A Short Take on Espresso Machines

2011/07/20 - Written by Joanne Latimer
The most loved appliance in the kitchen deserves regular maintenance—but don’t forget to invest in a good grinder.

It is a testament to our ancestor’s creativity and their commitment to the humble coffee bean that they arrived at such an improbable solution: pick it, cook it, grind it, brew it, filter it, and drink it. That’s a sensational leap of imagination.

But espresso lovers owe an additional debt of gratitude to our more recent forefathers. They thought six minutes was an unbearable amount of time to wait for a cup of coffee.  Moka pots and filter-coffee methods were simply too slow. The industrial revolution increased the speed of daily life and there was no time to loiter in the kitchen. Thus began the quest for a more efficient technique.

 “Espresso” literally means “fast” coffee. So, it should come as no surprise that the drink we know and love today—developed in Italy, ironically, the birthplace of the slow food movement—was essentially developed as a quicker way to move coffee through the machine and into your cup.


Early Days

The first (non-Italian) pre-cursor to the espresso machine is said to have produced up to 3000 cups per hour at the 1896 World Fair.  But it steam-blasted excessively hot water through the coffee grinds, resulting in an awful, bitter brew.  As anyone who has ever tasted burnt coffee will attest, you might as well cut out brewing altogether and eat coffee beans like popcorn.

Shortly after the World Fair, the machine generally recognized as the father of modern espresso was born.  In 1901, Luigi Bezzera built a steam-based unit with multiple boilers and chambers to lower the temperature of water coming into contact with the coffee.  The better brewing temperature was a notable improvement. However, Bezzera—a factory owner/manufacturer by trade—was uninterested in exploiting the potential in his invention. Just two years later, he sold his design to Desiderio Pavoni. “La Pavona” machines were a great success, even reaching the United States in 1927. Indeed, a model of the stunning machine can still be seen at Regio's coffee shop in New York City.

Nonetheless, for all their beauty and success, the popular machines were not perfect.  Elevated water temperature remained problematic. Consequently, in 1938, Cremonesi experimented with a pump, forcing hot water, rather than boiling water, through the coffee. It was another step in the right direction, and though more work was needed, it was installed at Achille Gaggia's coffee bar, where it remained, unperfected, during World War II.

After the war, Gaggia started manufacturing a commercial version of his pump. It was innovative in its use of a spring lever. The new method not only rectified the burnt flavor, but also produced a fortuitous and beneficial side effect: the additional pressure resulted in a thin layer of froth inside each cup.

Despite ensuing refinements by Faema in 1961, there is little debate among aficionados that froth in Gaggia’s bar heralded the birth of the first perfect cup of coffee—the first true espresso.  Legend has it that original patrons were not immediately sold on the product. Being accustomed to their inky black brews, clients initially complained about the layer of scum (schiuma) in their coffee.  Unfazed, Gaggia called the new drink "caffè crema" instead of espresso, resulting in what has to be one of the most successful marketing strategies of all time.


Keys to Home Machines

There are hundreds of home machines on the market today, ranging in price from $50 to well over $3000. While few people have the space or budget to install the commercial units found at top espresso emporiums, Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista's Handbook, affirms that with a relatively modest investment, you can rival or surpass the brews served in 90% of barista-staffed coffee houses. Rao should know. Not only is he a coffee consultant in Canada and in the U.S., but he is also co-owns the Café Myriade in Montreal with Anthony Benda, the 2008 Eastern Regional Barista Champ. The espresso at Rao and Benda’s café is lighting up the pages of word-of-mouth internet sites like Chowhound.


According to Rao, the inner workings of modern espresso machines vary little from one model to another.  Virtually all are capable of delivering the water-pressure and temperature required for a good cup of espresso.

“What you pay for is primarily aesthetics and convenience (i.e., automation), which means that budget and quality are not mutually exclusive,” explains Rao. “But you do have to know how to spend your money.  The biggest mistake people make is in underestimating the importance of a good, fresh, grind.  When buying a home system, I advise people to invest 30-50% of their budget on a quality grinder.  The end-product is only as good as its weakest link, and no machine can compensate for pre-ground or badly ground beans. Freshness and proper flow through the coffee is imperative.” 

Benoit Dugard, an espresso machine technician in Montreal’s Little Italy, echoes Rao’s sentiments.  Even though basic construction and technology vary less than we might expect, he remains an ardent advocate of buying a machine from a specialty shop.

As for durability, Dugard notes that maintenance will determine the longevity of your machine.  “Once a model is selected, a good specialist will not only draw samples from it, adjusting it or programming it to your taste, but will also show you the proper use and upkeep of your machine.  Should something go wrong, a specialty shop takes care of you.  Try that over the Internet”.


Machine Maintenance:

1)     Treat your machine to at least two decalcification treatments per year.

2)     Use specialty products, not CLR for these treatments.

3)     Tap water is better for your machine than bottled mineral water. Filtered tap water or demineralized water will reduce calcification and the buildup of impurities in your machine.

4)     Every week, clean your portafilter/filterbasket and the grouphead (where the portafilter attaches, from which the water is infused) with a soft brush. If you let too much time pass between cleanings, the filter-holes get blocked. Do not use pins (or heat) to clear the pores.  This can damage the structural integrity of the filter, affecting its performance. A new filter can be bought for about five dollars.

When using the steamer, milk can get sucked back up the spout, so don’t just clean the exterior. Remember to eject another burst of steam, or spray of water, into a glass.




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