Demystifying Espresso

The term café-espress has been used since the 1880s, well before espresso machines existed. It means coffee made to order, expressly for the person ordering it. It also means coffee fresh in every sense of the word:

  • Made from fresh beans roasted at most two weeks prior to use,
  • Ground just before brewing,
  • Brewed just before drinking.

Ideally, all cafés and restaurants would serve even their regularly brewed coffee as espresso in this larger sense—freshly ground in press pots, neopolitans, vacuum brewers or table top pourovers. The aroma of good coffee is delicate and dissipates in a matter of minutes after grinding, whether it is brewed or not.

Early steam-powered Bezzera espresso machinePeople are in a hurry. For many workers, waiting five minutes for coffee to brew is too long. They were also in a hurry 100 years ago when inventors started looking for faster ways to brew coffee to order. It being the age of steam, the first attempts used steam rather than water. A steam brewing contraption at the 1896 World’s Fair is said to have made 3000 cups per hour. Unfortunately, steam-brewed coffee tastes awful since coffee generally needs to brew at just below boiling (195-205°F or 90-96°C) to taste its best. In 1901, the Italian inventor Luigi Bezzera came up with a workable solution. Pavoni manufactured these first espresso machines in 1905.

This machine was also steam powered. However, the steam does not come into contact with the coffee. Instead, steam pressure at the top of the boiler forces water at the bottom of the boiler through ground coffee. The coffee is held in a group consisting of a portafilter, a metal filter basket and removable brass mount, and a brew head into which the portafilter attaches. The piping and group were designed to act as heat radiators, so the temperature of the pressurized water dropped from 250°F (120°C) in the boiler to the correct brewing temperature at the grouphead. This brewing principle is still used in stovetop mochapots. Since the water was pressurized, the coffee could be ground finer than in a regular pourover brewer, reducing the minimum brewing cycle from about 4 minutes to 30 seconds. Espresso machines and their accompanying coffee grinders became the standard equipment for making coffee in Italy, Southern France, Spain and Latin America. In other parts of the world, it followed Italian immigrants who popularized it in each country they settled.

But technology moves on, and this method is no longer regarded as specifically espresso, although mochapots and other steam pressured brewers continue to be marketed under the name. In the 1920s through the 1940s, Italian engineers experimented with pumping devices to increase the brewing pressure. The first practical one was developed by Cremonesi in 1938 and manufactured by Achille Gaggia in 1946. It used a hand powered piston. On machines of this type, steam pressure in the boiler forces the water into a cylinder, but then it is pressurized further by a spring-powered piston to about 8 to 9 bar (120 to 135 PSI), or 8 to 9 times the pressure that had been developed by the steam machines. The spring that powers the piston is compressed by a lever forced down by the barista (Italian for barkeep)—the person making the coffee. As with the older generation machines, these lever groups are designed to cool the water from boiler to brewing temperature.

Early Gaggia lever machineNow we have modern espresso in the restricted sense of the term—coffee brewed with water at 8 to 9 bar pressure between 90°C to 96°C. This technology also explains why modern espresso uses the same amount in a small one ounce drink as was previously used in 2½ ounce demitasse espressos or five ounce regular cups of coffee. The pressurization cylinder could only hold that much water, otherwise the arm strength required to compress the spring would have been prohibitive. Finally, if it’s done just right, the added brewing pressure creates a nice layer of foam over the coffee called crema.

Legend has it that the first patrons to drink the new potion at Gaggia’s coffee bar didn’t think it was so nice. They asked, “What’s this scum (sciuma – foam) on my coffee?” So in a marketing ploy, Gaggia called the new drink “caffè crema” instead of espresso. For about a decade, espresso machines were made with some groups using the old style one bar steam pressure and others using the new-fangled nine bar spring-lever pressure. But in time, the new style won out and became the true espresso. The term “caffè crema” died out, only to be revived for another style of coffee drink by the Swiss in the 80s.

The cylinder on lever groups only held an ounce of water, limiting the volume that could be used to prepare an espresso. There are no such limits for an electric pump. So why hasn’t espresso gone back to being a regular or demitasse cup of coffee, only brewed more quickly using pressure? This is precisely what the Swiss do for the drink now called a café crema. However, by the time the newer electric pump models came out, espresso had become its own drink category, and people had developed a taste for the “little cup.” The only change to espresso created by electric pump machines is the introduction of the double espresso—double the water and double the coffee for a drink with the identical concentration and taste.

