The Art and Science of Beautiful Espresso

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Espresso is an artisanal drink, intertwined with the maker, requiring skill, patience, and passion. This concept is at odds with modern society, which is why finding authentic Italian espresso is so hard these days. In America, espresso is a recent immigrant who hasn’t quite assimilated and isn’t quite determined to retain its identity. But who has the time? Who really cares? There are a few factors that contribute to the problem. This is indeed a problem because good espresso is an anchor of Italian gastronomy. Without it, the meal, the experience, and the pleasure are all incomplete.  With a good espresso, the world is perfect – if only for the time that it takes to drink the one-ounce serving.

Espresso is the most consumed beverage in Italy. But even in Italy there are regional preferences. In the South, espresso is creamy and rich. In the north, it is lighter and less intense. There are volumes written about the regional differences, as nuanced as they are. Even so, there is much more uniformity in Italy regarding espresso than there is in America. This uniformity, ironically, may be due to the fact that much of the espresso in Italy is roasted and distributed by large companies that cover the county (like Illy and Lavazza). Part of the uniformity is also driven by the fact that espresso culture is now widespread and ingrained. People don’t question it. Indeed, they love it. It is a symbol of national pride.

Let me take a step back.

Espresso is like religion. Everyone has an opinion about it. And it’s always a strong one. Espresso evokes passion, and passion evokes righteousness. But a preacher I’m not. And to the extent I’m sounding preachy, what I’m trying to convey is, “Here’s what I know and here’s what I love, but who am I to judge.” Believe me, this is tough duty when you are convinced you are correct.

So what makes believe that I should even opine on this subject? I don’t roast coffee, or own an espresso bar. Yes, I am a student of Italian gastronomy and write about it, but does that make me an expert? Perhaps not yet. But I am passionate about espresso and have been for a long time. I have read a lot about espresso. When I see a new espresso bar, or even the word on a store window, my mouth waters. I am drawn to the machine. Last week, I saw an antique espresso machine in New York and literally welled up. I inspect the grinder and the barista. I’m usually skeptical, but I try it anyway. When I’m in Italy, I may have 10 espressos a day. I won’t drink them unless they’re exactly what I’m looking for, but I stop, I study, I buy, I sip. In Naples this is easy. In other parts of Italy, I’m often disappointed, though far less than I am anywhere else in the world.

When I travel to other countries, I search out local espresso bars. I have traversed Tokyo for espresso, and have been very satisfied with Segafredo, where the baristas trained in Milan. I’ve had good espresso in Seoul and Ho Chi Minh, and Hong Kong, of course. The Asian countries usually take espresso more seriously than do the European, perhaps out of respect. I’ve never had a good espresso in France, and suspect that they have sabotaged all of their espresso machines out of jealousy. In Berlin and Munich, yes, but only at the hands of Italian expats. The Spanish just don’t seem to care. In London, there is Bar Italia, which I will not miss when I am there. As for Mexico, I am more likely to take my moka pot with me than I am to worry about the water. And Argentina? Well, as you can imagine, it’s quasi-Italian espresso – almost the real deal. You get the idea — I am obsessed with espresso.

Obsession always leads to disappointment, but this is my cross to bear.

And like religion, so much about espresso is subjective. It’s personal. Long or short shot, the blend and roast of the beans, with out sugar, milk or froth? So much of this is regional too. I love the dark, rich espresso found in Naples. I can’t bare the watery stuff found near the Austrian border.

So what is the perfect espresso for me? It’s a ristretto. The beans, a mixture of mostly Arabica with some Robusta, are roasted dark, but not too dark. They create a thick, dark crema. It’s strong and not too bitter. In the morning, it’s combined with an equal amount of frothed whole milk to make a strong cappuccino. Perhaps in the afternoon it gets a dollop of milk froth to make a macchiato. Occasionally, I pour it on ice. I never add sugar, but am not afraid of Sambuca. And I never, ever like it drowned in milk. If it’s perfect, I want it alone. To me, a perfect espresso is a thing of beauty.

So what is espresso?

As a preliminary matter, it’s important to note that espresso isn’t the coffee bean itself.  It is both the name of the coffee drink and the method used to brew the coffee. The word espresso means “express” in Italian. When it was initially developed, this was a much faster way to make coffee, for an individual. But the word “express” can also take on the meaning of extraction, so it isn’t clear which was the original usage.

