Espresso versus milk

Date Posted:2 June 2013 

Roasting styles -
Debate will always continue as to whether it's best to roast for espresso (black) or milk (added to espresso). In Australia, we know > 90% of coffee have milk added. Majority rules


an epic David v. Goliath battle


Why is it so different to roast a coffee bean for espresso or milk ?



Back in 2012 - 2013 I was caught in the coffee world's equivalent of the "Valley of Death" - torn between the differing disciplines of roasting for milk-based coffee versus the purist espresso.

The reasons for this paradox were driven by my cafe customers - most of them wanted the best milk-based coffees and some wanted better tasting espresso.

No matter how hard I tried, roasting 1000's of different batches, I could never please everyone. Any time I nailed the espresso roast, it was less exciting in milk and when the focus was placed on milk, the espresso was ok, but not stellar.

Ultimately, I decided to stop listening to the small group of espresso purists because quite frankly they sit in the minority camp and I went to extraordinary lengths to educate them on how to adapt the extraction for espresso........which alleviated much of the pressure.

In Australia, around 87% to 92% of espresso-based coffees - whether they are prepared in the cafe, home or an office coffee machine are for milk-based espresso.

The cappuccino/latte/flat white has dominated the fresh coffee bean landscape.

Milk-based espresso is the majority target to aim for mass appeal (and commercial success) with most Australian coffee roasters taking a simplistic approach to focus their blend development and roast profiles towards a basic, one-dimensional objective - make it taste good in milk.

In my July 2013 article (, I discussed the vital role of acid in the roasting of coffee beans.

Milk applies two dominant influences upon espresso coffee - the alkaline in the milk affects the ph-balance of the beverage (softening acid) and a well-prepared, textured milk will also sweeten and chocolat-ize (makes it more chocolate) the espresso coffee - in other words, textured milk (heated and stretched) will enhance the chocolate notes in the coffee and provide some residual sweetness to balance out any roughness in the espresso.

Most cafe style coffees in Australia are roasted with higher acid levels so that when milk is added it will balance, or "cut through". Cut through is an often mid-used term - sometimes it is flavour, other times it is acid.

Higher acid from cafe-style coffee beans can be unpleasant to the non-milk espresso drinker - cafe style coffee beans are typically roasted darker and this darker roast depth brings taints that are evident in the espresso cup.

Cafe style coffees may also have a baked attribute or experience sourness that is not very pleasant if the barista has not attempted to compensate via extraction methods of grind, dose and temperature.

So, it's Monday night 6pm, the roaster has been heating up for 30 minutes and it's now ready for the first batch of the evening.

I have a list of 20 different coffees to roast and start with the softer and more natural processes coffees and select a Brazil Cambara Yellow Bourbon Natural specialty grade bean.

How do I approach this coffee bean for the roast ?

I can take it right into the perfect medium zone to generate some intense caramel, chocolate, hazelnut notes for a perfect milk-based espresso, or do I run it light and short to retain all the fruits and complexity for a pure espresso delight...........therein lies the paradox - roast for the majority or roast for bean integrity ?.

This thought runs through my mind 120+ times a week - do we showcase exceptional espresso or perfect milk-based with rich's a tough call.

Out there on the internet, there is an often repeated mantra - "if you perfect the espresso, the added milk will not materially change the dynamic and will only improve the cup".

But I disagree with this very simplistic urban myth. There are a few cafes in Melbourne who use this "perfect espresso" comment as marketing ploy - it is their way of trying to create a differentiated position in the cafe market.

In some cases, if I roast a coffee bean for perfect espresso, it can be lost in milk.

Similarly, if I roast the coffee beans for milk, the espresso may be compromised by being overly acidic or sour - depending upon the bean and the roast profile.

Some coffee beans are able to bridge the milk and espresso Valley of Death, whereas other coffee beans will not - no matter how many different tweaks you may do to the roast profile or as a barista.

As a sidebar, for 2 years now I have been silently unhappy with espresso-only outcomes for some of our coffees.

Why ?

Because of the reasons I have noted above - we roast to satisfy the majority of our coffee lovers who add milk to their espresso and who may possess only limited barista skills or equipment - so the roasted coffee beans from mycuppa need to have rich flavour and persistent finish without the coffee tasting like a strawberry milkshake filled with artificial sweeteners........

AND ...........

It can become extremely confusing if we were to offer a particular coffee in 2 different roast profile options - roasted for milk or roasted for espresso. You can guarantee someone will pick the wrong profile option and end up being disappointed.

Recently, some of the world's most respected coffee bean roasters have also confessed to having arrived at similar destinations - Tim Wendelboe and a few US specialty coffee roasters admitted similar feelings about their own espresso offerings.

It is ironic that I have also been going through similar reflections in regard to espresso extractions for some time. 

Our performance in the coffee roasting competitions - RAS International May 2013 and the Golden Bean October 2013 - were a bit of a slap in the face.

OK, Bronze medals are not something to be ashamed about, but for both events we did not submit coffees that were representative of what have been typically generated each week from our roastery over the years for specialty cafes - custom roasted coffees that work exceptionally well as espresso.

I had a choice to make - enter our normal roast profiles for our everyday coffee bean products or the specialty custom roast profiles. 

Just like the golfer who goes out during the week and scores a 4-under card, we know the performance of our coffees each week are better than our competition results.

During September and October 2013, we conducted a series of experiments in conjunction some of the specialty cafes we supply in Melbourne.

The objective of the exercise was to identify which of the 2 different coffee roasting plants we have installed in our Roastery are best suited to pure espresso coffee.

The exercise also gave us the opportunity to review our overall strategy to roasting profiles for espresso - the shape of the curve, rate of rise, final temp and duration.

What we discovered is that one roasting plant works better for espresso than the other.

The development of re-engineered espresso roast profiles results in different acid developments and we are carefully integrating these optimized profiles across some of our coffees to provide improved cup balance.

During 2015, we implemented a major change to our roasting infrastructure - a new platform and our 5th roasting system. This changed the way we roast coffee and I'm pleased to say the new systems produce a far superior espresso cup compared to our previous platforms.

Whilst espresso remains the minority, the concept of perfecting this category is vitally important for our on-going development and improvement - we see there will be valuable leverage from these activities and benefits for our entire coffee bean portfolio.