Espresso took root in the early 1900s, when Luigi Bezzera patented a machine that consisted of an upright, gas-heated boiler that used steam pressure to force hot water through ground coffee held in clampable filters. This steam-pressure based design is still widely used today in espresso machines for the home market. The original intent was to prepare coffee more quickly, by the cup, on demand. Hence the name, espresso, as the beverage was prepared “expressly” for the customer – but that still doesn’t mean call it expresso.
Desidero Pavoni acquired the patent from Bezzera in 1903 and brought the machine through the rest of Europe. He created the first commercially-produced espresso machine, the Ideale, in 1905. But these machines were far from cranking out the lattes we know today. Due to steam contamination, high temperatures, and low pressure, the coffee lacked crema and tended to taste burnt. Essentially, espresso was prized for its speed and convenience, rather than its taste.
The espresso revolution came in 1947, after the coffee shortages of World War II. Achille Gaggia, a bar owner with a passion for coffee, registered a new patent with a lever operated piston.
In fact, today the act of making espresso is often referred to as “pulling a shot,” because of Gaggia’s machine, which required pulling down on the lever attached to a spring-loaded piston. The piston meant that extraction now resulted in the emulsion of oils and colloids to create a mousse, or crema, on top of the espresso. Today we recognize crema as one of the defining traits of espresso, but at the time, Gaggia renamed his new beverage caffè crema for the specific purpose of differentiating it from the existing espresso.
These developments led to the growth of the Italian coffee industry and the rise of the Italian coffee bar. However, beyond Italy’s borders, espresso was far from being known as a quality beverage thanks to poor quality blends. In the 1980s, all that changed with the second espresso revolution.
In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association of America formed, and campaigned to raise standards rebranded espresso as a gourmet product. They encouraged gourmet retailers to promote espresso by serving it in stores. The idea was to allow customers to sample espresso, but they soon found out that using espresso as a base for other beverages like lattes added greatly to its appeal.
From there, a perfect storm took hold as Seattle, the home of Microsoft, boomed, and the later spread of laptops and wi-fi built the culture of the coffee shop, a model that Starbucks branded and reproduced across the world.