And how is it made?

Or shall I say pulled?  The term “pulled” or “pulling” a shot, originating from early espresso machines, which require pulling down a lever or handle attached to a spring-loaded piston, forcing hot water through the coffee at high pressure (this as opposed to the electric pumps used in modern espresso machines). Very hot water under high pressure is forced through finely ground, compacted (tamped) coffee.  This process extracts both solid and dissolved components. The “crema” is produced by emulsifying the oils in the ground coffee.  There are rules about the amount and type of ground coffee used, the temperature and pressure of the water, and the rate of extraction. The Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano defines the rules as follows:

Portion of grind: 7 ± 0.5 g (0.25 ± 0.02 oz.)
Exit temperature of the water: 88 ± 2 °C (190 ± 4 °F)
Temperature of the drink in the cup: 67 ± 3 °C (153 ± 5 °F)
Entry water pressure: 9 ± 1 bar (131 ± 15 psi)
Percolation time: 25 seconds ± 5
Viscosity at 45 C: 1.5 mPa s
Total fat: 2 mg/ml
Cafféine: < 100 mg/cup
Serving volume, including crema: 25 ± 2.5 mL (0.85 ± 0.08 oz.)

Espresso is Science.

Good espresso is smooth, but not sharp. It has hints of bitter and sour, but isn’t biting. It is lovely to look at and smells inviting and exciting. It is a product of the machine, the beans, the roast, environmental conditions of humidity and temperature, and most important, the hand of the maker. But there is a science to espresso.

It’s Physics: Carefully pressurized hot water passes through a layer of coffee (specifically 7 g), and tamped to a certain density, verified by hand and eye. The beans are roasted, ground and pressed in a specific way. When the water passes through the ground coffee, the burst of water pressure is exhausted and the liquid flows out at atmospheric pressure.

It’s Chemistry: The making of espresso is a solid-liquid extraction, using hot water as a solvent. While other coffee preparation methods require boiling water, espresso does not. Its super fine grind creates a resistance to water percolation that allows the extraction of water-soluble and lipophilic substances that create the crema and viscous body of the espresso.

Espresso is Art.

Make no mistake. Espresso is also art. It is tactile, colorful, and emotional. Knowing this makes it difficult to say what is a good espresso; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While difficult to define the qualities of a good espresso, I like to refer to the CACA that makes espresso unique and delicious to me.

Corpo (Body): Like wine, espresso has a body. What does it feel like in your mouth? It is thick or thin? Oily or not? Thickness, or viscosity, depends not only they type of beans used, but also the roasting technique, and preparation. Darker roasts are often fuller and more intense than lighter roasts.
Aroma (Aroma): The aroma and taste should be strong and intense, but not too bitter. It shouldn’t be so astringent that it makes you wince.
Crema (Cream): A good espresso should be covered with a rich, thick, chocolaty crema, with shades of light and dark brown.
Aciditá (Acidity): When the espresso hits your tongue it shouldn’t be sharp. Beans grown in high altitudes tend to have higher levels of acidity. The roasting process and mixture of Arabica and Robusta beans affect the level of acidity. The aftertaste should be delicious.The Size.

An espresso should be less than an ounce (25 ml) in size, including the crema. An espresso lungo can be slightly larger, and a ristretto slightly smaller. A cappuccino should be no larger than 5 ounces (125 ml), including the espresso. Ironically, in Italy, the word lungo (long) is often used derisively, used to describe and espresso that has too much water. To make an espresso ristretto, less water in passed through the coffee, so only the most intense and thick extraction is pulled. This part contains tannins, so the flavor is stronger, but the cafféine levels are less.

La Tazza.

Even the cup has its importance: the cone shaped cup is specifically used, preferably in white, to observe the amount of coffee extracted, as well as the viscosity and color of it. It also helps maintain the consistency and temperature while it is being consumed. Espresso cups are often colorful on the outside, but usually they are white china on the inside, or sometimes, glass. They should be kept warm, atop the espresso machine, stacked no more than two rows high.

What makes a Good Espresso?

