History of the Espresso Machine – Part II

In a crowded bar in downtown Milan, where the coffee grinder was going non-stop, spreading a haze of coffee aroma, and a spoonful of sugar was being stirred in the cup as if its sweetness grew with the stirring, a cup of espresso was really something ‘black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love’.

We publish the second of our three part piece comprising edited extracts from Ian Bersten’s book  ‘Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks’; the chapter entitled: ‘The Espresso Coffee Machine Revolution’.

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Impressive Machine – Unimpressive Coffee

The espresso machine changed coffee drinking in Italy, Spain, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, France and all of South America except for Brazil, which even today uses methods more common to the 19th century.

Not the coffee, but the espresso machines themselves, sitting on the counter with lions and eagles and other emblems adorning them, became the focus of attention – the more elaborate the machine, the better the coffee. The early espresso machine, despite its popularity, still had some way to go in its development – not least the reliance on steam to complete the extraction. There was also an unsatisfied need to have the coffee in a cup that was even smaller. In short, there was a need to have a machine, not making the same coffee in a better way, but making a new, qualitatively different coffee. The search was on for the holy grail of coffee.

Origin of the Word ‘Espresso’

It seems that any machine that produces steam or operates with steam pressure earns the name ‘espresso machine’. This probably arises from the confusion surrounding the origin of the word ‘espresso’. The words express, expres and espresso each have several meanings in English, French and Italian. The first meaning is to do with the idea of expressing or squeezing the flavour from the coffee using the pressure of the steam. The second meaning is to do with speed, as in a train. Finally, there is the notion of doing something ‘expressly for a person’. The espresso machine originally acquired its name from making a cup of coffee ‘expressly for you’. The first Bezzera and Pavoni espresso machines in 1906 took forty-five seconds to make a cup of coffee, one at a time. These machines forced hot water from a boiler and then steam through the coffee. As far as speed goes, they were anything but fast compared to today’s machines, which make coffee in a third of the time.

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Achille Gaggia – Bar Owner and Inventor

There are stories that, before the war, Achille Gaggia, a bar owner in Milan, was experimenting with screw-type pistons to make coffee and that after the war he tried the lever piston and it worked. Another story goes that Gaggia actually possessed a model of the screw piston and could show it to people. Yet a third story says that Rosetta Scorza, the wife of an inventor, came to Gaggia with an idea for a new machine. The idea was a little primitive and when the inventor died, his wife sold it to Gaggia for a thousand Lira (a large sum of money in those days). Gaggia made some improvements and the true espresso machine as we know it was invented.

There are elements of truth to all these stories. Rosetta Scorza of Milan was married to Sr. Cremonese who was a technician in a coffee grinder factory. He made tests to see if the coffee was ground evenly and was responsible for introducing the cone mill to Italy in the 1930s. He patented the idea of a screw piston, which forced the water through the coffee. This was not in itself a new idea, but one that had been known from at least 1909 with the Giariotto patent. Cremonese died and Rosetta Scorza was left with a patent. The story continues that Signora Scorza tried to get existing manufacturers to use her invention in the late 30s, but they were not interested. However, it is certainly possible (and some would say, likely) that she showed Gaggia the patent at this time.

Gaggia Creates the True Espresso Machine

Giovanni Achille Gaggia, born in 1895 in Milan, set himself up in a coffee bar in the same city, where he became a dedicated barman. He was not satisfied with the flavour of coffee coming from his existing machine, which scalded the coffee and made it bitter. Perhaps the coffee was over-roasted and burnt to compensate for the poor extraction. Before the Second World War, he patented and developed a rotative screw piston (possibly based on discussions with Rosetta Scorza), which he made from aluminium and brass and which could be connected to the boiler of the conventional machines of the day. The steam had been eliminated from the brewing process, but the water was still too hot. Gaggia made many attempts to make his rotative piston work, but there were problems with leaks. He tried several of these pistons in friends’ bars by simply attaching them to their boilers, but they were very tiring to use.

Gaggia produced small quantities of his unit, but the war came and a bomb destroyed his small stock. After the war he started in production again with brass groups and asbestos, but the system still was not perfect and in 1947 he changed from the rotating piston to an up and down lever piston which really was his own idea. Sga Scorza ultimately received a payment for the use of her patent because Gaggia’s own must have infringed on it (her patent was for a screw-press piston, but the style of language used by patent attorneys to describe ideas even before they became inventions covered pistons of all types, including lever pistons).

