Coffee Tales Part 3: The Evolution of Espresso

This coffee tale takes us to the beautiful environs of Italy, and back to the late 19th century.

Authors Note: This piece will reference some deeply influential figures in the history of coffee and in particular the growth of Espresso in the world. While I have done my research, I am also taking some selective artistic license to tell a good tale. No offence or disrespect is intended in any changes or inaccuracies within my work. I genuinely and deeply salute the incredible list of innovators who have given birth to a truly magical industry. But in the interests of a cohesive narrative some modification and omission was required.

Ok so all that said, back to 19th century Italy…

Signore Moriondo

Here we come across Signore Angelo Moriondo, a man destined to be the latest in a line of innovators and entrepreneurs. Angelo’s father is Giacomo Moriondo of Moriondo & Gariglio, a successful chocolate company, and Giacomo’s father before him was the founder of a successful Liqueur company. Our Signore Moriondo is already an entrepreneur in his own right, he owns the Grand-Hotel Ligure and the American Bar in his home city of Turin.

Signore Angelo Moriondo

Signore Moriondo is a lover of coffee and of the culture of coffee service, so much so that he finds himself fascinated by the possibilities of faster and more efficient brewing of the drink for his venues. Along with so many people of the time he is also intrigued by the potential applications of steam power, and one day he considers the possibility of using it to brew coffee.

Angelo (we hopefully know him well enough now to be on first name terms) being a wise man, looks for someone to help him realise his dream. Here enters Signore Martina (I confess that I have not been able to uncover the full name of this important player in our tale), a steam engineer. The two set their minds to creating a new and exciting way to brew coffee for the customers of Angelo’s establishments. 

Using my narrative magic I shall attempt to conjure quite the montage here, as we watch our intrepid Italians theorise, design, manufacture and test machine after machine.

Certainly we can imagine some spectacular moments, always possible when working with steam, perhaps even a few coffee explosions. What a moment it must be when they finally succeed, we can imagine quite the jubilant celebrations, the joy of an idea realised, of a destination reached.

Buoyed by hard earned success and filled with enthusiasm, Angelo proudly presents the fruits of much work at the General Expo of Turin in 1884, and indeed, is awarded a bronze medal by the panel. In May of that same year he is awarded a six year patent for the Moriondo “New steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage”. Ok so perhaps names aren’t part of Angelo’s genius…

Part of the original patent plans for:
The Moriondo new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage

-Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the coming months and years Angelo and (presumably) Signore Martina, continue to develop their new technology, updating the patent several times and significantly improving both design and function. The apparatus themselves take pride of place in Angelo’s commercial establishments. We can well imagine the buzz for customers as they are able to experience a brand new and cutting edge way to drink coffee.

Despite (purportedly) privately acknowledging that his machine might have greater commercial application, Angelo was happy to simply manufacture several prototypes for his own venues. Perhaps believing that the exclusivity of his magical coffee machines would be an advertising masterstroke. By all accounts he met with plenty of success, after all he was doing something no one else could. 

Signori Bezzera & Pavoni

Our tale could end here, but for the arrival of Luigi Bezzera, a manufacturing mogul who came across the Moriondo patent and was inspired by it. Now Signore Bezzera’s motivations at first are pretty simple, he sees the potential to build a coffee machine that will speed up break times in his factories. Using his own (not inconsiderable) talents Luigi adapts the concepts of the Moriondo Machine (I’m not typing that mouthful again) and after successfully creating his productivity enhancing machine, gains his very own patent in 1902. What a sight it must have been, to see the many workers of the Fabbriche Bezzera grabbing a far quicker coffee from the Bezzera Coffee Machine.

Once more a coffee loving inventor having achieved his initial goal, has the opportunity to rest on his laurels. But Luigi is an ambitious man, and he begins to see the potential commercial value in this speedy caffeine dispensing marvel. Showing a remarkable level of commercial foresight he approaches Signore Desiderio Pavoni together they will go on to change the coffee drinking world… 

In 1905 Desiderio founds La Pavoni Spa in Milan, and goes to work producing the “Ideale” a fully commercial espresso machine, and sales begin to mount up. La Pavoni becomes the name in commercial coffee service and the age of cafe espresso truly dawns.

Advert for the La Pavoni Ideale
These machines are a far cry from those we are used to seeing in modern espresso bars and coffee shops.

Signore Gaggia

The world of espresso arrives at its next point of evolution in the post WWII era, and once more it’s an Italian innovator whose journey we follow. Meet Achille Gaggia (some of you may recognise the name). Signore Gaggia is a passionate man, already deeply ingrained into the manufacture of coffee making equipment, and he wants to make the very best coffee he can.

The cafe espresso of the time is a punchy beast of a drink, with a deep intense flavour and a characteristic bitter aftertaste which divides drinkers. Achille however believes he can do better and embarks on a complete modernisation of the espresso machine.

