“Brewing espresso, unlike other methods of brewing coffee, IS rocket science!” – Knox and Huffaker, Coffee Basics: A Quick and Easy Guide.
We hate admitting it, but most of us are spoiled when it comes to espresso. We just walk in to some coffee shop, put in our order, and whine when it takes the barista longer than twenty seconds to press our double-shot into that little ceramic cup we all love because it makes us feel like we’re giants.
A Bit of Espresso History
But espresso is much more than just some dark, bitter liquid we hurriedly throw down to help us power through some boring afternoon business meeting.
It is a caffeinated (or decaffeinated) work of art from its brewing to its presentation, and has a history to which we can all relate: it all started with an overbearing, micromanaging boss that felt his workers were taking too long during their coffee breaks.
In the late-19th / early-20th century in Milan, Itay, Luigi Bezzera wanted more production out of his workers, who – just like us – would take coffee breaks throughout the day.
Thinking they spent too much time bringing water to a boil, adding the ground and roasted beans, and cooking the liquid until it “smelled right,” he developed a steam-driven beast of a machine (the Tipo Gigante) that used water and steam forced under high pressure to yield what we know of today as “espresso.”
(To be honest, though, Bezzera’s machine was actually a takeoff from Angelo Moriondo’s original espresso machine patent, but hey…)
By forcing the water through finely ground coffee beans, he cut those coffee breaks down considerably, and production at his plant skyrocketed. He essentially caught lightning in a bottle, and from there, espresso gained worldwide popularity.
Today anyone can make espresso right in their own homes using smaller espresso pots that are used over a stove (like a tea pot). These are called stove top espresso makers and can be easily purchased online at places like Amazon.
The Evolution of Espresso to Espresso Drinks
As espresso bars became “the thing” in the increasingly urbanized areas, it was again tampered with, as its bitter flavor was too much for many people to handle.
Thus, the cappuccino was born, adding the sweet creaminess needed to curb the rather pronounced raw flavor (the latte didn’t arrive until the 1950’s, in Berkeley, California of all places).
When espresso is properly brewed, its signature reddish-brown crema develops like a foam at the top.
The crema is water capturing the coffee’s oils, so the lighter the crema, the fewer the captured oils. (Now, this could be due to the brew time of the espresso or the roast itself, so try not to get mad at your barista if it looks a little pale.)
This crema is unique to espresso-making because it is the only method employing the pressure necessary to extract those otherwise insoluble oils from the bean. Oil is fat, and fat is where all the flavor is: thus, the intense flavor of the espresso shot.
Crema is the base by which the quality of the shot is judged, sure, but because it contrasts nicely with the stark white of milk foam, those brewing it developed something called “latte art.”
While pouring the milk and its foam, the barista can actually pour in designs ranging from Christmas trees to hearts to fruits. Good latte artists develop unique followings, and if you ever get your hands on a latte made by one, sit back and admire it for all its worth. It really can be quite impressive.
So the next time you go in and want to order a triple, non-fat, grande mocha drink, resist the temptation, and just order a double shot of espresso. It has less caffeine than a typical cup of coffee, and more quickly gives you what you really want: a burst of energy.