The History of Espresso Pt. 1
First, let’s make it clear what espresso is. It isn’t a bean or a blend, and it isn’t a type of roast. Espresso is a preparation method which forces pressurized hot water over coffee grounds, and produces a highly-concentrated form of coffee with a deep and potent flavor.
You could say it is coffee in its purest form.
You could also say it’s the first instant coffee.
There isn’t a standard way of pulling an espresso shot, but the Italian coffeemaker Illy offers a pretty good method:
A jet of hot water at 88°-93°C (190°-200°F) passes under a pressure of nine or more atmospheres through a seven-gram (.25 oz) cake-like layer of ground and tamped coffee. Done right, the result is a concentrate of not more than 30 ml (one oz) of pure sensorial pleasure.
Do you remember science class? Nine atmospheres means nine times the amount of pressure that we feel from Earth’s atmosphere. If the process sounds precise, that’s because it is; espressos depend on precision and consistency. Unlike with other forms of coffee, making espresso is a molecular process, and creating good espresso means using good chemistry.
In fact, without science and technology, espresso wouldn’t even exist. The Macchinas—machines—that enable espresso only emerged at the turn of the 20th century, a little over one hundred years ago.
By the late 1800s, coffee was big business in Europe, and the café scene was bustling. The only problem was, coffee took a long time to brew. Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and devoted themselves to developing faster, more efficient ways to brew coffee using the cutting-edge technology of the time—steam.
The first inventor to receive a patent for his steam-powered coffee machine was Angelo Moriondo. An inventor based in Turin, Italy, Moriondo’s patent was granted in 1884 for a “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.”
The machine was primitive, and it featured a large boiler that pushed the water through a bed of coffee grounds. A second boiler produced the steam and “flashed” the coffee grounds, completing the brew.
Moriondo’s machine only produced bulk brews, and his design never caught on. Other than his patent, not much more is known about Moriondo. Like so many others, he just faded into history.
The Master of Espresso
Espresso science remained largely unchanged until the early 20th century. Luigi Bezzera, a manufacturer and liquor producer, began tinkering with Moriondo’s design in the early 1900s and created the first one-shot espresso machine. Along the way, he made multiple improvements to the Moriondo machine, including multiple brewheads and a portafilter.
The original Bezzera patent featured a boiler with built-in burn chambers filled with water. The chambers were heated until they shot the water through a puck of coffee grounds. The heated water passed through a mechanism that served as a radiator, which lowered the water temperature from a scalding 250°F to an equally scalding, but ideal brewing temperature of 195°F.
There it was, finally: a cup of coffee that could be brewed instantly.
But there was one problem. Because Bezzera’s machine was heated over an open flame, it was extremely difficult to control temperature and pressure, and almost impossible to produce a consistent quality of espresso shot.
If you need only know one thing about espresso, it’s that consistency is key.
Bezzera messed around with a few different prototypes and made improvements to his first model, but he had no money to expand his business or the PR sense to market it.
He knew someone who did, though.
Paging Mr. Pavoni
In 1903, Desiderio Pavoni bought Bezzera’s patents and went to work improving much of the machine’s design. Pavoni added the first pressure release valve, which stopped the coffee from splashing on and burning the barista. Obviously, baristas along the entire Italian peninsula rejoiced.
Additionally, Pavoni created the steam wand, which allowed the user to access the built-up steam in the machine’s boiler. For three years, Bezzera and Pavoni worked together to create the perfect machine.
It was called the Ideale.
At the Milan Fair in 1906, Bezzera and Pavoni debuted the “cafeé espresso” machine to the world. Bezzera’s involvement in the espresso machine gradually waned—some say he was bought out—and Pavoni expanded the marketing efforts for his new espresso brand (Pavoni contends that the name espresso was conceived on a whim).
The new Ideale was manufactured in Pavoni’s Milanese workshop, and its numerous innovations were important steps toward modern espresso.