour of the crema, the layer of foam that crowns every cup. Trieste coffees reveal milder, more delicate aromas with slight acidic notes and their crema is lighter.
IN THE LABORATORY
Alexis thinks this contrast is partly down to the type of machines used in the two different cities. Neapolitan baristas use the old sort of cafetière with a plunger which lets them regulate the pressure and extraction time manually. This produces often intense results, because in order to produce a maximum amount of flavours, extraction is prolonged, which can sometimes burn the coffee beans.
Trieste, on the other hand, has gone for more sophisticated technology. Its machines have a kettle and pressure pump and regulate themselves, leaving the barista with nothing more to do than choose the amount of coffee and coffee grind. Having gathered this information, Alexis shut himself and his team away in his laboratory for several weeks to come up with two Limited Editions: Trieste, intensity 9, and Napoli, intensity 11, on a scale that had only once ever gone over 10, for Kazaar. Trieste is a pure Arabica which develops delicate notes of cocoa and hazelnut with a fresh fruity undertone – the perfect concoction for a ristretto, or the body of a cappuccino.
Its slightly acidic tones stand out from the genuine bitterness of the Napoli, an Arabica blended with Robusta which makes it thicker and almost syrupy, with smoky and woody notes that simply call for sugar and short extraction times. In terms of body, they are very different – Trieste is pure silk, while Napoli is velvet. As usual, a number of versions of these two Limited Editions were submitted to the blind tasting procedure. Think of it as a commission of experienced tasters feeling their way through the dark until a sensation on the taste buds suddenly opens their eyes. With their instinctive naïve confidence, it is down to these little organs to choose the perfect coffee sensation.
Production Sandrine Giacobetti - Text Julien Bouré - Photography Jean-Claude Amiel