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Posts Tagged ‘History of Espresso’

A 1947 ad for the very popular Silex vacuum coffee pot / photo by Flickr user jbcurio

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.

A French Press or Plunger Pot / photo by Flickr user illustir

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.

An original La Pavoni espresso machine / photo by Flickr user ohskylab

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.”

Alfonso Bialetti's Moka Pot, circa 1933 / photo by Wikipedia user Imm808

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.

An original Gaggia spring and piston espresso machine / photo by Flickr user Ciccio Pizzattaro

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.

FAEMA's E61, the first truly modern espresso machine / photo by Flickr user Ciccio Pizzattaro

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.

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Café Procope since 1686, one of Europe's oldest coffee houses / Photo by Flickr user Sergei Melki

A two part article in which we explore the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century.

Europeans have been drinking coffee since about 1615 when Venetian traders obtained it from the Ottoman Turks. The first European coffee house outside of Istanbul opened in Venice in 1645. But if you were to hop into that secret time machine I know you’re working on in the basement for a trip to Venice in 1645, you might be surprised at the equipment being used by the baristas.

Here in the 21st Century we associate Italy with espresso, that intense potion that clears your foggy head even after the most dissolute of nights out. But back in 1645 coffee was being made the way the Turks still do it today. Finely ground coffee is boiled together with water and sugar in a small copper pot with a long handle called a cezve, and then poured into a cup for you to drink. If it’s done properly the grounds will settle to the bottom, but be careful of that last sip! Turkish coffee is a fine beverage, but it’s quite different from espresso.

Turkish style coffee shown here with the cezve in which it was prepared / Photo by Flickr user blhphotography

How did we get from a Turkish-style preparation of coffee to the more complex and machine-dependent ritual that is today’s espresso culture? About 50 years after coffee first entered Europe through Venice, it could also be found in the Netherlands, England, France, Vienna and Germany. The Dutch had even begun farming it in their colony of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). For the next 285 years or so, the French were the taste-makers in new and fashionable coffee preparation methods. In the first move away from Turkish-style coffee, the French placed the ground coffee in a linen bag and infused it in the water, thus eliminating that final gritty sip. Around the same time, aficionados also discovered that making coffee with boiling water destroys the delicate, volatile essences where much of coffee’s flavor resides. A temperature just below boiling, makes for a vastly more flavorful cup. At this time a “coffee pot” was just a serving vessel, not the container in which you prepared the coffee.

Archbishop Belloy's drip coffee pot circa 1800

In about 1800 Jean Baptiste de Belloy, Archbishop of Paris, invented the first drip coffee pot. This French drip pot had two parts, the ground coffee was placed in the upper container which was then stacked on top of an empty lower container with a cloth filter placed in between. Then hot (not boiling) water was poured over the grounds in the upper pot and the coffee would slowly drip through the cloth filter into the lower chamber from which it was then served. The main problem with this method was that it took quite a while, and by the time it was finished the coffee might only be lukewarm.

While doing research for this article, I discovered that the French drip pot is still widely used in Louisiana where it is called une grégue. This page has some lovely reminiscences from people who grew up drinking coffee made that way.

A French drip coffee pot still used today in Louisiana, virtually unchanged in design from 1800

An eccentric Anglo-American inventor by the name of Benjamin Thompson stepped in at this point to solve the temperature issues with the original French drip pot. Thompson fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War and moved back to London afterwards where he became a minister in the government and knighted by King George III in 1784. Beginning in 1785 he worked for the Bavarian government where he helped the military with everything from food to explosives. In 1791 he was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire and from then on is referred to as Count Rumford. He left Bavaria around 1799, after which he lived in both England and France.

On one of his sojourns in France, Count Rumford improved on the Archbishop’s drip coffee pot by enclosing it in an insulating jacket which could be filled with hot water, keeping the pot warm throughout the dripping process. Sometimes Rumford is credited with creating the first percolator, but this is a bit of a misnomer. The verb “to percolate” describes what happens when a liquid passes through a permeable substance. In that sense, the first drip coffee pot was a percolator. Modern usage of the term “coffee percolator” usually refers to the “pumping percolator” — more on that later.

