As you raise that espresso cup to your lips, take this moment to reflect - Home consumers of gourmet and espresso coffee owe a debt of gratitude to the inveterate and intrepid inventors of the 19th and 20th centuries. If not for their undying craftiness and their endless quest for the perfect extraction, todays espresso based drinks would be, well, undrinkable.
In our society of instant this and fast-food that, we take for granted that our favorite caffeinated beverage is minutes away in one of many branded gourmet coffee bars. Yet, in less than 200 years, the techniques of brewing a coffee have gone from archaic to high-tech. Let's look at the roots of cafe and home espresso.
In 1822, a French national, Louis Bernard Rabaut developed a brewer which, by using steam, forced hot water through the coffee grounds instead of the gravity powered drip method. Perhaps by accident, the first great grand-parent of espresso coffee was born. This method was less than perfect as steam would superheat the water to boiling leaving the coffee burnt tasting.
In 1901, Luigi Bezzera built the first coffee machine that was fitted with a boiler. Boiling water and steam were forced through multiple filters (4 at the time), much like the units we see in cafes today, and espresso coffee was now being brewed in an entirely new way. Still, boiling water that came in contact with coffee was a bad thing and more improvements were still to come.
In 1905, the Pavoni company began manufacturing machines based on the Bezzera style machine. These mass produced units ignited a cafe revolution and in 1927 the first one appeared in an Greenwich Village stalwart called Caffe Reggio's. (www.caffereggio.com)
Incredible but true, this New York cafe is still using an original machine manufactured by Pavoni in 1902.
In 1938, Sr. Cremonesi, a technician in an Italian coffee grinder factory, developed and patented a piston pump that forced hot (but not boiling) water through the coffee. This new design was first used at Giovanni Achille Gaggia's coffee bar in Milan, Italy. After World War II, Gaggia began manufacturing a commercial piston machine.
This espresso coffee had the now familiar golden layer that we call "crema" today. This was a key development - the brew water was no longer boiling hot and the resulting espresso coffee was no longer burnt.
In 1961, M. Faema created a pump-based machine where the water is forced through the finely ground coffee by an electric pump. This design would be readily copied bringing cafe quality espresso into the average home. The revolution of home espresso was born.
Soon, espresso machines would have many visual, physical and engineering improvements in order to produce a consistent product and please a demanding and competitive marketplace.
So, as you are taking those first anticipatory sips, give a nod of appreciation to your espresso machine and remember this - You can count on 200 years of fine design, forward thinking and the odd twist and turn that went into the coffee maker you enjoy today.
Colin Newell created the coffeecrew webpages in 1994. He lives and works in Victoria, B.C. Canada.