Home lever machines had been designed since the 1960s, but they didn’t achieve a mass market because of two severe shortcomings: the groups were too small, so the coffee would overheat after a few shots, and the shortened levers required considerable arm strength. The next big breakthrough came in the late 1970s. A company called Ulka introduced a small, inexpensive pump that could still produce the pressure required by modern espresso. This made affordable and small home pump espresso machines a practical possibility. Gaggia and Quick Mill brought out the first models and many other manufacturers soon followed.


SpeedsterWe are currently experiencing a new wave of innovation as the electronics revolution is catching up with coffee machines. There are fully automated, push button espresso machines which grind and make a fresh shot or cup in one touch. They do a better job than poorly trained people, but not as good as the best trained baristas. Electronics are also prompting a wave of new manual machine designs that allow more precision and adjustment of both brewing temperature and pressure.

Will this new wave again redefine what we call an espresso? Perhaps it will, and probably it should.

First, a development on the technical side: A good contemporary espresso has a layer of crema, but much of the coffee is still liquid. However, every espresso hound has experienced shots that are almost all foam and stable for long enough to drink as such. Increasing precision in the brewing technology is allowing such all-foam shots to become the standard.

There is also a more radical change on the horizon. Espresso brewing has a weakness. While it does wonders for rather ordinary, low grown, low acid coffees from Brazil and Indonesia, it produces too sour and acrid a taste when used with most of the finest high grown, high acid coffees from Central America or Africa. These “grand cru” coffees still have to be brewed in the old-fashioned way, or used in only small amounts for espresso blends. I hope that changes in technique, grinder and machine design will soon bring the very best coffees to the little cup.

Why do I think this will happen?

The current espresso-making technique was developed in Italy, where espresso is cheap and regarded as the equivalent of take-out coffee. They have refined it to the point where there is no better way to prepare everyday coffees. But in the rest of the world, the situation is very different. Espresso is sold as a premium drink because it is so much better than the local everyday coffees. This has created a large number of espresso enthusiasts whose attitude often bewilders Italians. With the advent of the Internet, these enthusiasts, comprised of both professionals and their amateur customers, have come together and are improving on the state of the art. Manufacturers serving this market make more precise machines; roasters use higher quality coffees in their espresso blends; and baristas push the envelope of skill, especially since the advent of the Barista World Championships. In this friendly competition to be the best, people will want to use the most premium coffees they can and demand equipment able to unlock their wonders. Most of the new innovators will probably not be Italian, although it will probably be Italian manufacturers that make use of the discoveries.

But there is also a looming shadow—the number of coffee drinkers is declining. Mass coffee marketeers have misread the coffee market for the last fifty years, and their products have become ever cheaper and more vile. Few people new to coffee would knowlingly choose to drink Folgers or Maxwell House as they are now. The specialty coffee roasters of the 80s did create a new, younger coffee public, but they now have been sidetracked into pandering with ever more massive and sweet milk concoctions mislabeled as espresso. These drinks are gradually moving into Coke and Pepsi’s turf, and when these giants finally notice and bring the stuff out in cans at fifty cents a pop, even Starbucks is going to get squashed. Espresso is in danger of becoming just another soft drink flavor.

The widening range of equipment and beverages labeled as ‘espresso’ has prompted specialty coffee associations to issue standards for genuine espresso. Here is a link to the Italian and the best American standard. These standards are excellent, but nevertheless, I have some problems with them:

  • Being voluntary, they do nothing to curtail the misuse of the term ‘espresso’ by the worst elements of the industry,
  • Having been adopted by the best baristas for competition, the best cafés for their practice, and the best manufacturers for equipment design, they may inhibit the cream of the industry from innovating,
  • Having been negotiated by large industry players, these standards do not specify freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee, and thereby get the details right while missing the main point: fresh coffee. Coffee freshly roasted, ground, and prepared is the one thing that cannot be canned and mass marketed. It should be the first line in every espresso specification.

If you are reading this, it’s likely you are an actual or budding espresso enthusiast. The latest innovations have been driven and even developed by amateur and professional enthusiasts. It is also enthusiasts who can put a brake to the bastardization of coffee and espresso into ever more inane soft drinks. My fervent hope is that this introduction to the art of home espresso will help.

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