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Espresso, Espresso…..

Posted in Facts, Features, history of foods, and recipes

  copyright 2008, Maria Liberati

To every caffeine junkie who has ever stumbled into their favorite coffee bar at 7A.M. on a desperate quest for a morning fix it may seem improbable that espresso (the beverage that began our collective obsession with designer coffees) emerged from very humble origins.  The seemingly endless variety of espresso based drinks available to us today may make it difficult to believe that espresso itself was created to address a very functional need, one that we can all identify with. That being the need to cram ever more time into our increasingly busy days.

Invented at the turn of the 20th century by Italian Luigi Bezzera, the first espresso machine was decidedly utilitarian in design.  The owner of a Milanese manufacturing company, Bezzera was eager to increase the productivity of his employees. Believing that the best way to do this was to reduce the length of his workers coffee breaks, he set out to create a machine that would brew a cup of coffee in less time than conventional machines of the day. His final product was the world’s first espresso machine, a crude and gigantic contraption that produced a cup of coffee by forcing a combination of water and steam through coffee grounds at high pressures.

While the new process did produce a much quicker cup of coffee, it also caused the coffee to taste very bitter. It was not until 1905 when Desiderio Pavoni purchased Bezzera’s patent rights to the machine that this problem was solved. Realizing that the bitter taste was a result of the high temperature steam and water passing through the coffee, he set out to find the ideal water temperature and pressure to make the perfect cup. His findings concluded that brewing a cup at 95C and between 8-10 BAR of pressure produced the best espresso. These standards remain today.

Problems still existed however; the primary one being consistency. Because espresso machines were steam operated, it required a considerable amount of skill on the part of the operator or “barista” to ensure correct water temperature by constantly monitoring the open flame heat source. This meant that all but the most skilled baristas had a very difficult time maintaining consistent steam pressure and water temperature.

Also, this system relied on the barista to regulate how long the water valve was open which allowed the heater water to pass through the grinds. This determined the volume, consistency and overall quality of the espresso and was difficult to keep uniform as well. These dilemmas made it a tricky and expensive process to produce high quality espresso consistently and in significant volumes.

These problems too, proved solvable however. In 1948 Achille Gaggia revealed to the world the first modern espresso machine. By replacing the water valve with a spring loaded piston operated by a hand lever, he was able to create a machine that did not rely on steam to drive the water through the grinds. Water was pulled into a chamber which was pushed down slowly past the grinds directly by the operator. This allowed the water to move faster and harder through the grinds, eliminating the finicky and time-consuming business of relying on steam. As a result of the added pressure, this process also produced the now famous crema, a thin layer of reddish-brown foam that floats on top of the coffee and contains the proteins, vegetable oils and sugars from the beans themselves.

Although there have been other developments in espresso production since the Gaggia machine was introduced, the process remains essentially the same and it is Gaggia’s developments which are credited with bringing espresso to the mainstream.  Hence, making a shot of espresso is still referred to as “Pulling a shot”.

Arguably the most important ingredient in the recent designer coffee fad that has taken North America by storm, espresso is the foundation upon which companies such as Starbucks have built their army of non-fat, soy based whipped cream and caramel covered concoctions.  It is ironic that something of such humble and utilitarian origins should have sparked the creation of one of the largest growing luxury industries in the world today. The development of espresso has been a uniquely Italian marriage of form and function. It is no wonder that, from a culture that prides itself on cultivating the beauty and elegance in the function of the everyday, the undisputed king of coffees has emerged. 

For more information on the history of espresso visit:

AABREE Coffee-

Coffee Review-

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Next Week: What makes a perfect cup? Reviewing the elements of great espresso.

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