Ever wonder how we ever get along without espresso? In the last ten years, it’s become easy to find a coffee shop on nearly every corner where you can find many of the countless combinations like cappuccinos and lattes that use espresso as their base. Like many great inventions, espresso was born out of necessity, Its inventor simply wanted to have his coffee faster and went about finding a way to quicken the brewing process.
What exactly is Espresso? It is essentially a strong black coffee that’s been brewed under intense pressure. Hot water is forced through very finely ground beans until a concentrated coffee with a delicate, chocolate-colored foam on top, called a crema, is produced. It can then be sipped as is or mixed with milk to create a latte.
Where did Espresso originate? Despite it becoming wildly popular due to Starbucks marketing, this humble yet exquisite beverage got its start well outside of Seattle in a little kitchen in Italy in the early 20th century. Coffee had already become a necessity to Italian daily life thanks to North African Muslims who brought it through Venice’s ports during the Renaissance. We owe much of the mystique of coffee to Venetian merchants who charged wealthy patrons hefty sums to try out this new fangled drink when the first coffeehouses opened in the 1640’s.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, Italy’s Industrial Revolution was in full force, with big, cranking industries popping up fast. Before long, factory bosses noticed how much more productive their drones were after a coffee break. But there was one big downside: The coffee break took too darned long. One enterprising young Milanese man named Luigi Bezzera did just what was needed to solve the productivity problem: he built a machine. Specifically, the world’s first single-serving espresso machine, patented in 1901—capable of making very concentrated, gulpable drinks in as little as half a minute.
Bezzera’s primitive prototype was essentially an enclosed metal tank, half filled with water that would be heated up over an open flame. As a by-product of this constantly heating water, a layer of steam would build in the top half of the chamber, increasing in pressure as the temperature rose. The first baristas would then unscrew a valve on the bottom of the machine, wherein would be placed a handle packed tight with finely ground coffee. The pressurized steam, desperate to escape its metal cage, would then force the hot water in the reservoir’s bottom through the bed of coffee and a quick concentrated little magical elixir would appear. Three sips later, the factories were buzzing again, and Luigi Bezzera would go down in history as the inventor of espresso.
Bezzera immediately named his invention the “Fast Coffee Machine”. Since the word ‘espresso’ means fast in Italian, the name of the beverage the machine produced was quickly shortened to what we know today. You don’t have to travel to Italy to experience Bezzera’s handiwork. The recent boom in espresso’s popularity has brought this Italian treat to every mall and street corner.
Next time you decide to pick one up, take a moment to think about the more than 100 years of history inside your cup.