The Birth of Espresso: The Story Behind the Coffee Shots That Fuel Modern Life

Espres­so is nei­ther bean nor roast.

It is a method of pres­sur­ized cof­fee brew­ing that ensures speedy deliv­ery, and it has birthed a whole cul­ture.

Amer­i­cans may be accus­tomed to camp­ing out in cafes with their lap­tops for hours, but Ital­ian cof­fee bars are fast-paced envi­ron­ments where cus­tomers buzz in for a quick pick me up, then right back out, no seat required.

It’s the sort of effi­cien­cy the Father of the Mod­ern Adver­tis­ing Poster, Leonet­to Cap­piel­lo, allud­ed to in his famous 1922 image for the Vic­to­ria Arduino machine (below).

Let 21st-cen­tu­ry cof­fee afi­ciona­dos cul­ti­vate their Zen­like patience with slow pourovers. A hun­dred years ago, the goal was a qual­i­ty prod­uct that the suc­cess­ful busi­nessper­son could enjoy with­out break­ing stride.

As cof­fee expert James Hoff­mann, author of The World Atlas of Cof­fee points out in the above video, the Steam Age was on the way out, but Cappiello’s image is “absolute­ly lever­ag­ing the idea that steam equals speed.”

That had been the goal since 1884, when inven­tor Ange­lo Morion­do patent­ed the first espres­so machine (see below).

The bulk brew­er caused a stir at the Turin Gen­er­al Expo­si­tion. Speed wise, it was a great improve­ment over the old method, in which indi­vid­ual cups were brewed in the Turk­ish style, requir­ing five min­utes per order.

This “new steam machin­ery for the eco­nom­ic and instan­ta­neous con­fec­tion of cof­fee bev­er­age” fea­tured a gas or wood burn­er at the bot­tom of an upright boil­er, and two sight glass­es that the oper­a­tor could mon­i­tor to get a feel for when to open the var­i­ous taps, to yield a large quan­ti­ty of fil­tered cof­fee. It was fast, but demand­ed some skill on the part of its human oper­a­tor.

As Jim­my Stamp explains in a Smith­son­ian arti­cle on the his­to­ry of the espres­so machine, there were  also a few bugs to work out.

Ear­ly machines’ hand-oper­at­ed pres­sure valves posed a risk to work­ers, and the cof­fee itself had a burnt taste.

Milanese café own­er Achille Gag­gia cracked the code after WWII, with a small, steam­less lever-dri­ven machine that upped the pres­sure to pro­duce the con­cen­trat­ed brew that is what we now think of as espres­so.

Stamp describes how Gaggia’s machine also stan­dard­ized the size of the espres­so, giv­ing rise to some now-famil­iar cof­fee­house vocab­u­lary:

The cylin­der on lever groups could only hold an ounce of water, lim­it­ing the vol­ume that could be used to pre­pare an espres­so. With the lever machines also came some some new jar­gon: baris­tas oper­at­ing Gaggia’s spring-loaded levers coined the term “pulling a shot” of espres­so. But per­haps most impor­tant­ly, with the inven­tion of the high-pres­sure lever machine came the dis­cov­ery of cre­ma – the foam float­ing over the cof­fee liq­uid that is the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of a qual­i­ty espres­so. A his­tor­i­cal anec­dote claims that ear­ly con­sumers were dubi­ous of this “scum” float­ing over their cof­fee until Gag­gia began refer­ring to it as “caffe creme,“ sug­gest­ing that the cof­fee was of such qual­i­ty that it pro­duced its own creme.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cof­fee Entre­pre­neur Rena­to Bialet­ti Gets Buried in the Espres­so Mak­er He Made Famous

The Life & Death of an Espres­so Shot in Super Slow Motion

The Bialet­ti Moka Express: The His­to­ry of Italy’s Icon­ic Cof­fee Mak­er, and How to Use It the Right Way

Every­thing You Ever Want­ed to Know about the Bialet­ti Moka Express: A Deep Dive Into Italy’s Most Pop­u­lar Cof­fee Mak­er

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Carlos Marko says:

    Reminder: The espres­so machine was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to pre­vent work­ers from tak­ing rea­son­able length cof­fee breaks.

    The espres­so machine is a tool of the bour­geoise to pre­vent the pro­le­tari­at from being able to assem­ble.

  • ROBERTO says:

    Si todos los días son el día de la madre, este día no existe. Si las izquier­das trans­for­man todo en políti­ca, las izquier­das no exis­ten y solo que­da la igno­ran­cia, el fanatismo, la men­ti­ra y la dic­tadu­ra.

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