Macchine da Caffe
Like most inventions, there was an evolution in thought and design that preceded the espresso machine of today. It’s easy to say this guy or that guy invented the espresso machine but like the automobile and airplane, they were all the result of small contributions from many inspired and dedicated engineers over time.
The espresso machine concept started around 1850 by the filing of patents for experimental machines that were never built. Some proto-type examples were tested but never put into production. One big drawback was the lack of electric power. Before 1900 spirit lamps, natural gas, coal or wood were used to heat water to make steam. When electricity became available the machine manufacturers switched to submerged electric heating elements to heat the water in the boiler and later electric pumps were incorporated to force heated water through the grinds.
In keeping with the concept of “espresso”, from very early on, two-group machines were the norm. Espresso merely meant rapid or quick, so two portafilters made it possible to brew two at a time which was a big advantage considering the length of the brewing cycle then. Unfortunately the beverage was not the thick, velvety, full-bodied nectar we associate with espresso today but only a “quickly prepared filtered coffee.”
From the mid 1800s a variety of innovative home coffee makers were patented and many used steam in the process of making the brew. Some used the steam pressure to push the hot water through the grounds similar to the popular Moka brand stovetop espresso pot still being manufactured today. Others included a removable filter container for the coffee grounds which evolved into the portafilter (portable filter) in common use today. Ian Bersten features many of these early concepts in his excellent book, “Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks” as does Edward Bramah’s “Coffee Makers 300 Years of Art and Design”.
I’m not sure as to why a rapid serve coffee became such an issue at that time in history but it may have had something to do with the industrial revolution. People working for wages enjoyed the taste and effect coffee but had little time for coffee breaks where every minute counted. Especially confusing is the fact that regular brewed coffee would have been of much better quality. The name “espresso” may have been the determining factor. No coffee shop would have invested the large amount of money for such an expensive machine and also the expense of hiring a special operator for it, unless there was a big demand. With that said, this was an era when everything was getting faster.
Another thing that made the new espresso machines attractive to a café was the marvelous beauty of the machine and the mesmerizing sound of hissing steam as a beverage was being prepared. This piece of shiny brass and copper kinetic sculpture represented modernism in many respects. In 1900 they were somewhat Art Nouveau in style and supported an eagle on top and later in the twenties they were the epitome of the Art Deco movement.
Hand made, commercial size machines were patented and built on a small scale in Italy, Spain, England, France and Germany. Relevant features were the heating of the brew water in a tabletop, gas or spirit oil fired boiler and the use of low-pressure steam to force the brew water through the grinds. In some cases a pre-infusion of steam was used and in others, the steam followed the extraction by the water. This post brewing steam feature was incorporated to get the last bit of brew out of the filter and to dry the grounds for easy removal prior to refilling.
Another necessary and defining feature was the removable coffee filter (porta-ble-filter) that culminated in a design with a fast engagement “bayonet fitting” to facilitate quick removal and replacement of the filter when it was newly charged with fresh coffee grinds.
One early patent that included most of the features of the “basic” espresso machine, as we know it was the German patent of Gustav Kessel in 1878.
Angelo Moriondo of Turin patented the same type machine in 1885 but it was for bulk brewing of approximately fifty cups at a time. In effect engineers added feature after feature and refinements to these proto-type espresso machines over a period of seventy-five years.
The turn of the century saw a new era and new commercial possibilities for these new rapid coffee brewers. I should mention that it took a specially trained barman/engineer to operate these somewhat complicated machines. The boiler fuel had to be regulated by hand to prevent over-pressure that could result in a big bang similar to the creation of the universe. Aside from the technical engineering skills was the quality preparation of the drinks.
Luigi Bezzera of Milan. 1901
It is said that in 1901, a gentleman from Naples complained about the time it was taking to brew his coffee. In response, Luigi Bezzera, an engineer from Milan, patented a coffee machine containing a boiler that forced steamy, boiling water through ground coffee.
His friend, Desiderio Pavoni purchased Luigi Bezzera’s patent in 1903 and two years later, began manufacturing machines based on the patent.
Bezzera’s contribution was mainly the bringing together the latest features of other machines of his day with the addition of a single-cup portafilter. Ground coffee was deposited in the removable portafilter, engaged with the boiler outlet pipe, then the hot water valve was opened to allow brewing water to infuse the grinds and initiate the extraction process with water directly from the boiler. Then the hot water valve was closed and the steam valve opened in order to tap steam from the top of the boiler into the filter to push the remaining hot water through the grinds and into the cup. The steam was just a substitute for a pump, even though it conveniently left a dry cake in the filter, which was easily removed for refilling. Unfortunately Bezzera didn’t have the capital to go into mass production.
Desierio Pavoni, in effect became a partner with Bezzera even though they both separately built machines under their respective names. Pavoni’s innovations were a pressure relief valve fitted to the boiler for higher operating pressure, a patented gas control valve for controlling the boiler temperature and the familiar steam wands for heating milk.
Another upstart at about that same time was Pier Teresio Arduino with his version called the “Victoria” introduced in 1905. All these machines fell considerably short of producing the rich beverage that we know today as espresso. Rather, they all made nothing more than a quick single cup of fresh and strong filtered coffee.
It was obvious that steam pressure alone was not sufficient to produce the quality of beverage available with other brewing methods, so ideas as to how to produce more pressure were investigated.
By the way, nothing is ever said about the blends and the degree of roast in those days.
In 1909 Luigi Giarlotto of Turin offered a solution to the water pressure problem by adding two hand-operated pumps to his machine. The first, forced water through a “heat exchanger tube” and into the brewing chamber and a second, forced it through the brewing filter. There must have been some problems with his machine, as he did not become one of the captains of industry as others.
