Many of us have become accustomed to ordering our "double, non-fat, caramel, vanilla latte's" at our local coffee shops or possibly we are making specialty espresso drinks at home. It has become part of our culture, language and every day pattern, expanding the definition of specialty coffee and coffee in general. We have seen enormous growth of independent coffee houses and coffee roasters as well as new and improved products from the large commercial coffee companies that have joined in on the trend of better quality and diversified coffee products. High quality Coffee has never been more popular in the United States and around the world, but what is it that started this phenomena? In 1822, the first espresso machine was made in France. In 1933, Dr. Ernest Illy invented the first automatic espresso machine. However, the modern-day espresso machine was created by Italian Achilles Gaggia in 1946. Gaggia invented a high pressure espresso machine by using a spring powered lever system. The first pump driven espresso machine was produced in 1960 by the Faema Company. Both the spring powered lever machine and the pump driven machines are still in use today. These machines offer a fast way to brew coffee or "Espresso" which means fast in Italian. This fast method produces a small concentrated beverage that, because of its strength, was married with milk. The milk is heated with excess steam from the machines boiler. When added to the espresso in varied amounts it adds to the beverage without cooling the coffee. The result of the espresso method of brewing is what we of course call espresso.
Espresso is from 1 to 1 1/2 ounces of dark, heavy-bodied, bitter-sweet coffee topped with a reddish-brown mantle of crema. This crema is actually the emulsified coffee oils, which are forced out under high pressure (8-10 bar) generated by commercial and high-quality home espresso machines. These oils normally don't mix with water as coffee does, and this emulsification under pressure is what distinguishes espresso from strong coffee. In the espresso extraction process, water-soluble substances are dissolved from the ground coffee, the same as in regular coffee brewing. The extraction of espresso transforms the properties of the bean in terms of its mouth feel, density, viscosity, aroma and taste.
The more finely the coffee is ground, the slower the espresso comes out. Generally, for the best shot of espresso, it should take about 25 to 30 seconds for the water to pass through the coffee. It is important not to over-extract. The consistency of the grind is adjusted to control the brewing time based on humidity and barometric pressure. Those of us that bake will know that the weather can play a key roll in how the ingredients interact with each other and espresso is a great example of this.
There certainly is a big difference between a good espresso and a not-so-good one. How much we spend in terms of money or energy in seeking out the best bean is one of those lifestyle choices we all make for ourselves or our business. Espresso is the foundation of cappuccino and café latte. A good espresso is less obvious under a head of frothed milk, but the quality of the espresso underneath is still the most important factor.
There is an infinite amount of espresso blends and roasts on the market and with the advent of organizations such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America, The Roasters Guild of America and the Baristas Guild of America we have seen many innovations and variations on the basic theme. It is common to see a variety of espresso blends, signature drinks, roast styles, preparations and latte' art all in one retailer. This new awareness has raised espresso and origin coffees to new heights in our culture. It is the basic standard however that creates a consistency of quality.
In conclusion, it will always be our own taste that counts the most, but basic standards must be met to create a quality beverage. From a single shot of espresso to the specialty café latte or cappuccino with a beautiful rosette of latte art... The truth will always be in the cup.