Atomic Style & Distinction
There is no doubt that the Atomic carries a cachet like no other coffee machine. We look at the history, the style and, most importantly, how to make the best coffee possible.
Being a fashion (and coffee) photographer, I have spent many years coveting objects of desire. So, when Crema magazine asked me to write about my love-affair with my Atomic coffee machine, my plan was to reference design journals and various interior design magazines’ obsession with placing an Atomic in just about every designer kitchen shot. However, when it comes down to it, it is more about one’s personal love-affair with this iconic object of desire and the pleasure of getting to know just what it takes to create a good coffee, rather than it’s history as an industrial fashion model.
So, for me, as for many an aficionado, the love affair began when I saw, on the shelf of my local Vinnie’s, a mint condition Atomic coffee machine. (I almost had a fight with the guy directly behind me who saw it as I picked it up. I held it close to my chest as he followed me through the store and outside where he offered me double the $8 I paid for it…). My machine was branded ‘BonTrading’ and, as I was to learn, it was one of the various entities to exhort the name of Atomic.
When I explained to a friend, and fellow Atomic devotee, that I was researching a story on the Atomic, she dug out from her grandfathers’ garage, the original packaging and instructions for the machine she now uses every day. Her grandfather had bought the machine for his wife in 1952. It cost him twenty five pounds, which was at that time, equivalent to a weeks wages. In today’s prices that would make it around the same price as purchasing a high-end automatic domestic machine.
As with any super model, mystique is an integral part of their appeal. So too, with the Atomic, an aura of mystery surrounds its origins and design. Reportedly designed in 1947, production is reliably thought to have started around this time. The design has been most widely credited to either an unknown designer in the UK or to its best-known Italian patent holder, Giordano Robbiati of Milan. Either way, what is known as fact, is that the machines were manufactured by Robbiati in Milan and the first known model was sold in the UK. Created within the fold of the modernist period that has come to be known as “Organic Design”, the Atomic has become allied with such renowned design names as Ray & Charles Eames, Marc Newson and Henry Moore, although its fundamental creator is conclusively unknown.
Whilst all manufactured in Milan and maintaining the same basic design principle, various models, approximately 20 in total, have been re-branded by companies like Stella (Austria), Sassoon (UK), Bon Trading (Australia) and others in the US such as Cara, LaTable and the most coveted, La Sorrentina.
Production abruptly ceased in 1986 and again, a degree of mystery surrounds the circumstances. It is rumoured that the Italian factory was razed by a calamatous fire. Other stories say it could have been an insurance rort. Whatever the truth, it is widely believed that the Robbiati factory was forced to close due to economic pressures. But, from what has been considered its ultimate career move, the Atomic is often described as ‘
rising like a phoenix from the ashes’ with the price of a mint condition Atomic going through the roof.
There is much contention amongst Atomic disciples, amateur and expert alike, regarding the best practices to follow to make a great coffee from the Atomic.Most of that debate centres around the grind and tamping of the coffee. However, there are a number of elements which are universally agreed.
The Atomic is a high pressure stovetop unit and generates a respectable 4-6 bars of pressure and can make up to four cups of coffee, and easily has the steaming power to texture the quantity of milk required.
Firstly, you really can’t leave the machine as there are critical moments where timing is of the essence, particularly with respect to milk texturing.
As with all great coffee, freshness is a key element. Use freshly roasted coffee and grind on demand. The grind required will depend on the coffee chosen, but basically it needs to be a medium to fine grind. A domestic burr grinder will usually suffice. As with espresso, the grind from pre-ground coffees is often too coarse (suited more to a plunger) but is still acceptable if tamped accordingly.
This is where the main debate surfaces but the basic rule applies; the resulting extraction should resemble the apocryphal rat’s-tail. This indicates a good pressure at the coffee face thus producing a good extraction and providing the secondary pressure to activate the steam wand. So, a certain degree of individual experimentation is required to perfect the grind/tamp combination. That is, tamp harder for a medium grind, tamp lighter for a finer grind; it really is a matter of individual preference.
