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How Italians Invented Espresso

Espresso, and the many drinks made from espresso like lattes, cappuccino, and macchiato, are available around the world. Whether sold from major chains or local neighborhood coffee shops, all of these espresso drinks have their origins in 19th-century Italy. 

Coffee was first cultivated in Africa around modern Ethiopia. It spread first into the middle east and then Venice, a major trading city-state, likely had coffee beans passing through the port by 1600, but according to James Hoffmann's The World Atlas of Coffee, the first coffee house wouldn't open there until 1645. 

These coffeehouses spread across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. In England, they became a place of debate and philosophy where politics and revolution were hotly debated. Louis XIV of France enjoyed serving coffee to his guests, and Pope Clement VIII loved coffee so much, he decided to bless it – previously it had been seen as the devil's drink, consumed by infidels. 

Coffee, and the shops that served them, offered a far different experience than we would expect today. The primary methods for brewing coffee were boiling in the Turkish Style or steeping in the French style. Italy would then change everything. 

Angelo Moriondo of Turin patented the first steam-pressure coffee machine in 1885. He debuted the new technology at Turin's Grand Expo, a world's fair, but never put it into commercial production. He built a handful of prototypes and distributed the machines to coffee bars he operated in Milan. One big difference with coffee brewed with steam pressure is the process releases more caffeine from the ground beans. 

Mass production of the single-shot espresso machine would have to wait until 1901 when Luigi Bezzera of Milan created a new machine. The Bezzera machine forced steam through a small compact of grinds similar to modern systems, but Bezzera lacked the capital to mass-produce his system until 1903. It was then that Desiderio Pavoni bought out the patents and worked with Bezzera to refine the machine. They expanded production, and at the 1906 Milan World's Fair, the two debuted "cafe espresso," brewing single cups in just seconds. The new machine included a pressure valve to prevent explosions and coffee spills. 

The new machines proved popular, although the high temperature meant the coffee retained a bitter taste. Espresso also remained more of a luxury item in these early years. According to Wendy Pojmann, author of Espresso: The Art And Soul of Italy, most Italians still only enjoyed coffee once per week, and even then, it was mostly men.

The early Bezzara-Pavoni machines could pull as many as 1,000 cups of espresso every hour. Electric and natural gas variations on the machines improved the coffee flavor by maintaining a more even temperature, but still remained bitter. In these early years, espresso was predominantly a northern Italian treat available mainly in and around Milan.  

It was during this time too that the term “barista” came into use. Espresso was ordinarily ordered at a bar, and so the person making the coffee was known as a barman. When the fascist party took control of Italy, they wanted to purify the Italian language of foreign words. Under Musolini, the term barista was encouraged as it was more Italian, according to Pojmann.

The next big breakthrough came in 1935 when Francesco Illy, who founded Illycaffè in 1933, began substituting the steam for compressed air. The illetta machine relied on pistons to produce pressure. Illy also exported coffee using innovative pressurized packaging. The system replaced the air in coffee cans with inert gasses keeping the bean fresher. Using this technology reduced the bitterness created by the high heat of the steam. 

Perhaps the most important innovation was made by Achille Gaggia, a cafe owner in Milan. Gaggia invented a mechanism to perfect the crema, the foamy substance that forms on the top of a pulled espresso. Roasted coffee produces carbon dioxide, and the pressure of the espresso machine allows more of the gas to be absorbed. As it leaves the pressurized system, small bubbles form creating crema.

Gaggia's first patent in 1938 was for the Lampo, a device that used pressure from hot water rather than steam. The change created a less bitter coffee and increased the amount of crema in each cup. Several post-war innovations, including a lever system inspired by American army jeeps, then led Gaggia to produce the first modern espresso machine. His machines were soon disseminated around the world by way of Italian immigrants. 

Another major innovation from the 1930s was the stove top Moka pot invented by Alfonso Bialetti. The pot allowed home cooks to brew their own espresso coffee. In that period, the fascist government pushed to make aluminum the national metal of choice and helped spur designs like Bialetti's Moka Express. Before Bialetti, coffee had been a social drink consumed at cafes, but the Moka pot suddenly allowed Italians – 90% of whom eventually owned one of his designs – to brew coffee at home. 

The vast majority of Italian immigrants arrived in the United States long before espresso had become widely available. Even so, some of the early machines made their way into the hands of Italian Americans, like at Caffè Reggio in New York City's West Village where there is a machine that is more than a century old. The drink served the ethnic enclaves where Italians lived and largely remained unknown elsewhere. It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s that espresso began making inroads into mainstream cafe culture. Starbucks didn't even serve espresso until 1984. Former CEO Howard Schultz, inspired by a trip to Italy, wanted to bring Italian cafe culture to the United States. 

Whether you prefer a Venti White Chocolate Mocha or a simple shot with biscotti, the world owes our espresso addiction to the Italian people.

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.


Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.