We’ve all heard about espresso. How could we not — it’s hip, it’s in and Starbucks made a net revenue of $14.9 billion last year. Most of us have most likely tried an espresso drink, and almost all of us have probably misspelled “espresso” at some point. We all know that it comes from giant, expensive machines operated by specialists that are just working there to pay their way through art school, But today we’re going to delve a little deeper into this Italian godmother of coffee drinks.
Let’s begin with a brief history of espresso. In 1884 an Italian man by the name of Angelo Moriondo submitted a patent for a “steam driven ‘instantaneous coffee’ machine.” While rather crude compared to modern day espresso machines, Moriondo’s invention is undoubtedly the framework for all of the machines to come. Moriondo invented the machine as a way to quickly and cheaply brew coffee that would also be precisely portioned. Because of these benefits, the espresso machine was perfect for cafés and it soon became so popular that dedicated coffee bars began to emerge in Italy towards the end of the 19 century. The emergence of these bars perfectly accompanied the rise of Italian urbanization and they became centers of socialization.
Espresso then began to spread in popularity out from its Italian nexus and through Europe in the early 20 century. It eventually made its way stateside in the mid-1900s (perhaps because of WWII GIs bringing back Italian souvenirs), but it remained in a rather niche market until someone in Seattle figured out how to make an obscene amount of money and here we are today — with an espresso shop on every street corner.
The secret to the small portioned, strong flavor of espresso lies in its brewing method. First coffee beans are ground to a fine grit, and then are placed in a metal cup called a “basket” with small holes in the bottom. The grounds are lightly compacted in a process called “tamping” that allows for the water to more evenly penetrate the “puck” of grounds. Pressurized near-boiling water is then forced through the grounds, producing an almost syrupy shot of espresso. The consistency of espresso stems from the fact that the process incorporates both dissolved and solid components of the grounds.
But clearly the scope of espresso lies beyond the mere shots of coffee. After all, when was the last time you heard someone order just espresso at a shop? The inclusion of steamed milk is arguably what popularized espresso in America. The first coffee drink to incorporate steamed milk was the cappuccino, first appearing in Italy in the 1930s. Up to that point people had been mixing milk into their coffee for centuries, but it was around this time that someone tried to warm the milk by channeling steam through it. The steam was previously only used to maintain the pressure of the water. Water is forced through the grounds under pressure, which makes it such a quick process. Therefore the entire machine had to hold the water at pressure in order to brew. When water is heated it creates steam. Early machines simply ignored this technique, but some Italian espresso machine maker eventually incorporated a way in that the steam could be channeled and released into milk to make it hot — thus not making the espresso cold.
The foam that accompanies steamed milk was also originally an unintended side effect, but it soon became an integral part of the cappuccino. In fact, to this day if you order a cappuccino the barista will most likely ask if you want it wet or dry — they are simply asking how much foam you want. A wet cappuccino has more milk than foam, and a dry cappuccino has more foam than milk. And as you can probably guess, our ever-so-loved latte has its origins in the cappuccino. Regular espresso remained the staple in most of Europe, but we Americans weren’t quite ready for that — after all we had been putting things in our coffee for decades and we continue to do so. The cappuccino became the most popular espresso drink stateside. We also must’ve found the foam to be a bit strange, because cappuccinos became wetter and wetter until they finally struck upon the modern latte — the golden egg of all American espresso and the spear tip of chain espresso shops.
From 1880 Italy to the drive-through Starbucks, espresso continues to evolve. Whether you enjoy it plain and simple or in its various mixed forms, be sure to not ignore espresso. It’s about the most pure distillation of coffee that you can get your hands on and one of the most delicious to be sure.