History, Process & Taste

How a Few Clever Italians Changed the World



One  Tiny  Cup  at  a  Time  

By: Ken Takakura     Revised by: Mark Cambell    Last Updated: Feb 2, 2024

When was coffee first discovered ? It was a pivotal moment in Italian history. The year was 1901 and Luigi Bezzera, a mechanic in Milan, was not getting his morning coffee quickly enough. His temper rising with each tardy sip, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He built a contraption that forced hot water through coffee grounds at high pressure, producing a concentrated shot of coffee in mere seconds. Bezzara had invented the first espresso machine, and unleashed a force that would take the world by storm, mostly because the resulting coffee was really, really strong.  

Unfortunately, those first espresso shots were less than satisfying though, tasting more like a mouthful of gritty mud than a deliciously flavored beverage. Flavorings and foamy milk were needed to mask the inadequate espresso itself. Thus, the espresso cognoscenti in Milan came up with the brilliant idea to combine espresso with steamed milk to create the cappuccino. 

Vanilla syrups, caramel sauce and chocolate shavings soon followed to elevate the cappuccino to new decadent heights. Baristas took joy in coming up with ever more elaborate and Instagrammable espresso-based drinks. A salted dulce de leche latte macchiato with a pumpkin spice foam, anyone?

Bezzera's newfangled espresso coffee maker spread through cafés in Milan like wildfire, but World War 1 temporarily halted progress as resources were diverted to the war effort. After the war, Achille Gaggia modified the design to produce an even higher-pressure system that gave us the rich, creamy espresso we know and love today. Espresso spread from Italy to cities world over, Gaggia’s new machine was called “Caffe Espresso,” named after the speed and vigor with which it produced coffee. The name stuck to the coffee itself.

Espresso’s big break came in the 1950s when Gaggia’s machine was exported worldwide, spreading the gospel of espresso. Coffee drinkers were captivated by this sultry, robust coffee from southern Europe. It was chic, it was avant-garde, it was Italian. Movie stars and celebrities were frequently photographed sipping espresso, giving it an air of sophistication.  

Through the decades, espresso machine transitioned from mere steam-pushing contraptions to high-tech electronics enabling increasingly precise temperature, pressure and water control to maximize flavor extraction from each precious espresso bean. With fine-tuned espresso extraction, flavorings became less necessary and a simple, well-pulled espresso shot developed its own staunch devotees.

From crude steam-powered beginnings, espresso has evolved into a sophisticated yet wildly inventive beverage. Espresso's journey to excellence has ultimately been defined by evolving tastes and continuous refining of the brewing process. If early espresso shots tasted muddy, today's espresso is a study in subtlety and nuance. Espresso, at heart, is a celebration of the journey, not the destination. And that's why we love it.

Over the time, baristas have gained a deeper understanding of how different factors like coffee blend, grind size, water temperature, and brew time impact espresso flavor. They know now that espresso is not supposed to taste burnt, bitter or overly smoky. Rather, a great espresso shot should showcase floral, fruit and chocolate notes with a clean, balanced and not too acidic aftertaste.

Access to high-quality, specialty coffee beans from farms around the world has enabled baristas to achieve unprecedented flavor profiles in espresso. Where espresso was once dominated by robust Italian roasts, now a diverse array of Colombian supremo, Kenyan AA and Geisha are pleased espresso lovers palates. 

Steam power and manual control gave way to automated espresso coffee machines with built-in grinders, steam wands and PID temperature control. These "bargain basement lab equipment" help baristas maintain extremely tight control over the variables that produce the perfect espresso shot. On demand pressure profiling even allows baristas to program in customized pressure curves for optimal extraction from each espresso bean.

By extracting the absolute most flavor and complexity from each espresso shot while mitigating bitterness and acidity, a new breed of espresso connoisseurs have brought espresso to an artistic level once thought unattainable. Their espresso creations, whether a single shot, macchiato, ristretto or elaborate latte art, prioritize taste over trend and tradition. Nowadays, espresso is no longer about simply getting your caffeine fix, it has become an aesthetic experience unlike any other.

From humble beginnings, espresso has surely come a long, winding way. Its continued progression seems assured as long as there remain creative baristas passionate about pushing the boundaries of flavor and engineered machinery to help them achieve new heights. The perfect espresso remains an elusive yet compelling goal. Espresso's journey is still being written.

And today, espresso is integral to coffee culture around the globe. From lattes to cappuccinos to macchiatos, espresso provides the base for many quintessential coffee drinks. All thanks to a restless Italian mechanic and his quest for a quick cup of joe. The world owes you a debt, Signor Bezzera. Your impatience and mechanical aptitude bestowed upon us a gift that keeps on perking. Salut!