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The history of espresso

From the March 2014 issue.

Experts give their take on the pivotal moments in the development of espresso technology, and a glimpse at what’s to come.

Espresso drinkers in 1954Even among Italy’s most traditional espresso bars, one would struggle to find an experience dating back to the origins of the drink.

Indeed, modern technology – complete with LED lights, flashing buttons, and powder-coated steaming wands – has come a long way from the ornamental steam machines that produced what is considered the first espresso.

Trying to produce an exhaustive list of espresso technology innovations would be a challenging exercise within the confines of a single article. However, there are a series of innovations that can be considered landmarks in the development of espresso machines.

Jonathan Morris has studied the evolution of espresso technology from a historian’s perspective as Professor of Modern European History at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. For him, determining the pivotal moments in the history of espresso technology has been about identifying what developments have led to changes in the way drinkers relate to their coffee, and baristas relate to their machine.

He points to the introduction of vertical steam machines as the early days of espresso. While the coffee didn’t have any crema, and could hardly be considered an espresso today, he says this was the first time the operator of a coffee machine – the barista – was heavily involved in the coffee making process, and was able to produce a coffee in under a minute, rather than waiting for four minutes. Cafés could then serve customers fresh coffee instantly at the bar. 

“Everything about those machines was about the barista making a lot of adjustments to see what would work out,” says Morris. “To some extent, some of those principles still apply today.”
Maurizio Giuli, Marketing Manager for Nuova Simonelli, says that the first espresso machine can be traced back to 1884, when Angelo Moriondo of Turin created the first prototype of an espresso machine.

“As many people know, the word espresso in Italian language means ‘quick, in time’, so the new technology allowed baristas to make coffee in the same time as the customer requested,” says Giuli.

Although this technology was updated throughout the very early 20th Century, with machines such as the Victoria Arduino introduced in 1910, the basic principle of using steam to push hot water into the coffee grounds remained the same.

This was until 1948, when Achille Gaggia introduced a spring connected to a piston to physically push the hot water through to coffee cake.

Jonathan Morris“Gaggia changed everything,” says Morris. “The pressure through the coffee during delivery went from 3 bar to 12 bar, pressure levels we’re still using today.”

The result of the increased pressure created the crema now characteristic of modern espresso. Nuova Simonelli’s Giuli points out that this was the first time the pressure could be operated independently of brewing temperature.

“As a result, the coffee in the cup was much different,” he says. “With the cream on top, a strong body and much more sweet than the previous system.”

From this initial innovation, Morris says that from 1948 to 1961, espresso technology experienced its most tremendous period of innovation. “This is when we moved from a manually operated piston through water pressure hydraulics to semi-automatic electrically powered pump machines brewing at a constant 9 bars of pressure,” says Morris. It was at this point when the switch from upright to horizontally mounted boilers became standard.

One of these major innovations was the introduction of the pump by Orlando Simonelli in the early 1950s. With Italy now largely connected to the electricity grid, the electric pump allowed baristas to create espresso at the touch of a button, without having to manually operate the lever.

Modern machines continue to be based on the same basic engineering that came about through this period of major innovation. Digital technology also brought about the advent of automatic espresso machines. Much of this innovation took place in Germany later in the 20th Century, when espresso technology started gaining ground.

Murizio GiulliUntil the mid-1980s, espresso and specialty coffees were largely irrelevant in Germany. Germany’s WMF was a leader, as one of the only companies to dabble in espresso machine technology outside of Italy, adding its first semi-automatic espresso machine to its range in 1954. Most major innovation in automatic machines took place in the 1990s. In 1997, the WMF Bistro was able to prepare a cappuccino without having to change cups. In 1999, WMF was the first manufacturer to make it possible to prepare a latte macchiato automatically, with the touch of one button. 

Just as digital technology has allowed the control of automatic machines to deliver quality coffee, cup after cup, on manual espresso machines digital controls have given the modern barista unprecedented levels of control.

“Consistency has largely been driving innovation. Once we get to digital technology, we can measure much more precisely what we’re delivering,” says Morris.

The increase in temperature stability has been a major advancement on this front. In 2012 Nuova Simonelli introduced T3 technology, as the official supplier of the World Barista Championships. This new technology allowed baristas to get better quality in the cup, and a more consistent result, no matter the coffee.

“In the big picture, this modern technology has allowed us to take out of the equation a lot of factors and variables that the barista has been trying to overcome,” says Morris. “This means we can have consistent shots independent of the barista.”

Morris says that far from making the barista irrelevant, these advancements have shifted the role of the barista from driver of the machine, to a designer of the perfect shot. 

“Now, the job of the barista is to set up the machine, rather than having to adjust it as they go. We’ve given the barista more control by setting up all the variables so that they can be controlled independently.”

Morris points to the example of the pressure paddle on the La Marzocco machine as a tool given to baristas to set up the parameters to create their own profile.

As for where the direction of espresso machine technology is going, Morris says the nature of the market will largely define these advancements. For instance, where top end cafés are using multiple blends, the ability to program different profiles into the machines will be essential. In outlets requiring fast service across a single blend, the ability for the machine to ensure consistency and mitigate operator faults will be essential.

In almost every Western market outside of Italy, Morris points out that milk is an essential element when preparing coffee.

“Most consumers actually judge baristas on their milk,” he says.

Therefore, turbo steam wands and other technology focused on milk will be a top priority.

He also expects to see an increase in the sophistication of water systems. In markets such as the United Kingdom, that are dealing with hard water, he says machines might start incorporating internal filtration systems.

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