The History and Future of Espresso

Espresso

Over 350 million espresso based drinks are made in the United States every day.

Espresso is a drink made up of two ingredients: coffee and water. It is made using an espresso machine, which uses high pressure (usually 9 bars of pressure) to push the near boiling water (92 degrees) through finely ground coffee.

History of Coffee

There is a lot of myths or un-credible stories about coffee which date back to the 9th century. My favourite story is one about a herdsmen, Khaldi. The story goes, that one of his goats chewed on a red berry and was absolutely full of energy as a result. Khaldi then decided to sample the berries himself and was buzzing. Boom! The coffee plant was discovered. The date this was supposed to have happened was 850 AD.

However, the first credible evidence of us having contact with coffee is during the 15th century when Sufi monasteries in Yemen used the plant to help themselves concentrate during their late-night prayers. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the knowledge of coffee spread to Europe and by the 19th century, coffee was a booming business in Europe. The only problem was that it was a long and messy process to brew. Inventors starting to design machines that used steam to quickly extract the flavour from the coffee.

First Espresso Machines

The first espresso machines date back to 1844. The word espresso in Italian means “pressed-out” which is referring to the pressure pushing the water through the coffee. In 1884, Angelo Moriondo registered a patent for his invention, as seen below. Moriondo’s design took too long to make coffee and was very bulky.

Patent by Angelo for first espresso machine

Patent by Angelo for first espresso machine

In 1901 a new and improved espresso machine was designed by Luigi Bezzera an inventor from Milan. This machine had a boiler and four divisions (group heads).  It was the first commercial “Espresso Machine” 

In 1903 a man called Desiderio Pavoni bought the patent from Luigi, as he believed he could improve on the design of the machines, which he did in 1905, founding “La Pavoni”. Although the machines were better, they of course were still a long way from what we have today. The pressure it used to brew the coffee was between 1-2 bar; whereas today, we use 9 bar of pressure.The group heads were around 140°C, today we brew at around 93°C.

First espresso machine

Early design of espresso machines

In the coming decades, there were several small incremental improvements to the espresso machines. However, what made it a global success wasn’t so much the improvements as it was the clever marketing campaign by Pier Arduino. Funny enough, the ad had well dressed society men and women enjoying an espresso. This campaign turned espresso from an Italian drink to a beverage enjoyed around the world. I’m sure I have seen this advert before… Oh no, wait! That was the early George Clooney and Nespresso ad.

Another new and exciting way to make espresso was invented in 1947 by Achille Gaggia. Achilla patented a spring lever piston machine. This machine was the first to brew coffee using 8-10 bars of pressure. The high pressure produced crema; that yellow/gold layer on top of the espresso which is mostly carbon dioxide, and is a still massive characteristic of the drink today. Unfortunately, the pressure meant the handles were prone to snapping back and injuring Baristas!

In 1961 Ernesto Valente, from Faema Group, invented a machine that was able to keep the pressure at a steady 9 bars using a mechanical pump. It also had a heat exchanger system which kept the brew temperature stable. This is the basis of espresso machines today.

1961 Faema E61
1961 Faema E61

The Future of Espresso

Espresso machines today have developed a huge amount. A lot of the developments were made to make the baristas life easier to produce great coffee. For example, weigh scales built into the drip tray under the espresso cup so that the barista can easily weigh the yield and  domestic machines that can steam the milk for you. Some machines even have pressure profiling which allows you to change the pressure as the coffee is brewing.

KB90
2019 La Marzocco KB90

Espresso, by definition, is a beverage made by forcing water through coffee with pressure. So to really consider the future of espresso we need to keep that in mind. 

Espresso machine companies are doing an incredible job at designing new espresso machines. They are very user friendly, amazingly consistent and they look like an artist designed them. However, to brew a nice coffee you need training. A lot of coffee shops these days have a dedicated barista or two that stay behind the espresso machines at all times and ensure quality. Although some cafes don’t have the resources to do so, meaning different people are making coffees and not all of them have been trained. This results in a wide range of quality. Take Starbucks as an example, they have eliminated this headache by using automated machines that brew the coffee and steam the milk for the barista. I envision the development of machines leading to smart technology which will prompt the barista that something is wrong and they need to make a change. I also see the growth in general coffee knowledge, putting pressure on owners to ensure their staff are skilled enough to produce excellent coffees. Meaning espresso will continue to grow and it will keep getting easier to get a decent espresso at every corner.

Are Pods a Solution?

I think pods could play a part in the future of espresso, especially in restaurants where it wouldn’t make sense to have a dedicated barista. I was visiting Lisbon last week and noticed many restaurants already have Nespresso as the coffee offering. If we think of how espresso was invented, it was made to be quick, easy and convenient, all of which are characteristics of pods. Espresso wasn’t too tasty at the beginning, but now it’s pretty damn good. There are already speciality roasters selling coffee pods that taste great! Along with a milk frother, this can produce a decent flat white, so I feel it would be foolish for people not to consider these as an option in a restaurant. I can attest that I have had nicer flat whites using my pod machine, with speciality pods and a milk frother, than a lot of cafes or restaurants out there. On the flip side, the best tasting pod coffee I have had has been nowhere near the quality of a good espresso pulled by a barista using an espresso machine. Could the history of espresso become the future of Nespresso? Of course, by Nespresso I mean the future of pods in general, but that doesn’t sound as catchy.

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