Atomic Coffee - through my eyes

alt2009 - The Atomic Coffee maker has made its way to the front pages of prominent magazines, newspapers, webzines and blogs. Again!

Of hundreds and hundreds of e-mail and forum discussions on the coffeecrew website, the Atomic debates are amongst the most lively and the most contentious.

As editor and creator of the CoffeeCrew website, I have seen almost everything coffee related - brewers, accessories, coffees, you name it. I have yet to put my hands on a genuine Atomic espresso coffee maker. Yet.

On the surface, the Atomic espresso is just another coffee maker. It is steam powered. It is made of solid aluminum with some dissimilar metal components (that introduce their own share of problems - more on that later.) Steam powered indeed. My first espresso-cappuccino maker was a multi-chef unit. It had an aluminum boiler with a thermal-plastic shell. Actually, I had three of them and I gave two of them away to family members. Did it make espresso? No. All steam powered espresso makers lack the bar-pressure to extract espresso from coffee. It takes 6 to 12 atmospheres of pressure to make espresso. My multi-chef could not do this. Neither could the Atomic. But so what. So what is the big deal anyway?

Some time ago we interviewed an authority on the subject. He knows more about Atomic coffee makers than anyone.

"Espresso maker or no? Details! The Atomic is not just a coffee maker. The Atomic espresso maker symbolizes a period in art and design The Atomic was reportedly designed in the UK in the 1940's. Atomic espresso makers bearing the Sassoon tag indicate a 1947 British patent. They were all Italian made, Giordano Robbiati of Milan being the primary patent holder. "

Early machines carry an Austrian patent by Stella in Vienna. They are without the front plug in the water reservoir and have a flatter profile. The rounder Atomic was manufactured from the 1950s on until the factories closing in 1986. Variations on the basic design are subtle indeed! Size and shape vary, as does placement of the steam valve and filler knob, portafilter design, and the density of the bodywork. From the beginning, the manufacturer used polished aluminum. There are even orange and brown Atomics from the sixties and seventies. Other typical features like the bakelite knobs are black. The steam knob is red. Always. There are rare units have green bakelite bits and pieces!

Somewhere in the evolution of the Atomic coffee maker a steam wand was added. This would be the most significant change in the designs history.

Just as many kitchen appliances (and other consumer articles) are re-branded, so it was for the hallowed Atomic. Common re-brands include Stella (Austria), Robbiati (Italy), Sassoon (UK), Bon Trading (Australia), Thomas Cara, as well as others. Cara, of San Francisco, even added a pressure gauge to the top of some machines! Okay then!

Our expert is quick to remind us of the critical rules of Atomic ownership and usage.

"Never leave the main knob screwed on, except when you are brewing. Never, ever never!"

"Do not tamp the coffee beyond 5 ounces of pressure. This rule works with all espresso machines too! Italians do not tamp their espresso coffee! And neither should you!"

"Fresh coffee and a consistent grind. There is nothing else to worry about..."

On cleaning? "If it's an experienced machine, take off the two screws under the head. Scrub what you see and straighten that filter plate with the back of a soup spoon. All cleaning in that region can be made with a Brillo pad or S.O.S (for us Canadians!). "

What if my machine that has been in the back of the cupboard for weeks or months?

"Shame! Fill half with cold water and shake the crap out of it.
Next: Empty contents. Repeat until no more flakes come out."

Flakes I ask? "You know - scale. Hard water. Throw in a teaspoon of pharmacy grade powdered citric acid and shake, shake, shake your booty... get it?"

Yeah - this is how we make martini's on the West coast - that is another story.

"Fill Atomic with fresh water. Tighten the knob in place. the black rubber seal? Replace it if it does not look resilient any more."
Our expert uses French roast coffee with his bevy of Atomics. It's nice, dark and shiny. "Grind? Something along the line of a sugar like grain consistency."

"Do not use espresso grind!!! Be warned!"