Remember the 5 M’s of espresso (la cinque M):

  1. La Mano (the hand): The barista must be skilled and trained, serious about the job. They cannot be nervous or rushed.
  2. La Misura (the Measure): The amount of espresso that is put into the espresso basket.
  3. La Macchina (the Machine): The quality and strength of the machine. The overall maintenance of the machine and its cleanliness is of utmost importance. Water temperature and pump pressure need to be correctly calibrated. Because lime scale build up can alter the pressure and quality of the water, the machine must be cleaned regularly.
  4. La Miscela (the Mixture) or blend of the beans: While many roasters use only Arabica coffee beans, others prefer to use a blend of Arabica and Robusta beans. It is important to use freshly roasted beans that are ground immediately prior to use. Beans should be stored in an airtight environment, as the air will spoil the beans. Roasting requires strict monitoring of temperature, roasting times, color, and humidity.
  5. La Macinatura (the Grind): The fineness of the grind is essential. For this reason, the Macinadosatore (the grinder-dispenser) needs to be of a certain quality and maintained.

The Journey to America.

Once upon a time…America was a land that consumed a lot of coffee, but didn’t think a lot about it. It came in blue and white paper cups, decorated with Greek columns. Then along came Starbucks.

It all started with Howard Schultz. Well, kind of. I’ll spare you the gory details, but in 1986 he opened his first store ‘Il Giornale,’ named after the Milanese newspaper. He was inspired by a trip to Italy, where he had visited some of Italy’s 200,000 espresso bars – “one on every corner, places to congregate.” He wanted to bring Italian coffee culture to America. What an accomplishment!? Yes, until I remind you that a shot of espresso in Italy always costs 1 euro (about a buck) and that the words venti and trenta would be shocking to most Italians when applied to the sizes of espresso drinks. (Fuggeddabout whipped cream and caramel…)

Two years later, the original Starbucks owners sold their business to Schultz and he quickly rebranded his stores to make a small chain.  There are now 23,305 stores in 65 countries, including 13,049 in the United States. There are none in Italy, perhaps due to 200,000 espresso bars selling espresso shots for a buck.

In true American fashion, Starbucks sparked a revolution. They bought up competitive chains. Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds and countless other establishments started to serve espresso, as defined by Starbucks. Appalled by the “McStarbucks” quality of the business model, legions of industrious and creative young Americans decided they could do it better. Some started boutique chains to cater to the cognoscenti. And others wanted to go pure “indie.” Hence, beginning in Seattle, and then eventually spreading to New York and other major cities, the independent coffee roaster and espresso shop became all the rage. Williamsburg may have been ground zero for this trend in New York, or maybe the East Village. So much passion and creativity has gone into this American coffee culture.  And I partake and enjoy.

But this doesn’t mean that I’ve lost sight of Italian coffee culture, which I still prefer and spend my hours trying to preserve. Yes, there is excellent, delicious, coffee in these places. Time, energy, passion go into every cup, and every heart or leaf atop the cappuccino. But let’s be clear, all of this is Italian-American, based on Italy, but no longer Italian.

And here’s why. In Italy, espresso is for the people — all of the people. It isn’t for the upper middle class, or for the artistic class. It’s for everyone. An espresso in Italy costs one euro (say a dollar). Every street corner bar, highway rest stop, and restaurant, understand that this is what an espresso costs. Rich and poor enjoy the same beverage.

The subject of espresso is constantly on the mind of Italians, but it is not over-thought. Italians wake up each day, and walk into their corner espresso bar, and buy their drink. There, a macchiato is really a macchiato; it’s isn’t blended and covered with caramel. The sizes trenta and venti would be considered ludicrous. (Literally, five Italian cappuccinos would fit into a Starbucks trenta.) Yes, Italian coffee roasters and sellers want to make money, but they respect the idea of what an espresso is and that it should be for everyone. Maybe this is why Italians have, as a culture, basically agreed that they way they drink espresso is the way it should be. A hundred years has gone into this collective decision-making.

And maybe this is the reason Italy is suffering so much these days. Maybe they should sell more, add caramel, whipped cream, and larger sizes. I suspect (and hope) that there is too much wisdom to allow it to happen. Italians, after all, understand the benefits of moderation when it comes to food and drink.

Italian-Americans and Espresso.

For sure, there was espresso in America way before Howard Schultz visited Milan.