Gaggia Introduces the Spring into the Lever

Gaggia must have been very persistent to incorporate the spring into a lever-operated piston. The idea might have been relatively simple, but to make a working model required real talent in those days. The lever without the spring would not have made espresso coffee as we know it. The spring provided the pressure and it was the pressure that forced the water through the coffee in such a short time – fifteen seconds for a short black. On the 20th June 1947, he lodged his patent for a new boiler and on the 8th August 1947, lodged his patent for the lever group.

It was a major step, perhaps the single biggest development of all time in coffee brewing. Gaggia’s importance was his commercial realisation of a good idea. He made it happen. His machine made a cup of coffee that was totally different to any other coffee. By using a lever, the pressure applied to the coffee by a spring was independent of the pressure in the boiler. At the same time, the water temperature used became independent of the temperature in the boiler so that a stronger, quicker and controllable filtration was possible. The use of steam was lessened, and was only for frothing milk and not for making coffee. In fact the patent described a boiler with two chambers: a small one for steam and a large one for hot water, one on top of the other.

More importantly, the coffee could be finely ground, the water was forced through and into the cup came coffee with a ‘cream’, a light coloured mousse (or crema) on the top. The coffee was made faster and had a more intense flavour and aroma. Gaggia must have been amazed – he could never have expected coffee with mousse on the top. It is even possible that he did not like what he had produced. It was as if he had been trying for a better hard-boiled egg and instead made a poached egg.

He offered the perfected group to other manufacturers who declined – they thought the results were strange and inferior. However Gaggia had some marketing sense and installed his machines in bars with a large sign on the window – ‘Caffe crema di caffe naturale’ – coffee cream from natural coffee. People became curious, entered the bars and looked at the mousse on the coffee. Some walked away declaring it was a fraud, while others recognised that the coffee was not bitter and had more flavour. Several large and prominent bars in Milan, such as Motta and Biffi in the Galeria, adopted the system. A few sales were made outside Milan and in 1950 a total of thirty machines was sold.

Gaggia did not have a real workshop, but had the groups, the lever handles and filters made for him by Valente, who had a factory which made parts for hair dryers. In 1952 Valente started making his own machines, incorporating washers on the pistons, under the brand name Faema. Gaggia then set up a factory with Sr.Capsoni as engineer to make complete machines. The Gaggia Company was now ready to exploit the invention. Machines were exported all over the world to start a revolution with this new, true espresso coffee.

Gaggia died in 1961. His significance was that he showed what happened when hot water was forced through finely ground coffee. For the first time, it was possible to extract everything from the coffee. The machine was in control of the bean – the bean could not keep anything back.

The impact was to be enormous. The crema meant that the product was instantly distinguishable from the product of the previous Bezzera-style machines. Overnight the large, upright machines had gone, replaced by long cylindrical horizontal machines and they were to spread from Italy all over the world. The handles going up and down were to become the sign of frenetic activity as the strong essence trickled down into the cup, followed by the hissing of the steam valve to froth the milk for the cappuccinos.

Technological Developments

By the early 1900s, it was becoming clear that steam pressure was not enough to force the water through the coffee. More pressure was needed. In 1909 Luigi Giarlotto of Turin offered a solution by adding pumps. The machine incorporated a hand-rotative pump that forced the hot water through a heat exchanger tube into the brewing chamber, then a bicycle-style pump to force the coffee up into the top of the machine.
The rotative pump idea was excellent and years before its time. It was to become a feature of modern espresso machines. There were various other developments along the way until 1935, when the Illetta machine appeared in Italy, invented by the later-to-become-famous Dr Illy.
It was a fully automatic machine, which dispensed with the manual operation of the handle and was the first machine to use compressed air to force the water through the coffee. From all the attempts that were being made, it is obvious that everyone had an idea of the problems of existing machines: slowness, insufficient pressure, and inability to make a strong-enough brew. Nobody in their wildest dreams could have imagined what the coffee would be like when those problems were finally solved.

Confusion and error still plague the history of the espresso machine and its inventors. Coffee expert Ian Bersten has gone further than anyone else in getting to the true story in his book ‘Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks’.

Next issue – the famous Faema E61, and developments right up to the modern automatic domestic espresso machine…

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