There are few more enjoyable moments than opening a fresh bag of coffee and inhaling the rich, chocolatey aroma of fresh coffee beans. With espresso being the most consumed beverage in Italy, it is the well-established backbone of Italian gastronomy and has a history as rich as the flavour profile of traditional Arabica beans. For the Italians, espresso is sacred bordering on a religion, with histories, traditions and a rigid list of dos and don’ts. This level of reverence inevitably brings about strong opinions on how espresso should be brewed and drunk to the point that The Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano has created definitions specifying such rules. These touch on correct temperatures, water pressure, quantities of coffee used etc. which is to be expected within coffee culture, therefore this serves more as a detailed yet simplified insight into this delicious drink.
What is Espresso?
With the global ‘starbucksification’ of coffee and widely available ‘espresso roasts’, there is still some confusion around what the word espresso actually refers to. It is not, as some might believe, a roasting method, or a bean, or a specific blend. Instead it is the method of preparation: the process of highly pressurized water passing through the freshly ground coffee to create a deeply flavoured and rich, concentrated coffee.
The word espresso translates as ‘express’ (however it should be noted that there is no ‘x’ in the pronunciation of ‘espresso’), because before the development of espresso, coffee could take over 5 minutes to brew an individual coffee!
Variations on Espresso
For most Italians, espresso simply is coffee, hence why when ordering an espresso in Italy you will hear them say “Un caffè per favour” – it is the default. However, there are slight variations on this small cup of caffeinated elixir:
This consists of a single shot of espresso, equivalent of 1fluid ounces or 30ml.
This consists of a double shot of espresso, equivalent of 2 fluid ounces or 60ml.
This espresso is specifically made with a Neapolitan coffee maker or a stovetop Moka pot.
Literally translating to mean ‘restricted’, this espresso consists of a lower water content to yield a much stronger taste and is typically around 20ml.
La Cinque ‘M’Translating as 'The Five ‘M’s', the following are believed to be the five crucial elements to making the perfect espresso:
La Macchina (the machine)
- Although not essential for making an espresso, if you do choose to use a machine, its maintenance is paramount to excellent coffee. The water you put in is the water you get out, so ensuring the quality of the water is lime scale free and that the overall temperature and pressure remain consistent are all crucial.
La Misura (the measure)
- The amount of coffee places in the espresso basket. Two little or too much will drastically change the taste and the strength of your espresso.
La Mano (the hand)
- Having a confident, skilled barista who understands the importance of these 5 factors will no doubt make better coffee than the average person.
La Miscela (the mixture/espresso blend)
- Ultimately it is down to personal choice what kind of coffee blend you have; however, freshness is key, so the coffee beans should be ground immediately prior to whipping up an espresso. Coffee beans do have a use-by date so ensure your beans are stored in an airtight container.
La Macinatura (the grind)
- For best results, the blades of the coffee grinders should be changed regularly as blunt blades call for burned coffee grounds! The coffee grinder should also be cleaned regularly to remove old coffee grounds which may have been spoiled.
The Abridged Evolution of Espresso
Angelo Moriondo (1884)
It is around the late 19th century when coffee machines were introduced, namely the first steam-driven machine registered in Turin in 1884 which was patented by Angelo Moriondo. However, this was not considered the first true espresso as it brewed coffee in larger batches, as opposed to on demand for each individual customer.
Luigi Bezzera (1901)
Luigi Bezzera, an Italian inventor created a machine in 1901 which forced boiling water and steam up through the coffee and into a cup. This was revolutionary as Bezzera had found a way which meant the coffee and the steam did not make direct contact, meaning the coffee grounds could be brewed at a slightly lower temperature than previously. What is most notable however, was that his machine cut the average brewing cycle from 4-5 minutes down to 30 seconds, which is where the term espresso, meaning ‘express’ first came about.
However, despite Bezzera’s breakthrough which was revered by local bar owners, the coffee often tasted bitter due to the incredibly high temperatures of the steam, on which the machine relied upon to work.
Desiderio Pavoni (1905)
With Bezzera unwilling and unprepared to expand to a growing market, Desiderio Pavoni bought his patent for his machine from him and established The Pavoni Company in 1905.
Here he upgraded Bezzera’s designs, and now the Pavoni patent continues to be found on every modern espresso machine on the market.
Cremonesi & Achille Gaggia (1938-1946)
Throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, engineers continued to work on Pavoni’s upgraded design but had limited success in improving the bitter taste of the coffee. Eventually in 1938, a breakthrough was made by a technician working in a coffee-grinding factory in Mlian named M. Cremonesi, who invented a form of piston pump which removed the burnt and bitter taste of the coffee by eliminating the need for steam. This was then developed by manufacturing company Achille Gaggia in 1946 and patented by them the following year.
This device not only improved the taste of the coffee, but it also produced that delicious crema which is so crucial to a great espresso.
Faema (Fabbrica Apparecchiature Elettromeccaniche e Affini) (1961)
Further improvements on the Gaggia machine were made by another Italian manufacturing company, Faema, in 1961. In particular, an electric pump was installed which forced the water through the coffee which proved much more efficient than the hand-operated piston of the previous models. This machine also allowed for fresh, filtered cold water to be taken, put through the boiling system and then through the coffee for each individual use, which reduced the risk of the water exceeding the optimal temperature (around 93 °C). Pretty much all modern restaurant and café coffee machines now use this efficient mechanism.
Stove Top Coffee Makers
Alongside the development of the larger, more commercial espresso machines, Italian engineer Alfonso Bialetti took inspiration from Bezzera’s original design by inventing the Moka Pot, or cafféttiera in 1933, which functions as a stovetop coffee maker. This design revolutionised the way people made coffee at home as up until then, with espresso machines being incredibly expensive, coffee was a largely public affair. The Moka Pot itself is recognisable for its 8 faceted metallic structure, the design of which has remained unchanged for the best part of a century.
Despite its Italian name, the invention of this stove-top coffee pot was actually made in France during the late 1800’s. However, due to Naples being a centre of trade from Europe and the East during this period, La Napoletana was received with great enthusiasm by the coffee lovers of Naples.
Unlike the moka pot, the Napoletana relies on gravity as opposed to steam: the bottom section is filled with water with a filter section in the middle and loose coffee grounds placed in the top section. Once the water comes to boil, the pot is flipped on its head to allow the hot water to filter slowly through the coffee grounds.
Whilst on the topic of Napoli, it is worth mentioning the weird and wonderful tradition of caffè sospeso, which started in Naples. Literally translating to ‘suspended coffee’ it consists of an anonymous act of charity whereby you pay for two coffees, but only drink one, then later someone could enquire if there was a sospeso available and enjoy a quick espresso free of charge. The tradition was created among the working-class population of Naples and especially boomed during times of economic hardship, namely World War Two, the belief being that espresso was a treat that no one should have to miss out on. Nowadays, some coffee shops adopt this tradition to promote social solidarity as well as boost coffee sales.
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