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The History of Espresso Pt. 2

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This is part two of our two-part series on the history of espresso. You can jump right in if you want, but we recommend you take a look at part one first.

The Milan Fair and Beyond

Following the Milan Fair in 1906, others began to manufacture espresso machines all across Italy. The simple and utilitarian design of Bezzera’s first machine was quickly replaced with elaborate and gilded Macchinas that looked like something out of a steampunk novel.

The early machines produced up to 1,000 shots of espresso per hour, but they had a major problem—they could only use steam power. Relying on steam to produce the coffee carried a couple of unfortunate side effects; the coffee was imbued with a bitter or burnt taste, and the machine could only conjure up, on a good day, two bars of pressure.

By today’s standard, two bars of pressure wouldn’t even produce a beverage worthy of the espresso title.

As the 20th century progressed, art deco replaced chrome-and-brass as the preferred aesthetic and electricity took the place of gas. The machines followed suit, and became smaller and more efficient; but, still, no one could figure out how to create a machine that could brew with more than two bars of pressure and not burn the coffee.

Sizing Up the Competition

The good news was that Pavoni was still at the top. His machines dominated the espresso market, even if it was a region-specific delight for the people of Milan.

As time went on, however, the competitors arrived to stake their claim on the espresso market. Pier Teresio Arduino was an inventor who was determined to discover a brewing method that didn’t rely on steam. He tried to incorporate air pumps and screw pistons into the machine, but none of the modifications ever seemed to work out.

While Arduino may have come up short in the technical realm, he was a master marketer and businessman. He built a massive marketing machine for espresso and, by the 1920s, Arduino’s workshop was larger than Pavoni’s. As a result, Ardunio had much higher production capabilities which, combined with his marketing savvy, allowed him to begin exporting machines outside of Italy and spreading the idea of espresso across Europe.

New Breakthroughs

No matter how far espresso spread, no one could figure out how to surpass the two bar barrier. After two world wars, however, the problem was finally solved by Milanese café owner Achille Gaggia. In Gaggia’s machine, steam pressure from the boiler forced the water into a cylinder where it was pressurized by a barista-operated spring-piston lever.

This breakthrough meant that the espresso machine no longer required massive boilers to produce pressure, and that the Macchina could produce 8-10 bars of atmospheric pressure. The levers also created a standard size of espresso, because the cylinder groups could only hold about an ounce of water.

The term “pulling a shot of espresso” originated during this time period, where it was coined by baristas operating the levers. More importantly, the high-pressure levers created one of the key features of an espresso—crema.

Crema is the light foam that floats on top of the espresso, and, initially, consumers were unsure about the “scum” above their coffee. In a brilliant PR move, Gaggia began to refer to it as “caffe crème,” and convinced consumers that it was a sign of high quality. Combining the high pressure with the golden cream, Gaggia gave birth to the modern shot of espresso.

The Saga Continues

The improvements to the Macchina weren’t finished, though. In 1961, Ernesto Valente introduced the Faema E61, which used a motorized pump to produce the required pressure, rather than the manual power of the barista. The technical innovations, combined with the smaller size, stainless steel design, and versatility, propelled the E61 to success and ensured its spot as one of the most important coffee innovations in history.

Since the Faema E61, espresso machines have drastically improved, yet no matter how good the machinery becomes, it isn’t enough. Espresso making, like any fine art, depends on the steady hand of the artist. A talented barista is as important to the final espresso as any part of the Macchina or the quality of the beans.

It’s said that a good espresso depends on the four Ms:

  • Macchina—the espresso machine
  • Macinazione—the proper grinding of beans
  • Miscela—the roast and coffee blend
  • Mano—the barista’s skilled hand.

When combined, the four Ms produce a complex drink with a very, very complex history.

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