Espresso: An Art Form with Its Own Following   by Marjorie Dorfman

What does the word espresso mean anyway? Do you know or are you content to remain lost in the dark swirl of its wonderful taste? Wake up and smell the espresso and have a laugh or two as well!

To err is coffee, to espresso divine     
The Dorfman Archives (sort of)

As a loyal lover of coffee, I am ashamed to admit that I have never experienced what aficionados claim to be its truest form; espresso. The fact that I lived in Italy for several years without even tasting it once is no less than a double whammy-bammy faux pas. The difference between a filtered coffee and an espresso lies in the flow of the highly heated water. With espresso, the water irrigates the grounds as it is forced directly through them, producing an intense coffee flavor. This is the path as opposed to indirectly, half-assed, sideways, round about the bush or limply. The pressure needed to force the water through the coffee grains increases with the fineness of the grind and the degree of compression. The higher the compression used, the more complete the flavor extractions.

Generally, espresso describes any type of coffee that has been brewed by steam. The word refers to the method of preparation and not to any specific brand. But like all relative things in life, some espressos are better than others. Anything really goes however, as espresso attracts experimentation and the adventurous mind. (If it were a mountain to climb instead of a cup of coffee, I can’t even contemplate the ramifications.) Per capita consumption of coffee in Italy is equal to only 75% of French and 57% of German consumption. One can extract from these statistics that each cup is thus more important. In the Italian tradition, a cup rarely exceeds one and one half fluid ounces, about 45 milliliters of fluid.

What does espresso mean anyway? Well, there are several thoughts on the subject. The word expresso is generally thought to mean fast or straight through (like an express train). The truth among the grinds is that espresso is anything but a fast cup of coffee. The Italian verb esprimersi means to express oneself, to word. Also, there is the verb espirare, meaning to expire, which after drinking several cups of the strong brew some people probably did. The more accepted connotation is from the adverb espressamente which means expressly for you. It is a word that is applied to food and drinks that are made at the moment of asking. Although it has now changed from an adverb to a noun, an espresso by any other name is still a you-know-what. When one requests espresso in an Italian bar or restaurant it always means a coffee that is prepared for no one but yours truly. You say expresso and I say espresso, but just drink it and don’t worry about calling the whole thing off or offending The Gershwin brothers. (They’ve been dead a long time anyway.) And don’t get a swelled head about the special preparation either. It’s the same for everyone!

Louis Bernard Babaut created the first known espresso machine in 1822. It was commercialized by Edward Loysel de Santais in 1843 and presented to the world at the Paris Exposition in 1855. The machine packed a measured amount of coffee in a designated chamber where a valve allowed steam to press the water through the grinds with a special filter. The cup was fast and the 1855 model was said to have produced one thousand cups an hour. Thus the word express became permanently associated with both the machine and its product.

This early machine had two teeny, tiny drawbacks. It sort of blew up from time to time whenever a steam fitting or chamber failed, taking with it whosoever had mastered (or in this case, failed to master), the secrets of its operation. Another drawback was that the coffee would burn if care was not taken to insure that the steam chamber didn’t get too hot. Whatever can be said about its failings, no one can deny that Mr. Babaut and Mr. Santais were two jolly good fellows and that their creations produced a superior cup of coffee. It extracted only the best from the grind and the high pressure forced the water completely through rather than being satisfied to just merely say hello to the grinds as it passed. This process emulsified the coffee and made it smell better along with giving it a velvety texture.

Making espresso in the old days (not that I remember, you understand), was a real art that required skill, knowledge and interpretation on the part of the operator. The degree of roast, correct grind size and grind packing, the steam pressure and the quantity of water were all important factors in the creation of a perfect cup of espresso. The earlier machines allowed for much variance. Those who wanted to save on coffee beans used less grounds, causing the forced water pressure not to totally penetrate the grinds. Those who wanted a larger cup of coffee allowed more water to go through the system, diluting the brew and extracting unwanted substances.

Espresso machines were driven by steam. The two problems, blowing up and burning the coffee were solved in 1935 by a man named Francesco Illy, who in 1935 invented the Illetta, (which bears the name of his wife’s relatives). It utilized air pressure to force the water into the grounds. This was more controllable than steam and with its elimination the coffee did not burn. The cylinder used could be made to precisely control the amount of water and the extraction was done automatically.

In 1945 the system was simplified even further by the invention of the Gaggia coffee machine. This utilized lever action to force the water into the grind holder. In the 1970’s, Ernesto Illy further simplified the whole device by introducing the Espresso Coffee System which incorporated the best of the previous machines. It added two layers of filter paper, was cheaper and, according to those in the know, was easy enough for even the village idiot and his entourage to operate. One of the last adaptations came in 1950 by Ernest Valente who introduced the rotating pump driven by an electric motor. This developed the water pressure and allowed for a more continuous delivery of the water. An additional development was a rotating coffee grind delivery system which made the process almost totally automatic.

Now back to that word expresso. You may recall that I said earlier that the word can mean fast or straight through. (Of course you do.) Well, it can also mean to squeeze out by pressure or to elicit by force. A third meaning is to be explicit; such as the express purpose of her visit. All of the definitions can be adapted to the way the machine works. First it squeezes out the juice (grinds). Then it does so in a fast way. And, it squeezes out the juice in a rapid manner for the explicit purpose of making a single cup of coffee. How do you like them there apples?

A secondary factor in the making of a perfect espresso is the way the milk is utilized. Mousse was the original term given to the presentation, but later it turned to froth. (The word, not the milk.) There are two types of mousse; one is a short floating milk cover and the other is a milk cover mixed into the coffee. Mousse adds both a smoother taste and minimizes heat loss with its exact blend of carbon dioxide bubbles and milk. The color of the mousse should be that of a milk chocolate bar. If it is too dark, this indicates over-extraction and if it’s too light, there hasn’t been enough.

And so my friends, we have from Rome arrived. The issue of which came first, the chicken or the egg may never be resolved, but I suppose one can surmise a sort of chronology as far as espresso is concerned. First came just coffee and plain hot water. Then came an espresso maker, which forced steam through the coffee grinds. Then came the expresso pneumatic press. If you are still confused, you are not alone. The mystery may never be unraveled and the plot thickens and the story changes from country to country, book to book and person to person. But it matters not. Whether or not the truth will set us free can be argued on many platforms, but no one can deny that a cup of espresso or expresso will wake one up and open one’s eyes anytime!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002