When I was growing up in Northern New Jersey, Italian restaurants were ethnic restaurants. The waiters were Italian. The espresso either came from a proper espresso machine or from a tabletop Napoletana, kept warm at the table. But like so many other Italian-American foods, espresso became an afterthought. The Italian-Americans didn’t care enough to keep it authentic. Hence, the people closest to the heritage let it drop off. I don’t blame them. Just watch The Big Night. Espresso wasn’t mentioned, but it was the victim of the same “sell-out” mentality.

Of course, this isn’t universally true. Some Italian restaurants in America do serve good espresso. But it isn’t that simple. Yes, they buy good machines, and import Italian coffee. But ah, then there is the problem of “la mano” or the hand that is pulling the espresso. It takes practice and patience, which busy restaurants aren’t willing to commit. See The Big Night….

In New York, there are a handful of restaurants and shops that are trying to preserve the tradition. I will usually ask the headwaiter to make it for me. Or sometimes, if you ask – in Italian – they will volunteer to make it for you.

So Why Care?

My answer is because real, authentic Italian espresso is a work of art. A thing of beauty. The color, the smell, the taste. These things inspire emotion in me. But I’m not judging anyone. I just believe these things are worth preserving. I want my kids to know the difference.

The History of Espresso.

There is some debate as to exactly when espresso was invented, but most scholars agree that early steam brewing coffee machines first appeared in the late 19th century.

Angelo Moriondo

Morondi filed an Italian patent for a steam-driven “instantaneous” coffee beverage-making device, which was registered in Turin in 1884 (No. 33/256). It is often described as the first Italian bar machine that controlled the supply of steam and water separately through the coffee. Unlike true espresso machines, it was a bulk brewer, and did not brew coffee “expressly” for the individual customer.

Luigi Bezzera

In 1901, Italian inventor Luigi Bezzera filed a patent for a machine that forced boiling water and steam through coffee and into a cup. With this machine, Bezzera accomplished a fascinating feat: he invented a way for coffee to be brewed with steam while ensuring that the steam does not come into contact with the coffee. Instead, steam pressure at the top of the boiler forces water at the bottom of the boiler through ground coffee. The temperature of the pressurized water drops from 250°F (120°C) in the boiler to the correct brewing temperature. Since the water is pressurized, the coffee can be ground finer than in a regular brewer, reducing the minimum brewing cycle from about four minutes to thirty seconds. Hence, the word espresso, or express.

Bezzera’s invention was not ideal. While it was capable of extracting more coffee than previous coffee makers in much less time, the machine relied on steam, which caused the extraction to taste bitter due to excessive heat. Still, his invention sought high praise from bar owners because of its efficiency, and because it could make a more concentrated cup of coffee. This invention created a buzz among coffee connoisseurs, but Bezzera was not financially prepared to expand for a growing market.

Desiderio Pavoni

In 1903, Desiderio Pavoni purchased Bezzera’s patent and started to manufacture machines based on it through The Pavoni Company in 1905. Though Pavoni did not invent the first espresso machine, he was able to design a few upgrades to fuel his success. Pavoni’s improvements surpassed Bezzera’s original designs, and at the Milan Fair in 1906, Pavoni’s machine, called the “Ideale,” was revealed to spectators as the standard for the first generation of espresso machines.

Though Pavoni’s machine was more successful than Bezzera’s early model, the only major difference was the relief valve. A small addition to be sure, especially on a unit capable of only 1.5 bars of pressure, but Pavoni’s patent can now be found on every modern espresso machine on the market. (In 1927, the first espresso machine in the U.S., “La Pavoni,” was installed at Reggio’s in New York, where it remains on display)

Achille Gaggia

Earlier espresso machines gave coffee a burnt flavor. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Italian engineers experimented with pumping devices to increase the brewing pressure. The first practical one was developed by Cremonesi in 1938 and manufactured by Achille Gaggia in 1946.

Cremonesi developed a piston pump that forced hot water through the coffee rather than boiling water. This design was used in Achille Gaggia’s coffee bar. World War II hindered any further development of espresso machines, as a bomb destroyed Gaggia’s small quantity of machines. Thankfully Gaggia’s ambitions remained strong and after the war subsided, he was able to continue his work. But because of some problems with leakage in his early models, he began to move away from the rotary piston design.

