Generation E (part 1)

December 9, 2010

Coffee is old. Hundreds of generations before the advent of pre-ground “flavor crystals”, people were drinking a brew not so very different from your very own morning cup. It is the everyman drink, whether chairman of a multinational or Yemeni villager, coffee plays an important (some would even say vital!) role in your daily schedule. There is, however, a more recent tradition in coffee that is almost exclusively enjoyed in the first world and almost exclusively in a cafe. This tradition has been called “the pinnacle” of coffee perfection and yet very little of it is actually understood by professionals and even less so by the lay person. The tradition I am talking about, as some of you may have already guessed, is espresso. Unadulterated, it can transform your idea of what coffee can be. Add dairy and you create a whole new avenue for artisans to express and challenge themselves. This is the first part of a two (or maybe more) part series of posts on espresso.

The romantic mystique of espresso.

Birth of a tradition:

It was in 1901 that Luigi Bazzera, a Milanese entrepreneur, set out to find a way of increasing the productivity of his employees. His main concern was the wasteful coffee breaks that, by law, he had to provide for his employees. So, he put all of his turn-of-the-century ingenuity to work and patented a device which he called the Tipo Gigante. The principle behind his invention was to force water, using steam pressure, through a puck of coffee out a spout and into a cup in a fraction of the time any other machine took. To this extent his machine was a resounding success! The only problem was that the resulting brew was repulsively bitter and burnt tasting and nobody wanted to drink it.

Tipo Gigante

So, frustrated with his own invention, Bazzera sold his patent to the Tipo Gigante in 1905 to Desiderio Pavoni. Pavoni made a few changes to Bezzera’s original design, which helped improve the flavor of the resulting beverage which led to a dramatic rise in espresso’s popularity. La Pavoni would be the first espresso machine manufacturing company, followed shortly thereafter by Victoria Arduino (who’s iconic advertisements are still reprinted as art pieces), La Cimbali, La Marzocco and Rancilio. Desiderio Pavoni’s changes to the original Tipo Gigante helped enormously to popularize espresso and soon La Pavoni became the standard appliance for chic cafes all over Europe. This method of brewing would remain relatively popular in industrialized Western Europe, where coffee break lasted but a few precious minutes, but a new kind of espresso bar was evolving.

Modern Espresso:

Despite the improvements that had been made on Bazzera’s original patent, they were all limited by their reliance on steam pressure for brewing. This means that not only did they almost invariably burn the coffee, but also the barista had virtually no control over the resulting shot. So, in 1938 Achille Gaggia, founder of the Italian espresso machine manufacturing company Gaggia, patented a piston-driven espresso machine. The seemingly simple addition of a piston-pump offered the barista greater control over the length of the shot, the amount of pressure used to force the water out of the boiler. Also, for the first time, the barista was able to perform a low-pressure preinfusion before beginning the full pressure brew phase. This was a complete departure from what espresso had been before towards the drink we know and love today. Gaggia’s design is also where the phrase “pulling a shotderives from. This is because the barista had to physically pull the piston lever down in order to apply pressure to the hot water in the boiler and produce a shot. Very simple mechanics, but they demand a high level of knowledge, attention and skill from the barista in order to produce great espresso. Realizing the market for companies that wanted to brew espresso but don’t want the attached cost of training every employee to very exacting brewing methods, Faema released their E61 espresso machine in 1960. This machine featured an internal, motor-driven pump, which would provide consistent, adequate (about 9 atmospheres) pressure for the entire length of the brew process. The skill required for operation was dramatically lowered, and consistency went way up. To this day, mechanical pump espresso machines (with some variations) remain the most popular design for commercial applications.


In part 2, I will detail the current trends in the espresso world as well as try to dispel a few prevailing myths out there.


Victoria Arduino Advertisement, 1922


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