Consistency is the operative word here. There are two baskets for the Atomic portafilter, a shallow one, and a deep one.
He says it doesn't make one bit of difference which one you use. He is continually comparing both of them and the only difference... "I notice (as with many other tasters along the years) is that the deeper basket uses more coffee!"

So use the smaller one he says...

"Fill the smaller basket to 3/4, evenly. I call it layering, nice and flat. Twist that holder into place. Fire it up, making sure that the steamer knob is shut. Not all of these units have them so if there is a steam knob, shut it. Place the jug under the Atomic spout."

On high heat, especially gas, things happen quickly. In a minute or two the spluttering starts... (sounds like any stove-top espresso maker to this writer!)

Soon the coffee is done.

Prepare two cups. Add 2% cold milk, about 1/4 full in 2 or 3 mugs. Place each individual cup underneath the frothing wand and raise the mug to the tip and crack open that red ball knob. Do the frothing bit for each mug. Close steam knob between mugs. You can do three mugs. That tip must be cleaned between uses and never let the dried milk stagnate there.

Add the coffee from the wonderful authentic Atomic jug (with black bakelite handle) to each of the three cups in equal portion.

When the body is cool, unscrew the main knob and empty what water is there. Remove the main knob! Capiche?

Not all Atomics perform the same. Some have thicker bodies and take more time to heat up. Others take less time. I own an early model with the frothing attachment fixed on top of the head. It brews too fast and the full coffee flavor is not developed. Solution? Lower the heat, more time is needed and that's all. Final thoughts: Experiment! Finer grind will give you more pressure (never tamp). Lower heat will give you more flavor.

Coffeecrew readers (like me) have asked about the mystique of the Atomic. Why? What is the deal with this lump of aluminum?

"The history of the Atomic coffee maker is clouded in mystery, murder, industrial espionage and post-war intrigue."

"Look here - On top of the flat head, a label shows the word Atomic, in a stylized atomic mushroom cloud. Think about it. It was after the war. The birth of the atomic era. Bomb shelters. Fear. Communism. Spy versus spy. The Atomic was the counterpoint to the American dream hinting at the dark underbelly of early globalization and industrialization."

Okay, okay - James Bond aside, what about this, I ask. Under the word Atomic, the word espresso. Espresso no less! Espresso!

"Atomic Espresso Stella Wien patent" - Earliest of the early models. ...often in fact. Nice technique!

"The size of the threads are much smaller than all other models. This second size would remain to the end of production and would include the stand-offish Sasoon model. It is also used the same size thread used for the boiler plug."

"The Stella knob has no undercut - perhaps to dissipate the heat faster and thus prevent it from splitting. The undercut feature is found later, on the second of the flat top models and on the first of the round tops." Interestingly, the Atomic never changed in big ways - only small, subtle ways -- little improvements.

The safety valve is a complicated matter on the Stella and a small hole on top of the knob lets us detect its presence.
This knob is screwed in at a slant. It is a small user friendly design that facilitates filling up with the jug provided. This slant vanished in the next model. The fill up hole is perpendicular to the neck.

"The Atomic Stella had no boiler plug and neither did the subsequent models bearing, for the first time, the name Robbiati.

Our expert warns: "Don't be fooled."

"The sand core (used in the complicated aluminum casting) had to come out (of the Atomic body) somewhere and if you hold the Atomic at a 32 degrees angle, you will notice a different aluminum color where the plug should be!" Yes.
The hole had been welded up! Any welder will tell you how hard it is to weld aluminum.

The temperature has to be just right.
Few people realise this but aluminum is the same color, frigid cold or in liquid molten state. Welding it like this....You know the difference between first and second place in an Olympic 100 meter dash? That is what welding aluminum is like.
Aluminum is tricky to work with today. Imagine this in the late forties!"

I am reminded again - "every single square millimeter, of the Atomic, has been modified, yet it remained the same..."

One thing to remember, here in the 21st century - robots and off-shore labour have replaced true craftsmanship with the cheap and the generic. The Atomic was a hand produced item. As the global economy evolved (!?), the Atomic succumbed to excessive demand and the impossibility of economic manufacture. "Hand made!"
"...Sand casting, machining, and the polishing involved. Every single one, battered, dirty, with missing parts...should be rescued. They are works of art."

