For those who've even heard of it on American shores, the Caffe Allongé is, to many, much-maligned. And that's no surprise: US specialty coffee trends have definitively shifted towards the short shot—ristretto, or restricted, espresso pulls that draw a small amount of concentrated espresso with intense flavor. The allongé, or as it is known in Italian, the lungo, is considered strange, at best, by those who've embraced the ristretto trend. But to make a short story long...there's more to the allongé than a style mysteriously popular in Quebec.
Recently, the allongé (call it lungo if you prefer, though some draw a distinction that an allongé is an even longer shot than a lungo) has become a source of inspiration and exploration among coffee thinkers and drinkers. Popular consensus nearly everywhere but Quebec—where the drink not only takes its name from the French "to draw out", but served for years as the province's best approximation of only-recently-popular filter coffee—is that the preparation of espresso in a very long shot produces negative taste. But does it have to?
The basics: a traditional espresso shot usually involves approximately 18 to 20 grams of espresso, with water extracted through it at high pressure to yield around 30 grams of liquid. Your local fancy-pants shop may well draw you a "shorter" shot, i.e. one with even less volume. An allongé will be a longer shot: at least double, if not more, than the traditional espresso volume, and thus will produce what at first may simply appear to be "more coffee".
But unlike an Americano, wherein an espresso shot is expanded in volume with the addition of hot water, an allongé increases its cup share with brewed coffee, and while the longer extraction time can produce unappealing results with some coffees—by flattening out the rich notes the espresso blend was composed specifically to produce—other coffees in this preparation can reveal lovely nuance and flavor that otherwise get lost in the espresso shuffle.
Charles Babinski of LA's Glanville & Babinski is philosophical about it: "In a way there's no perfect espresso, but that's good. You can stop worrying about finding the perfect espresso and open your mind up to the ideas of what it can be."
And for people like Babinski, and for Australian barista champion Matt Perger, who will compete next week in the World Barista Championships, opening up the ideas of what espresso can be can involve drawing long, and longer shots, which have the surprising effect of exposing a whole new range of flavors within a coffee.
In a longer shot, "you're actually tasting more of what's in that coffee, and more of what's in that roast," explains coffee expert Ben Kaminsky, who's been working with Perger on his competition routine.
"Espresso is roasted to have less acidity, and of course it's important to note that acidity is the hallmark of an excellent coffee. But the reason why we roast espressos to have less acidity is because the concentration is so high. It would probably overwhelm any sweetness in the coffee as well," says Kaminsky.
So if espresso roasts are created with certain extraction parameters in mind, and pulling the shot longer distorts that roast's intentions: when and how is it worth playing with long extractions to explore the possibilities of a coffee?
Some coffee shops, like Montreal's Café Myriade, have worked hard to find a beneficial solution to the challenges faced by a clientele whose culture prefers the allongé shot. For years the company relied on separate grinders for allongé orders, to keep the parameters specific to those coffees dialed in separately from their "regular" espressos. (They now use only one grinder, but different water to coffee ratios for their allongés.)
Moving away from traditionally rich, chocolatey coffee profiled espresso roasts is another way to make the most out of an allongé, and to truly explore a complicated coffee. Coffee that's roasted to a lighter, floral, or more fruity-acidic profile, will expand its range of qualities in a gracefully long extraction, with a subtler coffee flavor expressed through a bigger quantity of liquid. And—enlightens Kaminsky—"humans taste more nuanced flavors as a liquid approaches water. You can taste a single drop of lemon juice added to water, but you could never taste that added to a cup of coffee. It's the same reason people dilute their whiskey, to reduce the amount of alcohol and taste a little more of what's in that liquid. It makes it a more delicate experience that we can have an easier time perceiving."
So next time you're at your favorite cafe—or perhaps in French Canada—perhaps ask your barista what the espresso might taste like a little longer this time. It may just change your perspective on espresso, and on the idea of the espresso machine as a tool to brew coffee, rather than just a box that makes only one exact kind of drink that's supposed to taste only one way.
"We have a tendency in the industry to say this is good, this is bad, this is better, this is worse," says Babinski. "The reality is each shop is going to have a strange mix of circumstances and goals, and an allongé can definitely fit in. At the very least you're using an espresso machine in a wider variety of ways, which is fun. And you're not getting eggs in the steam wand."
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop this spring.