Tiny cups, big flavor: A quest for great espresso in Charlotte

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This time of year, social media gets all gooey on the topic of pumpkin-flavored lattes, peppermint mochas and jolly disposable paper cups. But some people, like my French-born husband, are on a perpetual quest for the perfect (porcelain) cup of unadulterated espresso. (Did I mention we’re now on our fourth espresso machine?)

Love that my macchiato loves me back today #coffeelover #coffeenut

A photo posted by Romain Bertrand (@htdcompletely) on

The French drink espresso throughout the day, often served with a square of dark chocolate. It’s usually served simple, with at most a touch of steamed milk. But here in America, where we like to bury our coffees in foam and syrups, there’s a lot to be learned about a good cup of espresso.

Here’s what baristas at three local coffee shops have to say on the art of brewing and consuming the perfect cup:

Mugs Coffee | Park Selwyn Shopping Center (corner of Park Road & Selwyn Ave.)

For owner Oliver Wu, it all comes down to finding the right blend. He worked with local roaster Magnolia Coffee to find a perfect medium espresso roast. He says that darker roasts, which may work with milk-based drinks, don’t taste as good to him straight up. Too light a roast, on the other hand, can be acidic.

Fun espresso fact: Espresso customers often opt to hang out at the cafe rather than get their drinks to go, Wu has observed.

Good morning

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Not Just Coffee | Seventh Street Public Market

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Here’s a tip from Steven Lim, a process engineer for S&D Coffee & Tea who moonlights as a barista at Not Just Coffee: To get the full flavor, stir your espresso before drinking, mixing in the slightly bitter crema on top to get a higher viscosity (thickness). Drinking it without stirring, he says, is like eating an orange with its peel on. Not Just Coffee uses beans roasted by Durham-based Counter Culture.

Fun espresso fact: Many people mistakenly think that espresso has a lot of caffeine.

Central Coffee Co. | 719 Louise Avenue

Here’s a how-to when it comes to espresso ordering and drinking: As it’s getting pulled, you should see a dark color followed by a wood color and finally a bright caramel at the end, says barista Sarah Taylor. Most important, it shouldn’t sit more than about 15 seconds before being consumed.

Fun espresso fact: It’s like sushi – the fresher the drink, the better it is, says fellow Central Coffee barista Dave Barnes.

One more tip for the road:

No time to stop and enjoy an espresso properly? QT service stations serve a surprisingly acceptable shot of espresso – in a paper demi-tasse no less – for those looking for a classy alternative to typical roadside fare.

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