Gaggia’s true ingenuity was realized on August 8, 1947, when he patented a revolutionary lever-operated piston that eliminated the need for steam during the brewing process. It used a hand-powered piston. On machines of this type, steam pressure in the boiler forces the water into a cylinder; Then it is pressurized further by a spring-powered piston to about 8 to 9 bar (120 to 135 PSI), or 8 to 9 times the pressure that had been developed by the steam machines. The spring that powers the piston is compressed by a lever, which is forced down by the barista. As with the older generation machines, these lever groups are designed to cool the water from boiling to brewing temperature.

Along with a newfound sense of control, the lever design brought out a surprising discovery – crema. Though Gaggia had been searching for a fuller, more complete extraction, he could not have imagined this would include the light-colored, creamy foam that has now become the defining characteristic of true espresso. This new steam-free brewing technique transformed espresso into what it is today, and Achille Gaggia went on to successfully engineer and market machines for coffee lovers across the globe, this was the beginning of the espresso machine as we know it today.

Faema (Fabbrica Apparecchiature Elettromeccaniche e Affini)

The Italian company Faema made an improvement of Gaggia’s machine in 1961. Faema created a machine with an electric pump that forced water through the coffee. This machine marks the beginning of the pump-driven machines from which all modern espresso machines are derived. Instead of a hand-operated piston, the water is forced through the coffee by an electric pump. Cold water is taken from the fresh water supply before traveling through a tube that is passed through the boiler and then the coffee. This allows the water to be filtered, and to remain at the optimal temperature (~200F) so that it does not have to stay in the boiler for a long period. Almost all modern restaurant machines are essentially this design.

Stove Top Makers

Also borrowing from Bezzera’s initial concept, Alfonso Bialetti invented the Moka Pot 1933, or cafféttiera, which is a stovetop coffee maker. It is called an espresso maker, though strictly speaking, it differs from true espresso because it forces steam through the coffee without adding additional pressure.) La Napoletana is a four-part stove-top unit with grounds loosely placed inside a filter; the kettle portion is filled with water and once boiling, the unit is inverted to drip through the grounds. It relies on gravity, unlike the moka, which relies on pressure.

Espresso (and its uses) in Italy.

Italians are relatively strict about which type of espresso to drink, depending on the meal and time of day. Cappuccino is for breakfast and is not consumed after lunch or dinner.

  • Affogato (Drowned): Espresso served over gelato (traditionally vanilla).
  • Americano (American): Espresso and hot water, classically using equal parts of each, with the water added to the espresso.
  • Caffé Latte (with Milk): Espresso with steamed milk, but unlike a cappuccino it is mostly milk with little froth.
  • Caffé Freddo (Iced coffee): Generally refers to coffee brewed beforehand, chilled, and served over ice. In Italy, Caffé Freddo is pre-sweetened and served ice-cold, but not with ice.
  • Cappuccino: One-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third frothed milk.
  • Corretto (Correct): coffee with a shot of liquor, usually grappa or brandy.
  • Espresso: 25-ml/one ounce maximum per shot, covered with a rich crema.
  • Espresso Corto (short): Espresso from a stovetop moka pot or Napoletana.
  • Doppio: (Double) Double (2 fluid ounces) shot of espresso.
  • Espresso con Panna (with Cream): Espresso with whipped cream.
  • Latte macchiato (Stained Milk): Essentially an inverted caffè latte, with the espresso poured on top of the milk.
  • Lungo (Long): More water (about 1.5x volume) is let through the ground coffee, yielding a weaker taste (40 ml).
  • Caffè Macchiato (Stained Espresso): A small amount of milk or, sometimes, its foam, spooned onto the espresso.
  • Marocchino (Moroccan, from the color): A shot of espresso, with cocoa powder and frothed milk.
  • Ristretto (Restricted) flow less liquid in the cup, so as to extract the first percolation of the ground coffee, with less water, yielding a stronger taste (10–20 ml).
  • Solo (Single) Single shot of espresso.
  • Shakerato (Shaken): Caffé Shakerato is made by combining espresso, a bit of sugar, and ice, shaking vigorously until frothy.

To find good espresso in New York see this article.

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