The eventual changes are vast and far reaching, indeed creating an almost entirely new breed of machine. First and foremost Achille determines that the drink tastes far better when brewed at a lower temperature, the machines of the time run at about 248oF (120oC). Gaggia builds a machine that brews at a much more gentle 194oF (90oC), this gives the desired change in taste, significantly reducing undesirable bitterness.

While he is developing his new machine Achille entirely alters the process of brewing. The Gaggia version of the espresso machine uses manual levers, rather than pure steam pressure, to control the brewing of coffee, creating a synergy between operator and machine, and incidentally giving birth to the art of the barista (bartender).

The system of this new machine also increases the pressure used in brewing, the La Pavoni style of machine hits pressures of about 1.5 atmospheres, around 22 psi (pounds per square inch) but the intense power of the Gaggia system reaches 9 atmospheres, about 132 psi (also known as “a comparative shit ton”). This change allows Achille to make perhaps his most famous, and industry altering discovery, “Crema”.

Brewed at such high pressure coffee comes out with a strange golden foam on its surface, at first this is (likely) of deep concern to Achille, perhaps it means something odd is happening. But upon tasting he discovers that this foam actually adds to the flavour (this point is deeply debated in modern coffee circles, but we are in the past here so give a guy a break?!). Being as much a showman as he is an inventor Achille decides to make a selling point of this new discovery, Gaggia proudly emphasises the wonders of coffee crema (cream of coffee) and encourages brewers to see it as a sign of great coffee.

A vintage Gaggia machine proudly displays the discovery of
Crema Cafe Naturale (The “natural” cream of coffee)

Oddly for a man who was (probably) making as much of a guess as anything, Achille Gaggia wasn’t far wrong. Modern coffee experts now know that crema is just oils escaping under pressure as the CO2 breaks free from roasted coffee beans, this is a sign of freshness and therefore actually does reflect a good brew. So in his “creative marketing” Achille actually ended up building the foundations of great coffee brewing.

For a time Gaggia machines are at the beating heart of coffee bars around the world. Many modern coffee lovers (myself included) acknowledge Signore Gaggia as the father of true espresso. 

Signore Valente

Around the same time as Achille Gaggia another coffee maestro was at work in Milan. Meet Carlo Ernesto Valente, Signore Valente has his own coffee machine company: Fabbrica Apparecchiature Elettromaccaniche E Affini (Manufacturers of Electromechanical and Related Equipment), you may well recognise the more common name of FAEMA from coffee machines in many cafes.

Like Gaggia, Carlo Valente’s empire is founded on lever coffee machines and uses the very best technology of the day, indeed Gaggia and FAEMA collaborate on projects over the years (but I won’t muddy the narrative with to much detail). Carlo is of course one more in a long line of innovators. While he is happy with the quality of coffee his machines can produce, he aspires to more consistency and much more crucially a change in the ease of use of his products.

Lever press coffee machines are amazing, your humble scribe adores working with them, the sense of pure tactile interaction and the buzz of blending operator and machine lift my heart. But Carlo has a point, they are unpredictable beasts, and require a lot of skill and practice to use well. Also they aren’t exactly ol’ “Elf and Safety’s” favourite thing, it’s an old joke that you can spot a lever machine barista by his one oversized arm and missing front teeth (those levers have a lot of pressure and if the arm springs back at you, you do not want to be in the way. Trust me on this). So back to Signore Valente and his quest to improve espresso making.

Carlo reaches a solution to his problem in 1961 when FAEMA release the E61 (another name to bring a smile to many a coffee expert’s face). The E61 is a true Titan of engineering, the very first electronically regulated espresso machine, it can produce consistent pressure and flow without the need for a skilled, experienced (and arguably slightly bonkers) operator. This changes the game for coffee shops, and the arrival of this technology is often seen as the beginning of the greater coffee boom.

The FAEMA E61 an Espresso Legend

Honestly without Signore Valente’s game changing E61 we probably would never have gained the coffee shop culture which so predominates in our world. The ease and accessibility of electronic espresso machines opened up a whole new world of potential.

Signing Off

Usually at this point in my coffee tales I guide the narrative towards a carefully planned and considered (really, I promise) point about modern coffee. Today not so much.

I could talk about the impact of coffee being made available to the masses, wax lyrical about the many institutions that were founded on coffee house discussion. Or perhaps I could talk about the immense skill and engineering genius that is needed for espresso to exist at all. But in reality I pretty much have already.

Truly, if this coffee tale doesn’t spark a little joy and a lot of respect for you. I’m out folks, seriously at that point, I got nothing. For me the birth and evolution of espresso is a deep reflection of human ingenuity, of hard work and passion in harmony. It really is a kind of magic…

So raise a glass with me.

Salute, alle tue innovazione. Signori Moriondo, Bezzera, La Pavoni, Gaggia, Valente, e altri!

Grazie Mille

About Bear Essentials Coffee

If you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support my work.

Thanks, – Bear

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