Espresso: Italy’s Gift to World Coffee Culture

Discover the history of espresso – Mark Cirillo, writer and editor of CucinaTO explores Italy’s pursuit and passion for the perfect cup of coffee.

Italian Espresso

Compared with beverages such as tea, wine or beer, coffee is a fairly recent discovery, said to have originated in the 10th century in Ethiopia. Spreading slowly through northern Africa and the Middle East, it wasn’t until the late 16th century that the coffee market began to take off in Europe. Venice was one of the first European ports, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries cafés sprung up across Italy. But the infusion-based beverage they served was closer to percolated coffee than Italian espresso as we know it today.

It wasn’t until 1905 that Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera and his partner Desiderio Pavoni created the Ideale, an upright boiler that forced water through a compressed coffee cake at 0.75 atmospheres of pressure – the moment historians cite as the invention of espresso. Espresso directly translated means “pressed out,” in reference to the way the machine works. It can also mean “quick” or “express”, reflecting a key selling feature was that espresso reduced brewing time to about 45 seconds. It was perfect for the new breed of Italian coffee bars, where a growing bourgeoisie would stop for a quick drink – often consumed standing up, as they still do today. Espresso was fast and made to order, and the elaborate Art Deco machines on the bar contributed to the ambiance.

But the high heat of the steam and low atmospheric pressure produced a beverage that tasted burnt and thin by today’s standards. That problem lasted until 1947, when Gaggia launched its classic lever-operated machine that eliminated steam and increased atmospheric pressure to nine, producing a rich, smooth blend with a distinctive crema that quickly became the hallmark of fine Italian espresso. Since then, sales of Italian espresso machines and coffee blends have steadily risen both domestically and in Europe, but it took half a century longer for it to really catch on in North America – a phenomenon coffee historian Jonathan Morris humorously calls the Cappuccino Conquest. 

Morris’ point is that the Italian-style beverages that became wildly popular in the 2000s introduced espresso to a much wider audience, but in a form that would be unrecognizable to Italians. We’re not just talking about made-up Italian-sounding drinks; even the classics like espresso and cappuccino were quite different, often containing twice as much caffeine, milk or sugar. Traditionalists despair at the fact, but some see the Cappuccino Conquest as a kind of Trojan horse, furtively spreading Italian coffee culture abroad. There’s also evidence that the second wave of the Conquest, lead by independent café owners and new-school “baristas,” is seeking something more authentic – a path that will inevitably lead back to its origins in Italy.

In the meantime, if you are wondering how the coffee at your local café compares with a typical Italian espresso bar, here are a few facts about certified Italian Espresso and Cappuccino according to the Italian Espresso National Institute (INEI):
•  Italian espresso roasts are finely ground, medium blends. Blending is the key to maintaining consistency of taste.
•  An Italian espresso is 25ml including crema, made with water around 88°C forced through 0.25 oz. of tempered coffee.
•  Italian cappuccino is 25 ml of espresso and 100 ml of steam foamed milk, served in small white china cup with handle – not in a bowl!

Buon appetito!


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