Up until now you needed two containers to make coffee, one for boiling the water, which was then poured into the coffee maker proper containing the ground coffee and a filtering device. That changes in 1819 when two different Frenchmen came up with a way to do it all in one pot.

A Parisian tin smith by the name of Morize made a clever design innovation to the drip pot. He created a pot with three chambers instead of two. The water goes in the bottom section, the ground coffee in the middle, and the top chamber is left empty. The pot is placed on the stove, when the water boils you take it off the heat and flip it upside down. The now no-longer-boiling water drips through the coffee grounds into the empty pot, which is now on the bottom of the apparatus, and from which the coffee can be served. This design was taken up with great enthusiasm in Italy where it became known as the Napoletana or Neapolitan pot.

The Napoletana or flip pot / photo by Wikipedia user Csant

In that same year of 1819 a French patent for the first pumping percolator is given to a man named Laurens. This design was improved upon in 1827 by his fellow countryman Jacques-Augustin Gandais, resulting in a two-chambered pot with a tube connecting the top and bottom. The pot was placed on the stove with water in the bottom part and ground coffee in the top. When the water boiled it was forced up the tube and would spray over the grounds in the top chamber and drip through them back down into the bottom chamber (which was now empty). It is important to note that this cycle happened only once. In future, modifications were made to the pumping percolator so the coffee could be cycled through the grounds multiple times. This is a recipe for insipid coffee that has lost all of its volatile aromas and flavors. Some people blame the ubiquitous use of pumping percolator machines in America during the 1950s and 60s for the destruction of American coffee culture.

Fourth from the left, an early pumping percolator

Improvements in the manufacture and availability of glass, along with scientific advances in the understanding of fluid dynamics and vacuums paved the way for the next innovation in coffee preparation methods, the glass vacuum pot. The first patent for such a device was granted to a Frenchwoman, Mme. Jeanne Richard in 1838. Mme. Richard based her design on an existing German pot made by a company called Loef in Berlin. In 1841 another French woman, Mme. Vassieux of Lyons, made some important improvements which solidified what became known as the “French Balloon” design. These pots were not meant to be hidden away in the kitchen, instead they were proudly displayed in the dining room where guests could witness the spectacle of the coffee being made.

The glass vacuum pot consists of two globes, one on top of the other, which are connected by a tube that reaches almost to the bottom of the lower globe. There is a filter at the top opening of the tube. Water is placed in the bottom globe, and ground coffee in the upper one. The water is then heated (for dramatic effect it can be done with a candle or spirit lamp). As the water heats it expands and is forced up through the tube, where it mixes with the waiting coffee grounds. When most of the water is gone from the bottom globe and the coffee has been steeping in the water for an amount of time that suits your taste, the candle or lamp is extinguished. As the water vapor cools, a partial vacuum is created which draws the coffee through the filter and down into the lower globe, from which it can be served.

Several examples of the French Balloon style of vacuum coffee pot / Photo by Flickr user Bradley Allen

Around 1850 the design of the vacuum pot changed and the two glass containers were placed side-by-side and connected via a siphon tube. Britain’s James Napier in particular is well known for this design. The principle of how the coffee was made however, remained the same. Interestingly, the French Balloon style vacuum pot was revived in the United States in the early 20th Century where it became the basis of the famous Silex coffee pot. As in France, the double globe vacuum pot design was promoted and improved by women. In 1915 two sisters from Massachusetts, Mrs. Anne Bridges and Mrs. Sutton had it manufactured from Corning’s newly invented heat resistant Pyrex glass which made it much more durable than the previous incarnations of this almost century-old design. The Silex pot became so popular in America that it became a generic name for any glass vacuum pot. The company was sold to Frank Woolcott in 1924. It then merged with Proctor to become Proctor-Silex in 1957.

An advertisement for the Silex vacuum pot circa 1917 / credit: Flickr user Joan Thewlis

Stop by Comestibles next week when we will continue our investigation of coffee preparation techniques through the ages in Part II of this article.

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