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Espresso Machine History: Celebrating the Modern Day Coffee

Imagine the world without coffee… Impossible for many who can’t start their day without it. Coffee, for most of us, is that which is strong, sharp, and full of flavor. That is a shot of espresso.  Although many people are familiar with espresso these days, mainly because there is a coffee shop in every corner, there is often still some confusion over what it actually is. To make it clear, espresso is not a roasting method, but a method of preparation which originated in Italy in which highly pressurized hot water is forced over coffee grounds to produce a very concentrated coffee drink with a deep, robust flavor. And thus, here is a quick espresso machine history for you.

So who is responsible for this black as ink drink? Let’s get to know the people and the story behind it so we could thank the heavens every time we take a sip of it.

Espresso Machine History

The invention of the machine and the method that would lead to espresso is usually attributed to Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, who was granted a patent in 1884 for “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.” The first machine created was only for the purpose of showcasing it in the Turin General Exposition. There is a little known fact about Moriondo, mainly because of what is called today as “branding failure.” With the exception of his patent, Moriondo was lost in history.


Moriondo’s patent for a steam-powered coffee machine

Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni were the “Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of espresso.” Luigi Bezzera had the know-how as he is a manufacturer from Milan and maker of liquors. His invention of single shot espresso in the 20th century’s early years was while he was looking for a method to brew coffee directly into a cup quickly. He introduced several improvements to Moriondo’s machine. Bezerra designed and built a few prototypes of his machine, but the coffee he produced did not gain popularity due to a lack of money for business expansion and for marketing.


Luigi Bezzera’s patent for a “coffee making machine” (image: Google Patents)

Desiderio Pavoni bought Bezerra’s patent in 1903 and also made improvements to the design of the equipment. He was responsible for expediting the brewing process. At the 1906 Milan Fair, the two men introduced the world to “cafeé espresso.“ Bezzera, though he may have even built Pavoni’s first machines, slowly faded from the picture as Pavoni continued to widely market his name brand “espresso” (“made on the spur of the moment”) machines, which were produced commercially in his workshop in Milan. After the Milan Fair, similar espresso machines began to appear throughout Italy, and Bezzera’s early utilitarian machine has evolved and is marketed as “Ideale.” Although it worked, it depended exclusively on steam, and because of this, the desired consistency of every brew was not achieved. Further, innovators were not able to come up with a machine that could with more than 1.5 – 2 bars of pressure without burning the coffee.


A 1910 Ideale espresso machine

Pavoni dominated the espresso market for more than a decade, but his coffee was limited to a regional delight for denizens of Milan and surrounding areas.

Pavoni’s competition, Pier Teresio Arduino, was very much determined to find a method of brewing espresso that didn’t depend exclusively on steam. He made a few designs but was not able to effectively implement his concepts. However, he was a master marketer and worked with Leonetto Cappiello to create a famous poster depicting the nature of espresso and the speed of the modern era. In the 1920s, as a result of greater production ability and marketing, he was able to export machines out of Milan, thus spreading the espresso throughout Europe.


Victoria Arduino Poster

The man to finally surpass the two-bar brewing barrier was Milanese café owner Achille Gaggia. Gaggia transformed the Ideale with the invention of the lever-driven machine. Invented after WWII, the machine’s steam pressure in the boiler forces the water into a cylinder where it is further pressurized by a spring-piston lever operated by the barista. Not only did this eliminate the need for massive boilers, but it also drastically increased the water pressure from 1.5-2 bars to 8-10 bars. The lever machines also standardized the size of the espresso. The use of these lever machines marked two things:

  • baristas coined the term “pulling a shot” of espresso and
  • discovery of crema – the foam floating over the coffee liquid that is the defining characteristic of a quality espresso.
  • With high pressure and golden crema, Gaggia’s lever machine marks the birth of the contemporary espresso.


Vintage Gaggia lever machines

The next improvement in the espresso machine happened in the revolutionary 1960s when Gaggia’s piston machine was surpassed by the Faema E61, invented by Ernesto Valente in 1961. Rather than relying on the manual force of the barista, the E61 used a motorized pump to provide the nine atmospheric bars of pressure needed for brewing espresso. Water drawn from the tap is sent through a spiral copper pipe inside a boiler before being shot through the ground coffee. A heat exchanger keeps the water to the ideal brewing temperature. With its technical innovations, smaller size, versatility, and streamlined stainless steel design, the E61 was an immediate success and is included in the pantheon of most influential coffee machines in history.


The Faema E61 espresso machine

There are surely a few other steps along the way, but these developments track the larger commercial history of the espresso. Over more than a century, the espresso machine has been drastically improved, and so is the art of espresso. The talent of the barista is as important as the quality of the beans and the efficiency of the machine. Indeed, it is said that a good espresso depends on the four M’s:

  • Macchina – the espresso machine;
  • Macinazione, the proper grinding of beans –a uniform grind between fine and powdery– which is ideally done moments brewing the drink;
  • Miscela, the coffee blend and the roast, and
  • Mano, which is the skilled hand of the barista, because even with the finest beans and the most advanced equipment, the shot depends on the touch and style of the barista.

When combined properly, these four M’s will yield a bold and elegant drink. It comes with a light, sweet foam crema floating over the coffee. Espresso, as we know now, has come a long way – indeed, a complex drink with a complex history!