You need water to survive, but you need espresso to function...
With all joking aside, espresso is pretty powerful stuff, and that extends far beyond its caffeine content. To the Italians it’s a symbol of national identity, to the Americans it’s the foundation of the Third Wave coffee movement, and to much of the world it’s the powerful spark that fuels us to tackle our working day. One way or another, espresso packs a punch. So…what is it exactly?
Believe it or not, espresso doesn’t necessarily refer to a drink or to a roast or to a type of coffee bean. Espresso refers to a method. Espresso is essentially what you get when you expose finely ground coffee to steaming hot and pressurized water at high speeds in a way that renders a short, strong, highly caffeinated cup of coffee. The process is all things scientific, crafty, artistic, and fascinating. It is mad chemist meets Beethoven with a layer of crema on top.
The world of coffee reaches far and wide in terms of the creativity and variations of caffeinated brew, and the names and styles of drinks only getting more obscure the further down the indie coffee rabbit hole you go. But before you expand your coffee horizons and venture into the realms of milky deviations and flavored modifications you have to be better acquainted with the root and mother of them all: good ole stout and strong espresso.
Even with the rich historical heritage surrounding the phenomenon of coffee, espresso is still a rather new arrival to the caffeine scene. Espresso, as a concept, didn’t begin to be kicked around until late 19th century, and progress towards espresso as we know it didn’t become a tangible reality until well into the 20th century.
But, what was it that inspired connoisseurs and inventors to start to examine a new way of brewing coffee in the first place? The idea was simple, finding a quicker and effective way to create a quality cup of coffee. This goal would be the catalyst behind a wave of ingenuity that utilized all the genius of the post-Industrial Revolution West to produce an astonishing line of machines geared towards making this new cup of fast coffee a reality.
Prior to the introduction of steam oriented brewing, as seen in espresso, coffee making still resembled much of the drip and filter like variants seen in the West today. Water was heated and raised above the coffee bed, and only then allowed to trickle down and filter through coffee to the other side. This method of coffee relied on the weight of water as the prime mechanical force to produce a cup of coffee.
However, the 20th century would forever change the ball game. The espresso revolution was an inventive process pushed through by the minds of a plethora of individuals, but here are three names you can hardly separate from the world of espresso as we know it today: Bezzera, Gaggia, and Valente.
In 1906, Luigi Bezzera was the first to put into practice the method of using steam to force water through finely ground coffee and produce a quick and strong cup of coffee. The machine he used to do it hardly resembles the shiny espresso machines dominating modern cafes today, but the idea behind the practice was much the same. However, the Bezzera era was still far removed from modern espresso, and the brew, while quicker and stronger, still resembled much of the same drip and filter coffee varieties of the day in terms of volume.
While other inventors would continue to adjust and improve Bezzera’s design, it wasn’t until Achille Gaggia came onto the scene in 1946 that the foundational breakthrough was had. Gaggia invented an espresso machine that revolved around a spring loaded piston to increase the pressure applied to the water contacting the coffee to 8-10 bars (Bezerra’s machines operated a 1.5-2 bars), which is in line with modern day standards for brewing espresso.
Following Gaggia came Ernest Valente, who perfected Gaggia’s method by utilizing mechanical pumps and a heat exchange system to stabilize brewing temperatures and allow for a consistent brewing pressure of 9 bars. In one way or another most modern machines resemble Valente’s, though it goes without saying that since then countless improvements and modernizations continue to modify the espresso brewing game.
The story of espresso is a fascinating tale that is intricately linked to the inventing and fine tuning of beautiful and complex Italian machinery bent on providing quick and quality coffee. The next time you’re in a coffee shop, order an espresso, and sit back and relax as you observe the intricate process that brings together machine powered ingenuity with the finesse and skill of a (hopefully) artisan barista. In one way or another, the process should resemble what is described below.
As alluded to earlier, espresso isn’t a certain kind of coffee, but whatever type of roast and bean you choose it’ll have to be finely ground to maximize surface contact between the coffee and the water. The ground coffee is placed in the portafilter, or that small metal basket on a handle you see the barista constantly locking in and removing from the espresso machine.
The coffee is then compacted into the portafilter using a tamper to insure an even contact and flow of water through the grounds, locked and loaded into the espresso machine, and finally the shot of espresso is ‘pulled’ as highly pressurized water is forced through the grounds. The result is a steady flow of sweet, bold espresso flowing into a small and waiting demitasse cup finished off with a bubbly and signature crema on top.
The original dream of a quick, delicious, and powerful cup of coffee is realized before your very eyes in drinking a cup of espresso, which usually measures in between 1-2 ounces (depending on a whether you ordered a single or double shot) brewed in a mere 25-45 seconds.
The world of coffee is a realm of creativity and passion that is naturally always changing, growing, and pushing boundaries. However, before you go off to invent the equivalent of Picasso in a cup, don’t forget to pay homage to the base and foundation of it all, the short and stout espresso.
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