Hop On Board the Coffee Express-o!

Coffee purists are quick to correct anyone having the gall to pronounce “espresso” as “ex-presso.” I have to admit, I’m one of them. There’s an “s” guys, come on. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, those people are not (entirely) wrong. Espresso is a term that has been in use since the late 1800s, and originally it was a part of the phrase “café-espress”, which means coffee made to order. More specifically, the phrase meant coffee made expressly for the particular person ordering it, as opposed to something poured from a communal coffee pot. So, technically, yes, it has roots in the word express, the English version; but, the Italian and the spelling will not let me forgive that faux pas so easily. But, this post is not about linguistic differences, it is about the history of espresso.

Café-espresso as a phrase and a practice existed long before espresso machines were created. The phrase simply referred to coffee made for each individual person, from fresh beans roasted no more than two weeks prior to grinding and serving, ground immediately before brewing, and brewed immediately before consuming. Express and fresh. This means that technically, when you take the time to try your favorite specialty shop’s new pour-over brew, you’re technically partaking in “café-espress”.

The practice behind the phrase changed, however, during the age of steam/toward the end of the Industrial Revolution. Steam power had started running boats, assisting miner, and various other industries. People were working long hours, manning these new-fangled machines; they needed energy to get them through the workday (many of them had minimal food, particularly for lunch) and they needed it not to take five minutes to concoct. The solution: espresso machines. By 1901 Luigi Bezzera had solved the problem of utilizing steam for brewing coffee. The steam creates pressure in the boiler, which forces the water at the bottom of the boiler through the coffee grounds and filter. The pressurization meant that coffee brewers could grind the coffee beans much more finely, which expedited the brewing process. This method became the coffee standard throughout Italy, Spain, Southern France, Latin America, and essentially anywhere Italians immigrated.

And as technologies advanced, of course, so did espresso machines. From 1920 to its first functional manufactured and sell-able machine, inventors installed a pump into espresso machines that would react to the steam pressure and then create even more pressure (8-9 bars), working off a spring-loaded piston compressed by a lever that the barista would pull. (Fun fact: barista in Italian means barkeep—they are called espresso shots after all). The 8 or 9 bars of pressure were 8-9 times the amount in original espresso machines, further expediting the process.

True espresso, at least as our modern expectations dictate, is 1-2 ounces, with a full flavor and a lovely crema on top. This crema is caused by the brewing pressure allowing gas bubbles through. If there’s no crema, you know your espresso machine isn’t functioning at the right pressure level.

In 1961 electricity was introduced in the form of a pump (replacing the previous piston). This innovation actually opened up the possibility for a larger cup of espresso, instead of the 1 ounce standard. This standard came out of necessity; the piston could only hold 1 ounce of water at a time. But, by the time the 60s were electrifying espresso machines, people had their custom taste for the small cup of strong coffee. This was, however, the age when the “double espresso” came to be; still small enough to comfort those emotionally attached to their tiny shot, but with the added bonus of added caffeine! The electric pump could hold more water than the piston, but the technology was halted by norms and expectations.

And finally, in the 1970s, after a decade of hard-to-use hand pumps for home machines, a company introduced a smaller, cheaper pump that didn’t require a lever at all, which allowed at-home brewing to find its commercial niche.

I go back and forth between straight espresso, a silky latte, and plain old drip coffee. Third wave coffee shops these days are bringing nostalgia into modernity by pushing made-to-order drinks once more. I’m not just talking about your skinny vanilla or soy chai, I’m talking about pour-overs and aero presses, the ones that take the 5 minutes that antiquated brewing methods took. While these aren’t the drinks you grab five minutes before you have to clock in, they allow for coffee drinking to be experiential and pleasurable instead of merely quick and functional. Colloquially, we’ve come to regard that one or two ounce pressurized shot as espresso, and nothing else; but, technically, or at least historically, these 5-minute brews are “café-espress” too.

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