In 1912 Giuseppe Cimbali, a coppersmith from Milan patented the modern style heat exchanger submerged in the boiler water and went on to build his own machines.
FYI the first La Pavoni espresso machine in the United States was installed at Regio’s in New York in 1927.
Also in 1927 the Victoria Arduino Company patented their own pump machine with the additional advantage that the brewing water temperature was controlled just below boiling.
In 1938, M. Cremonesi a technician at a coffee-grinding factory in Milan developed a hand crank, spiral cam operated piston pump for espresso machine groups that forced the hot water through the coffee in the portafilter. His device was an after market accessory he sold to existing machine users and manufacturers. The piston pump eliminated the burnt taste that occurred in the long extraction by boiling hot water used in the Pavoni machines.
In 1938 Cremonesi adapted his new group head pump to the coffee machine at Achille Gaggia’s “Bar Achille” in Milan. Apparently Gaggia was sufficiently impressed he applied for a patent (patent number 365726) for his modern steamless coffee machine on September 5, 1938, to be used commercially in his coffee bar.
Gaggia tried the system and asked Cremonesi to make some modifications because it was tiring to use during the busiest service periods. But unfortunately the Second World War broke out and blocked progress for seven long years. Sadly during that time Sr. Cremonesi died.
In 1945 a Milan hair dryer manufacturing company called Valente was producing some parts for Gaggia’s machine experiments before Gaggia was able to build his own shop. Later Valente decided to go into the Espresso machine manufacturing business for himself under the name of F.A.E.M.A. (Italian acronym: Fabbrica Apparecchiature Elettromeccaniche e Affini) while Gaggia was setting up a new factory, with Sr. Capsoni as engineer, to make his own machines under the name of The Gaggia Company.
At first the Gaggia Company built only the groups, as did Cremonesi before him, which were added to other machine already in existence. In 1945, Gaggia re-commenced experiments, making new modifications in operating the piston and in 1946, after an agreement with Cremonesi’s widow, Signora Rosetta Scorza, his “lever group” was ready. This system took hot water from the pressure boiler, forcing it through the filter containing the coffee by means of the spring-loaded piston creating a pressure of ten atmospheres. (135 psi)
After Cremonesi’s death, Gaggia had to share the patent rights and pay royalties to the widow Cremonesi because the two patent designs were similar in that they both used a piston for extraction regardless the method of operation.
Until then boiling water from the tank was forced through the portafilter at the much lower boiler pressure which required the ground coffee to be much coarser for the water to flow through it. The high temperature of the water and the slow flow rate left a bitter over-extracted taste to the brew and no crema on the surface. At last, with this new innovation, coffee no longer had a burnt, over extracted taste, and it was very creamy as well. This led to the era of “Crema Caffe”, Espresso with a layer of coffee foam on its surface.
In about 1946 Gaggia began producing his new vertical-piston lever machines, he patented it in 1947, and introduced it in 1948.
The modern espresso beverage could only be produced after the invention of the lever operated, high spring pressure, piston pump and a few other ingenious, high-pressure water delivery systems. High water pressure and the innovation of the heat exchanger were both crucial for an improved taste of the beverage. All these features first came together in the 1948 Gaggia.
With the lever operated piston machine, came the terms of “short pull” and “long pull”. Restretto and Lungo became part of the new espresso lexicon. It was even the Italians who invented the “Venti” but that’s another story.
However operating the lever machines was also tiring and coffee preparation was still too slow by modern standards: about one minute for two cups.
In 1955 Giampietro Saccani of Lecco patented a hot water circulation system from the boiler through the group to keep it warm when not in use. It is standard on all machines today.
In the meantime, Ernesto Carlo Valente’s, Milanese company F.A.E.M.A., studied the existing coffee-machine types and near the close of the fifties perfected a new model. It revolutionized the machine and spurred the industry. A high-pressure, electrically driven pump was used to force the hot water, held constantly at a temperature of about 950C, directly through the coffee. “See Procon”
The use of electrically driven, high-pressure volumetric pumps, such as the Faema Procon introduced in 1960, totally solved the water pressure problem and eliminated the complicated lever operated piston but made it necessary to regulate the flow of water being delivered to the filter to prevent tunneling and undo turbulence within the filter. A small 0.7mm flow restricter jet was incorporated into the group of almost all new high-pressure machines. It’s like the shower water restricter we use today to conserve water. In Italian it’s called a Gigleur. It’s the same as an automobile’s carburetor jet. Every service technician knows they can clog and shut down the group.
In 1960 the Faema Company launched the famous “E61”, also known as the “distribution” machine. Unfortunately Giovanni Achille Gaggia died a year later in 1961.
The E61 had many advantages that started a new era for the popularity of espresso. Firstly, only about 20 seconds were required to make two cups of coffee. This made for faster service and a better product.
Secondly, water was taken directly from the main water supplying the machine, rather than from a stagnating boiler.
After filtration and decalcification it reached the electric pump that brought it to a pressure of about nine atmospheres: it then flowed through to the heat-exchanger tubes running through the high temperature boiler water. Finally it reached the distribution group’s portafilter containing the very finely ground coffee.
Under ideal conditions, the water is heated to a temperature of 194 to 203 degrees Fahrenheit, forced at nine bars of pressure (approximately 135 lbs. per square inch) through a quarter-ounce of finely ground coffee for 17 to 25 seconds.
For more about espresso, see “Espresso Coffee, The chemistry of quality” by Andrea Illy & Rinantonio Viani, Academic Press.
Something could be said about Beatnik era images for popularizing espresso in America.