There are three basket sizes originally available. On the deepest basket, fill flush to the top of the basket and tamp; this is a good dosage for two strong milk coffees. For four serves, top dose on the original tamp to the top of the basket and tamp again.
Using filtered water, fill the Atomic jug to half full and pour into the reservoir – this should be enough for 2 or 4 coffees if correctly dosed and tamped (approximately 80 ml of coffee liquid).
The initial extraction is black and slick, progressing to a clearer and clearer liquid. When the extraction begins to wane, you need to remove the jug and allow any aerated-watery excess to pass into another heatproof vessel for later disposal.
It is at this stage that the maximum pressure has been achieved for steaming the milk. If the grind and tamping is correct, the pressure that has built up is quite significant and you are easily able to texture the milk as well as, if not better, than a modern domestic espresso machine.
Thorough cleaning immediately after use, as well as regular de-scaling, is a must (yearly to half-yearly depending on the hardness of water used). For this purpose, professional espresso machine de-scaling tablets are appropriate as is the more natural approach of vinegar or citric acid solutions; making sure the machine is thoroughly flushed with clear water before re-using.
Step By Step
Using filtered water, fill the Atomic jug to half full and pour into the reservoir – this should be enough for two to four coffees if correctly dosed and tamped (approx 80ml of coffee liquid).
The grind. A certain degree of individual experimentation is required to perfect the grind/tamp combination. That is, tamp harder for a medium grind, tamp lighter for a finer grind; it really is a matter of individual preference.
Dosage and tamping. There are three basket sizes originally available. On the deepest basket, fill flush to the top of the basket and tamp; this is a good dosage for two strong milk coffees. For four serves, top dose on the original tamp to the top of the basket and tamp again.
Extraction. The original extraction is black and slick progressing to a clearer and clearer liquid. When the extraction begins to wane, you need to remove the pan and allow any aerated-watery excess to pass into another heatproof vessel for later disposal.
Milk texturing. At this stage the maximum pressure has been achieved for steaming the milk. If the grind and tamping is correct, the pressure that has built up is quite significant and you are easily able to texture the milk as well as, if not better than, a modern domestic espresso machine.
Hamish Ta-me is a professional photographer specialising in fashion and, of course coffee. Hamish has worked with Crema Magazine since its inception with his work gracing the covers and embellishing the stories within for many years. Hamish is a coffee enthusiast and devoted to his Atomic. You can view more of Hamish’s work or get his contact details on www.doofdoofdoof.com
We also spoke with Jack Grieve, a passionate collector of original Atomic coffee machines, and a collector of antique coffee machines in general. “As a design object, the Atomic is one of the most unusual, and I think, one of the most beautiful coffee machines ever mass produced. It unifies form and function in organic perfection” explains Jack. “It really sits in between a traditional Italian moka stove-top machine and an espresso machine – it’s unique design generally produces a greater bar of pressure through the coffee than the moka stove-top unit and so, if operated correctly, can produce a little crema. Really, its as close to an espresso machine as you can get on a stove-top”. Jack also has a keen understanding of their value and says, “If you have a mint condition machine still with it’s boxing, particularly if it is one of the rarer models, it can fetch up to $1,200 on eBay. Even a machine in poor condition with missing parts can go for as much as $250″. In the world of collecting, Jack goes on to explain that arguably the rarest and most sought after Atomic model hails from the mid-period of production (mid 1960′s) and has stunning emerald green Bakelite parts. “It appears that very few machines with green Bakelite parts were ever produced, if you ever see one you will immediately understand why they are so desired- they are simply stunning!”
Jack’s passion has extended to becoming involved in developing and manufacturing a premium reproduction of the Atomic style machine, called “La Sorrentina” which is now available in Australia in limited numbers.