November 10

What is Espresso?

A SLU business owner discusses his passion for fresh grounds.

Editor’s note: South Lake Union is full of fantastic small businesses, and we’re starting a new periodic series where we share more insight, expert tips, and thoughtful words directly from neighborhood business owners, civic leaders, and other voices of SLU.

Meet David Schomer, owner of Espresso Vivace. David opened the Alley 24 location of Espresso Vivace at 227 Yale Avenue in 2013. If you ever want to meet him in person, you can find him on the bar from 1pm to 2pm most Wednesdays at Alley 24. It’s a family affair — his son Taylor is also a barista at this location. Espresso Vivace Alley 24 is open weekdays from 7am to 3pm and weekends 8am to 5pm and features a full coffee bar and plenty of seating.

Man talking behind a coffee machine.

Read more from David below as he explains espresso:

Caffè espresso is a rich, concentrated coffee brewed under pressure with a brief percolation cycle. It is the only brewing method that captures the aroma of fresh ground coffee in a cup. Who doesn’t desire a coffee that tastes as delightful as it smells?

That’s what intrigued my four-year-old self in 1960 at the Food Giant on 45th and Wallingford. My mother would take me there, where a large red machine ground coffee, emitting a “vooming” noise and releasing an enchanting fragrance that filled the aisle. It seemed to promise a mysterious adult world brimming with delectable experiences. And after graduating from Cornish College, I opened Vivace in 1988.

An empty coffee shop.

I became enamored with espresso and traveled to Italy twice to immerse myself in the traditions of espresso’s birthplace. The exquisite coffee I discovered in Northern Italy captivated me. To delve into the Northern Italian style of roasting and barista practices, I visited Illy Caffè in Trieste. There, Illy expert Dr. Petracco, in his halting English, introduced me to espresso as a “polyphasic colloidal foam.”

Let’s unpack that.

“Polyphasic” refers to a state of constant flux, displaying multiple phases. Over my 35 years of innovation and culinary art development, I’ve found espresso’s fragile nature both endlessly fascinating and challenging. From the moment the pump stops, espresso begins to collapse, releasing its finest aromas. Paradoxically, the sweeter the shot, the quicker the foam (crema) deteriorates. So, when you receive a shot, drink it quickly—it doesn’t last. I suggest two swift sips, as it’s highly layered, with the sugars settling at the bottom of the cup.

A “colloidal” liquid contains particles suspended within the solution. Achieving the perfect balance of fine versus larger particles, the best espresso is crafted using conical-burr grinders. These grinders initially shatter the bean, resulting in particles of various sizes, some of which end up in the cup, giving the espresso a fuller body and a bolder flavor.

And “foam” is essentially gas encapsulated in a liquid. In espresso, this gas is CO2, a natural by-product of the Maillard reaction during roasting. Coffee roasting belongs to the Maillard category because it yields caramelized sugars, CO2, significant heat (since roasting coffee is highly exothermic), and numerous volatile aromatic compounds.

I may be straightforward, but even after 35 years, this exquisite coffee continues to captivate me more each day. I often say that the more I learn about espresso, the less I feel I know.

Story by David Schomer & photographs courtesy David Schomer.

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