Espresso is the most sublime of all coffee preparations. A masterful cup of espresso, although difficult to achieve, is like reaching Nirvana for the many that chase this elusive cup of coffee perfection.
In its purest form, espresso is a concentrated coffee beverage, about 2.5 ounces for a double, served in a small cup called a demitasse. It has both a liquid and a foam element. The foam is called crema. Coffee connoisseurs enjoy espresso coffee in this unadulterated form, but it is also used as a base for many specialty drinks including latte and cappuccino.
An espresso machine forces hot water under high pressure through finely ground coffee that has been tamped or compacted into what is referred to as the puck. Earlier machines used steam. New technology has replaced the steam producing water boiler with a pump to produce the necessary high pressure. It takes about 20 to 30 seconds to push the water through the coffee puck, which is held in a handle called a portafilter. The hot water under pressure extracts an extraordinarily rich and flavorful coffee beverage with a full aroma. The drink is judged by its aroma, appearance, flavor, body (mouthfeel), and aftertaste.
Literally translated, espresso means “express” in Italian. When the method of making espresso was first invented in Italy in the mid 1800s, being able to produce a cup of coffee in under a minute was fast. Edward Loysel de Santais presented the first commercial machine to the world at the Paris exposition in 1855. This machine was said to have produced a thousand cups an hour, and the word express became permanently associated with the machine and the style of coffee it produced.
Today, espresso does not refer as much to the speed of the extraction process, but rather the sense that it is prepared on request, at a moment’s notice. And a cup of espresso does not keep – it must be consumed right away.
The earlier espresso machines were not as advanced as today’s technology and exhibited a lot of variance in the proper operation from one cup to the next. It took a lot of skill to operate these machines correctly. Someone trained in the art of making espresso is called a Barista. Even today, with all of the advantages of modern technology, the ability to consistently produce an exquisite cup of espresso remains an elusive skill that takes a lot of practice. A Barista trained in the art of making great espresso is a welcomed and appreciated find.
The History of Espresso
As simple as the manual drip brewing method seems today, this was not how coffee was brewed 150 years ago. The common drip method of today depends on improved filter technology, which had not been invented yet. Turkish style coffee was prevalent, which is a more passive brewing method allowing the fine coffee grinds to steep directly in the liquid.
It was known that more of the flavor from the coffee elements could be extracted under pressure. In the mid 1800s, the vacuum pot system was popular and does operate under a little bit more pressure, caused by the siphon or vacuum. Inventors looked for creative ways to brew coffee under more pressure. Louis Bernard Babaut is credited with the invention of the first known espresso machine in 1822. Edward Loysel de Santais invented the first commercial version in 1843, and introduced the invention to the world at the Paris Exposition in 1855.
These early machines relied on a steam boiler to produce about 1.5 atmospheres of pressure to extract the coffee flavors. There are two problems with using steam. First, the steam boilers had a tendency to blow up or explode occasionally and were dangerous to use. And the use of steam had a tendency to burn the coffee if the boiler was allowed to get too hot.
In 1927, the first espresso machine was installed in the US. Regio’s in New York acquired a “La Pavoni” machine and still has this machine on display today.
In 1938, Cremonesi improved on the steam boiler method with the invention of a spring-loaded piston pump to produce more pressure. This hand operated piston forced hot water, but not boiling, through the coffee. Eliminating the steam solved the undesirable burnt flavor side effect. Of more significance, the additional pressure produced by the piston enabled the production of crema, a light thin layer of rich foam on the top.
In 1946, Gaggia began manufacturing a commercial version of the piston machine, which became the new standard.
In 1951, Faema introduced a pump-based machine. Instead of a hand-operated piston, the hot water is forced through the coffee by an electric pump. The electric pump enabled even more pressure to be applied with a little more consistent operation. For the most part, modern espresso machines today are based on this fundamental design.
Today, many companies offer “super espresso” machines, which are essentially more automated versions of the Faema design. Super espresso machines are designed to produce a more consistent result without as much expertise and skill demanded of the operator. Fully automatic machines grind the beans, tamp the grind in the portafilter, froth the milk, meter the precise amount of water at the optimum temperature and pressure, and deliver a finished cup, all with the single touch of a button.
These expensive computer processor controlled wonders are more convenient and commonly employed by many restaurants to insure a more easily produced consistent espresso product. However, many aficionados still believe there is no substitute for the human touch of the Barista to properly control the many variations that make the art of producing a superior espresso so challenging.