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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Depiction of a coffee house in the 1600's

Venice (Mother of Cafes):

Although coffee had been consumed in so-called “coffeehouses” by many different peoples across Africa and the Middle East for decades, the first Italian cafe did not arrive on the scene until 1645 with the opening of the Cafe Florian in Venice. Although initially coffee was greeted in Venice with a great degree of skepticism, the people soon fell in love with the “Turk’s brew”. The Florian was spacious, ornately decorated with gold leaf and watercolor paintings on the walls, and in other words strictly forbidden to those of the lower classes (although they had their own cafes). But especially unwanted were the Turks and any other foreigners, because at that time the Venetians did not like foreigners and didn’t even want to associate with them. So, they too had their own separate cafes. The most notable of which being the Cafe Lavena which opened up in the year 1750 (albeit under a different name) by Carlo Lavena. Cafe Lavena had it’s fair share of famous customers, but Richard Wagner, who would visit daily with his family to write music and converse with Carlo Lavena himself would eventually become such a fixture at the cafe that it earned the nickname of “Wagner’s cafe”. Amusingly, at the same time that the German Richard Wagner was composing music and socializing at the Lavena, the Italian Giuseppe Verdi was doing the same at the Florian. Neither ever thought to cross the dividing wall and meet the other.

France:

Although today the French are renowned for their corner cafes attended by philosophers, writers, politicians and film stars alike, coffee did not catch on in France until the late 1684, well after the opening of the Florian. But suddenly in Paris (thanks partly to Soleiman Agha, Ambassador from Sultan Mehmed IV), there was a craze for all things Arab. Their clothing, their sofas and especially their coffee. The French were eager to make up for lost time when it came to coffee, but there was a problem: They didn’t know how to make it. so, It was up to an Italian named Procopio del Cortel who saw the profit to be made in Paris to open the first “french cafe”. In France, just like everywhere else, coffee came to be associated with sex. It was reputed to be an aphrodisiac for men and thus became very popular among women in opposition to wine which was seen as harmful to a man’s “performance”. And also just like everywhere else, along with cafes came the cafe culture, because when coffee replaces wine and other alcohols, suddenly people can have long, coherent conversation, something which can prove not only to be informative, but seditious and even outright treasonous.

England:

Oddly enough the first coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Oxford, England, by a Jewish immigrant from Lebanon in 1650. Of course initially British coffee merchants sold coffee to the gullible citizens as a cure for dyspepsia, eye-sores, coughs, colds, rheumatism, consumption, head-aches, gout, scurvy, etc. Ironically, they fail to mention the one thing that coffee is believed to be good for today. As Reay Tannahill mentions in her book Food in History, “Modern research does, in fact, suggest coffee may be good for…Asthma. It is also thought to reduce the chance of developing cancer of the colon.”

Coffee took England by storm. By 1700 there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. The English introduced coffee to the East Indies where they brought thousands of Tamil laborers from South india to work on their coffee plantations in Sri Lanka. The repercussions of this can still be seen in Sri Lankan politics to this day. Coffee houses became known as “Penny Universities” in reference to the price of the coffee as well as the stimulating conversation. However, in England, women were strictly forbidden from coffeehouses unless they worked there (in which case they were probably one of the many prostitutes who earned their living there.), thus coffeehouses became more like gentleman’s clubs. But, once again coffee became associated with sex, but this time to it’s detriment. The women of England noticed that their husbands after coming home from a coffeehouse would tend to be less than responsive to their advances in the bedroom. So, since women had no idea that some of those men had already gotten their fill at the coffeehouse, the women assumed that there must be something about the coffee itself which inhibits the man’s libido. The ladies of London even went so far as to publish a pamphlet called the “Maiden’s Complaint” which among other things accused coffee of causing their men to “…have nothing moist but their noses, nothing stiff but their joints, and nothing standing but their ears”.

The Women's Petition Against Coffee (aka the "Maiden's Complaint")

The men then wrote a response stating that it was in fact the complete opposite and that coffee actually made them better lovers. However, regardless of how popular coffee was with the men, the ladies and the children were becoming more and more hooked on a new brew called tea. Suddenly, by the 1800’s tea houses were sprouting up everywhere and  partially because of it’s refined simplicity and partly because of it’s family-friendly atmosphere the tea house would come to completely replace coffee in English culture.



A quick poll:

November 24, 2009

Hey guys, I have a quick poll here to determine what kind of coffee my readers drink and how they buy it. Please take a few seconds and select an answer that fits you. Thanks!