The Fascinating History of Espresso

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There’s nothing quite like a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning especially if you have a to-do list that’s longer than the distance between your ceiling and your floor. Sometimes, you just need that little boost to keep you going, and what better motivator is there than a perfectly brewed cup of rich, bold espresso, fresh from your espresso machine?

As you sit there with a cup in hand, enjoying the rich flavors, have you ever wondered how such a delicious brew came about? What is the fascinating history behind the espresso? Who created the espresso machine and the brilliant process that we know and enjoy as espresso today?

What is espresso?

Espresso pouring from a professional espresso maker into a white cup
This is a cup of espresso. Notice the soft layer on top: crema.

Espresso is a kind of coffee that’s made by brewing ground coffee beans in a special way. History of Coffee illustrates this as the process of “forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely-ground coffee beans”.

The result?

A higher concentration of coffee in a small amount of water which makes the beverage thicker and much stronger. Because of the way it is made, espresso packs more caffeine and flavor than most other types of coffee, and it works very well for coffee drinks such as cappuccino, caffe latte, and more.

The word “espresso” has several meanings, the first of which means “pressure” because of the process of squeezing the flavor from the beans using the pressure of steam. The second highlights the speed in which the coffee is made, like an “express train”, and the third is that espresso is made one by one–”expressly” for a person. Interestingly enough, espresso didn’t start out that way.

The history of espresso

Espresso has an exiting history, dating back over 100 years. Below are the biggest and most important highlights.

1. The beginning of “coffee breaks”

In the late 19th to early 20th century, Italy’s Industrial Revolution was experiencing a boom with big industries popping up here and there. It wasn’t too long before the factory bosses noticed how much more productive their workers were after a coffee break. There was just one downside, however: the coffee break took too long.

The reason for that was that coffee had to be brewed in rather small batches. Think Turkish coffee, which pulverizes coffee grounds boiled in water and could take up to five minutes to make. Little did they know how an invention around that time was about to change the way people made and drank coffee.

2. The invention of the steam-driven machine

In 1884, an inventor from Turin, Italy, named Angelo Moriondo, created the prototype of the very first espresso machine and introduced a whole new way of tasting coffee. It was a cylindrical device that featured a boiler with water level and steam pressure indications. It could also produce several amounts of coffee quickly.

This truly revolutionary invention was the birth of the espresso machine as we know it today with the difference that it could brew in bulk, and not as individual servings. Unfortunately, Moriondo only had a few prototypes of this machine made for the coffee bars he owned, and the ingenuity of the invention wasn’t discovered until several years later.

3. The world’s first single-serving espresso machine

In 1901, seventeen years after Moriondo’s invention first came out, Luigi Bezzera from Milano, patented an improved version of the espresso machine which became the world’s first single-serving espresso machine. Bezzera’s improved invention was an enclosed metal tank, half-filled with water and heated up over an open flame.

Because of the water that was constantly being heated, a layer of steam would build in the top half of the tank, which would increase in pressure as the temperature rose. Back then, the first baristas would unscrew a valve at the bottom of the machine and insert a handle that was packed tight with finely ground coffee. The pressurized steam would then force the hot water at the reservoir’s bottom through the finely ground coffee beans and the espresso would appear.

This magic liquid and the ingenuity (and speed) of the invention had people talking. In 1903, Desiderio Pavoni bought Bezzera’s patent and began manufacturing it for La Pavoni company which sells espresso machines even up to today.

The espresso machine as we know it today

Espresso machines weren’t always automatic and electronic as we know them today.

1. The first bar espresso machines

Bezzera’s improved invention sparked the idea for the first espresso machine to be specifically designed for bars. Pavoni, upon purchasing the patent, founded “La Pavoni Spa” which was a little workshop dedicated to producing espresso machines.

“Ideale”, a vertical espresso machine, was the first one designed for bars. The boiler was kept at a constant pressure by either gas or electricity and back then and the brew time took about a minute. Ideale started the fashion of drinking Italian espresso throughout Europe, which eventually spread all over the world.

The first espresso machine was installed in 1927 at Reggio’s in New York. In 1938, Cremonesi, a technician at a coffee-grinding factory in Milan, developed the piston pump espresso machine. This was done through a hand crank which forced hot water through the coffee in the portafilter (a brass container that carries coffee grounds). By using this much higher-pressure means, the brewing process became faster and the espresso no longer had a “burned” taste which was a distinct flavor in the espressos back then.

In 1956, after great success with his Ideale machine and another machine he introduced with a horizontal boiler, Pavoni manufactured the “Concorso” series. This project was developed by Enzo Mari and Bruno Munari, who were design icons then. Together, then invented a series of espresso machines that had multiple independent brewing stations. The derivative model that was introduced to the market in 1961 had the water going through a water softener and then passing into a boiler. After sufficient pressure was built, the water was forced through separate brewing groups which allowed one or two cups of creamy espresso to be made at once.

2. The espresso machines for homes

Around the same time that a machine with multiple independent brewing stations was being introduced to the market for bars and coffee shops, another kind was being sold: an electrical machine designed for domestic use. This was discovered and developed by Achille Gaggia. In 1972, La Pavoni introduced their version, called the Europiccola, having improved the machine in terms of reliability and technical features. This new machine could brew up to 16 cups of coffee simultaneously.

Since then, a lot of machines have been introduced, aside from the traditional models (check out these great Old School Espresso Machines). Today, the Europiccola and Professional models of the espresso machine continue to keep their elegant design and reliable functions. Espresso machines have also been developed for beginners who have little knowledge about how espresso machines work but want something to help brew their cup. Some machines are even fully automatic and can prepare your morning cup of coffee in just a few seconds! Espresso machines and the process of making coffee back then have surely come a long way to the quick, delicious cup we know and drink today!