This is part II of an article exploring the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century. Part I can be found here
We last met in 1838 Paris where the French Balloon style vacuum pot was patented. This high-tech, theatrical method of brewing coffee was developed further in Britain in 1850 and eventually exported to the US where it became the basis for the famous Silex vacuum pot.
Another innovation in coffee preparation emerged in France around 1850, a pot with a fine mesh screen attached to a plunger, which would be pressed down when brewing is complete to prevent the depleted grounds from pouring into the cup. This was a great improvement over cloth or paper filters which absorb the coffee oils and hence much of the best of coffee’s flavors. In hindsight this seems like an obvious thing to try, however, the technology to create fine wire mesh screens was not really available until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.
Again, it is the French who are forging ahead with coffee innovations. Messrs. Mayer and Delforge received the first patent for this “infusion coffee maker” in 1852. The only drawback to the design was the fact that it was difficult to make a mesh filter that would hug the sides of the pot tightly enough to keep all of the grounds out. This was improved in the 1930s when Italians Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta redesigned it with a spring coiling around the edge of the filter. Finally, in 1959 Mr. Fallero Bondanini of Switzerland hit upon the solution we see in the modern version of the press pot, with the mesh screen extending out beyond the coiled spring and turning up at the edges. The official name for this style of coffee maker in French is cafetière à piston filtrant, the word cafetière simply means coffee maker. In English it is often referred to as a French Press, or a Plunger Pot.
It is only in 1901, 256 years after that first coffee house opened in Venice, that we get an inkling of espresso. In the late 19th Century there was much experimentation happening with steam pressure. Naturally, people were curious to see what effect this could have on making coffee. The idea was that if the water could be put under a pressure higher than 1 atmosphere (the normal pressure here on Earth), it might extract more flavor from the coffee.
The first success at this was achieved by an Italian factory owner named Luigi Bezzera who thought his employees spent too much time on their coffee breaks. So he built a machine that forced steam and boiling water at 1.5 atmospheres of pressure through the ground coffee and directly into a cup. All of the coffee preparation methods we have discussed so far take a minimum of 4-6 minutes to complete (depending on how you like your coffee). Bezzera’s new method was fast taking only seconds, which is how it got it’s name espresso is Italian for “fast.”
By all accounts, even though Mr. Bezzera was a skilled inventor, he wasn’t very good at marketing and he didn’t have a lot of spare money to promote his new creation. In 1903 he sold the patent for his espresso machine to Desidero Pavoni who popularized it, eventually shipping it all over the world. If you’re in New York City, stop by Cafe Reggio on MacDougal St. to see their original La Pavoni machine, which dates from when the cafe opened in 1927. It is supposedly the first espresso machine to reach America.
While these early machines produced a richer, more complex cup of coffee than previous methods, they were fairly difficult to operate and often produced bitter coffee because the water and steam was too hot. Also, the La Pavoni could not produce enough pressure to generate the rich crema that is seen today as the hallmark of a high quality shot. Even so, espresso became very popular, especially in Italy, where every man made a home away from home at the espresso bar.
The fact that espresso could only be obtained outside the home gave an idea to another Italian inventor, Alfonso Bialetti. In 1933, he created a variation on the pumping percolator of 1819. It is made of aluminum, in three sections. The bottom piece holds the water, and a filter basket with a tube extending from the bottom holds the coffee above the water. This bottom assemblage is then screwed into the empty upper container, in the bottom of which is found a rubber gasket to ensure a tight seal, and second metal filter. The pot is then placed on the stove and heated until a pleasant gurgling noise indicates that the hot water under pressure has been forced upwards through the ground coffee and into the upper container from where it can be served. Higher manufacturing tolerances and the presence of a safety release valve in the water reservoir meant that levels of pressure similar to the La Pavoni machine could be achieved, right on the stove top. Bialetti called the coffee pot the Moka Express and used the slogan “in casa un espresso come al bar” or “at home, an espresso just like the one at the bar.”
The Moka pot sold reasonably well, but mainly locally in Milan. Production was then interrupted by World War II, and did not resume until Mr. Bialetti’s son Renato, who had been a POW in Germany, came home and took over the business. Renato Bialetti succeeded in marketing the Moka Express nationally and by the 1950s the company was making four million coffee pots per year! To this day, most Italian households have a Moka pot tucked away somewhere, even if it’s just for when grandpa comes over and wants to make coffee.
During the rise of the Moka pot, changes were also coming to Italian coffee bars. In 1947 Giovanni Achille Gaggia, a coffee bar owner in Milan, filed a patent for a new style of espresso machine which used a spring-loaded, lever-operated piston. The operator pulled down on a large lever which released hot (not boiling) water, and no steam, from the boiler into a chamber between the piston and the coffee. He then slowly released the lever, expanding the spring which pressed down on the piston and forced the hot water through the coffee at very high pressure (about 3-4 atmospheres). The ability to more finely control the temperature and pressure of the water resulted in a much superior cup of coffee, with a rich, dappled froth on top which no one had seen before.
At first, Gaggia’s customers were suspicious of this “crema di caffe or “coffee cream” as he named it. If there was no milk, then where was the “cream” coming from? A smart man, Gaggia marketed it as a natural cream, extracted from the coffee itself by his new process. He was more correct than he may have realized. The water under the higher pressure achieved by Gaggia’s system, was able to emulsify otherwise insoluble oils and volatile compounds in the coffee, creating the highly flavorful crema. Once people discovered how tasty it was, everyone wanted crema on their espresso and Gaggia had the slogan Crema Caffe Naturale engraved right on his machines.
The final change which brings us into the age of truly modern espresso, occurs in 1960 when Ernesto Valente of the FAEMA company, created a machine which used an electric pump to pressurize the water and force it through the ground coffee. And so the final curtain fell on the mesmerizing scene of a trim Italian barista theatrically pulling the levers on his machine to create that special brew. On the plus side, while baristas still need training to make good coffee, FAEMA’s E61 machine was easier to learn than the lever and piston style machines. It was also capable of 9 atmospheres of pressure which is pretty much the pressure at which modern espresso is made today.
Some of the coffee preparation methods discussed above have fallen out of favor (good riddance, pumping percolator!), while others are very much in use. Naturally, there is much argument on coffee enthusiast web sites, but there is no one way to make a good cup of joe. Home espresso machines are getting better and better, but are expensive and require quite a bit of skill to approximate what a good barista can create with a top of the line La Marzocco. The Bialetti company has a new version of the Moka Express called the Brikka which supposedly with some practice, can create crema. If you’re more of a minimalist, go with a French Press or make the time jump to 1645 with a Turkish cezve. However you brew it, here’s mud in your eye.