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The Founding Fathers of Espresso

Posted: 05/23/06
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Espresso BeansCoffee has been a major part of our world history for over 1000 years, and as its popularity has expanded across the globe, its rituals have been embraced in different cultures. For generations, many countries have enjoyed unique varieties of coffee, but until the invention of the espresso machine, the full flavors of the coffee bean were widely undiscovered.

At the turn of the 20th century, coffee was becoming increasingly popular, but new demands for a more concentrated, higher quality cup of coffee were slowing the ongoing development of coffee bars. For coffee lovers worldwide, centuries of traditional brewing techniques were soon to be challenged by the rich textures of espresso that were about to be unlocked by its Italian forefathers.


An Early Coffee Uprising

Boston Tea PartyOn the subject of founding fathers, it’s a good time to point out the connection between the espresso revolution and another, more poignant caffeine conflict from our not-so-distant past. As the world’s 2nd most commonly traded commodity, the widespread popularity of coffee has sometimes caused it to be a part of political and social upheaval- and at no time more spectacular than during our early colonial strife. To truly appreciate the role that coffee has played in American culture, let’s rewind to December 16, 1773 when a group of disgruntled colonists started a boycott against Britain by dumping a shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party, as it came to be known, not only helped trigger the Revolutionary War but also sparked the colonists’ love for coffee, eventually making America the largest coffee importer in the world.

Much like our own colonial rebellion, the espresso revolution brought forth its share of statesmen, dedicated to a better extraction and the discovery of crema- the velvety, golden foam that tops great espresso. Though the new age of espresso had many contributors, the 3 central figures are Luigi Bezzera, Desiderio Pavoni and Giovanni Achille Gaggia.


The 3 Forefathers

In the spirit of founding fathers, each of these important figures played an essential role in what has since become an international coffee culture. Bezzera was responsible for the original idea, creating the first patented version of an espresso machine at the turn of the 20th century and then joining forces with Pavoni, who went on to lead the charge in the development and marketing of their new invention. The Thomas Jefferson and George Washington of the espresso revolution, if you will, these 2 men were the early founders of this innovative brewing design, and together they paved the way for the future of espresso.

Decades later, Gaggia was able to unlock the crema by using a fuller, steam-free extraction, and his remarkable discovery inspired awe and even disbelief, immediately redefining all that was known about espresso during that time. Gaggia’s lever design remains the core blueprint for manual espresso machines to this day, and as the Ben Franklin of the espresso movement, Gaggia’s discovery inspired a new age of espresso enlightenment.


Luigi Bezzera

Early Bezzera DrawingIn 1901, the owner of a manufacturing company developed the earliest version of what is known today as the espresso machine, a unit that contained a boiler system that allowed water and steam to be pushed through the coffee into the cup. According to Ian Bersten’s book, Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks, there are records indicating that other inventors attempted to develop a machine for similar purposes before 1900, but Luigi Bezzera’s patent in Milan on November 19, 1901 has widely become known as the first.

Bezzera’s invention was not ideal, and though it was capable of extracting more coffee than previous coffee makers in much less time, his invention relied on steam, which caused the extraction to taste bitter due to the 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. Bezzera’s invention was creating a buzz among coffee connoisseurs, but Bezzera was not financially prepared to expand for a growing market. In turn, Bezzera’s patent was sold to Desiderio Pavoni in 1903, who improved upon the early model to make his company, La Pavoni, highly successful to this day.


Desiderio Pavoni

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 according to Bersten’s book. 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.


Giovanni Achille Gaggia

Essentially, the espresso machine itself had been invented at the turn of the 20th century, but the early designs relied upon steam, which often made the coffee taste burnt or bitter. Giovanni Achille Gaggia was dissatisfied with the flavor of espresso extracted with steam and water, and before World War II, he was experimenting with manually operated piston pumps to replace the need for steam in the original design. Gaggia’s first developments were based on earlier inventions of rotary screw-type pistons, but his prototypes were destroyed by bombings in Milan during the war.

Early Gaggia MachineThankfully 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.

Along with a newfound sense of control, the lever design brought out a surprising new discovery- crema. Though Gaggia had been searching for a fuller, more complete extraction, he could not have imagined this included a 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.


The Legacy

Each of the espresso machine companies that were started by the 3 founding fathers still flourish today, and their tried and true creations are still considered the keystones of great espresso. In addition to his groundbreaking discovery, Gaggia’s company is also world-renowned for pioneering espresso machines for home use, and their extensive line of super automatic and semi-automatic machines are some of the most popular on the market today. Bezzera’s factory has also achieved a century of success based on the tireless work of the original inventor himself. Most notably, Bezzera’s company makes the Pasquini Livia 90, which is one of the highest quality prosumer machines available. And of course, Pavoni’s company, La Pavoni is among the most well known espresso machine companies in the world, staying true to the traditional Italian design established by the founder himself.

Considering the ever-growing popularity and development of espresso over the years, it’s impressive to know that the original designs of Bezzera, Pavoni and Gaggia still prevail in espresso machines today. In a culture so inspired by change, a tradition of espresso has emerged to maintain the enduring contributions of the founding fathers so their legacy may always remain part of the global espresso culture.