One wonders who holds the key to the Atomic renaissance. In 2009, it is a whole new playing field. A few years back a rather trashy looking model was produced in India - its coffee basket looked like it had holes punched out by hand and then chewed up my a mangy dog. Today there is more to choose from and more hope for the new collector.

On the horizon? Bon Trading. Otto. Atomic UK. The Sorrentina. To name a few perhaps.

Apparently they are still having bits and pieces of the original Atomic still made in Italy. So many bits and pieces that might just make a whole.

Care and Feeding.

Not every baby comes with a user manual and troubleshooting guide. Well, this one does. So let's jump in:

-The Big Black Knob!

To remove the BBBK (big bad black knob) that has seized. Mister-T first said "I pity the fool..." after noticing that someone left their black knob on their Atomic after brewing.

You can try:

1- warming up the neck part with a propane torch, around the knob, not THE knob. This method is for experienced handy persons. Remember: Hot gases can burn or injure. Be careful!

2- Take a 4 X 24 inch piece of plywood, 3/4" thick, at one end trace the shape of the BBBK and cut out the result with a hand jig saw. Takes patience, worth it and fun!
Clamp your precious Atomic on a solid surface. Any vise (padded with rubber) will do - the boiler surface is perfect as a hold down.
Insert the plywood and twist in a slow and steady motion. The aluminum insert has two small lugs cast into it, you can rip the thermo plastic knob. So, gently apply sustained force.

3- Demolish the BBBK with a drill. Bring it to a machinist to pass a tap in the aluminum treaded piece. If you do demolish the female threads, you can always place a stainless insert.

-The Seals!

You can get the rubber seals at Bon Trading. OR pop into any hobby shop that caters to steam enthusiasts and ask for fiber washer material. Then go to a leather worker shop and ask them to punch out the washers that you need. This will be a perfect job.

Do not try to remove the frothing unit on the neck of your Atomic. Unscrew the red ball (black if your Atomic is red), unscrew knurled part, continue unscrewing the red ball, then the knurled part. When the knurled part slips free - Continue with the red ball. The threads are longer than you think. Undo the shaft assembly and replace the seals. Of course the leather worker punched them slightly bigger than the ones that you took off.

-Cleaning and Shining
The Atomic-New Zealand page has a straightforward description on how to spruce up a weathered Atomic. Link on left menu.

-The present and the future
As we have discovered on some of the online auction houses, trouble is afoot. Individuals, deliberate or no, have been selling copied Atomics as Italian-made originals.
I said, at the beginning of this chapter, that there has been contentious discussion. No kidding.

One writer insisted that there are no fakes. Who said anything about fakes? Knock-offs. Clones. They are copies! Copies. Whatever.

A Japanese engineer once said, "Duplication is the highest form of flattery..."

Well that might be true, there is nothing flattering about the junk coming out of Asia. Frederick speaks:
"the holes in the coffee basket looked like they were punched out with a rusty nail... by a small child... and then tossed onto the desert sand for a hound to gnaw on..."

Flash forward to some poor sap buying one of these copies.

I can imagine the red-faced rage finding out you just paid 500 dollars for a 95 dollar counter-top knick-knack. Oh well. Buyer beware right?

Whomever hits the marketplace first - They won't come cheap. Of the original and authentic Atomic coffee makers? If anything, experts agree - they can only grow more valuable.

Our anonymous expert concludes... "If you have one, look after it. If it is in good condition, celebrate and enjoy it. If it is derelict, restore it."

The Atomic coffee maker has an important place in the history of art and design. It made a bold statement that resonates with us today. If you think about it for a moment, you will agree: the Atomic represents the past, present and future of 4 generations of coffee enthusiasts. Their hopes and dreams cast in bolts of aluminum and bakelite... under the cloud of the mushroom.

Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada - A fully grown child at heart, he sees the World in black and white and caffeinated through and through.