In recent years, the idea of espresso and the “god shot” have reached almost mythological proportions. Like the great Titan Atlas, the perfect shot balances upon so many ephemeral pillars, and baristas the world over are racing to discover the perfect technique. For many, espresso represents coffee in its quintessential form. It is an indeed an art that, when performed skillfully, produces a drink that is at once bold, elegant, sweet, and as complex as its long history – a history that spans across the decades.
In the 19th century, coffee was a huge business in Europe with cafes flourishing across the continent. But coffee brewing was a slow process and, as is still the case today, customers often had to wait for their brew. Seeing an opportunity, inventors across Europe began to explore ways of using steam machines to reduce brewing time. Though there were surely innumerable patents and prototypes, the invention of the machine and the method that would lead to espresso is usually attributed to Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, who was granted a patent in 1884. Sadly, Moriondo was largely unsuccessful in his venture and has been lost to time and history.
The names Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni, however, should instantly be recognizable for the undeniable mark that they have left on the world of espresso. In the early years of the 20th century, Bezzera invented single-shot espresso, the portafilter, multiple brewheads, and many other innovations still associated with espresso machines today. Bezzera’s machine was heated over an open flame and had difficulty producing a consistent shot, but he was the first to build a machine with the ability to brew within contemporary standards.
Pavoni bought out Bezzerra several years later and improved many aspects of his design, the most notable being the first pressure release valve. It was also during this time that the pair coined the term “caffee espresso,“ but it would still be several more years before these machines moved away from their bulky and cumbersome design and took on the classic Italian styling.
After World War II, Achille Gaggia introduced the first “modern” espresso machine that could brew at a true 8-10 bars of pressure. Not only is Gaggia responsible for this major innovation, but he also introduced the lever piston, standardized the size of the espresso shot, and popularized the term “crema.” With high pressure and golden crema, Gaggia’s lever machine marks the birth of the contemporary espresso.
This however, is not the end of the myth of the espresso machine. In 1961, Ernesto Valente introduced the E61 group (found on the Alex Duetto II) and motor driven pump. Rather than relying on the manual force of the barista, the pump provides nine atmospheric bars of pressure needed for brewing espresso. The water is drawn directly from a plumbing line, and a heat exchanger keeps the water at an ideal brewing temperature. With its technical innovations, smaller size, versatility and streamlined stainless steel design, the E61 was an immediate success and is rightly included in the pantheon of the most influential coffee machines of history.
There have been additional innovations since the E61 design, namely the double boiler system, saturated group, and PID, but the soul of espresso has remained true to its origins for over 100 years. As we forge ahead into the future of the beverage, one thing is certain, espresso’s timeless elegance is here to stay.