The First “Fast Food”
Coffeehouses became popular in the Middle East as early as the 15th century. But the espresso is a relatively modern addition to cafe menus, as it wasn’t invented until the late 19th century. Espresso is an Italian word meaning “fast” or “express.” The beverage’s name is fitting, as it’s considered by some to be the first example of “fast food.”
Coffee was popular in 19th-century Europe, but the boiled-water process of brewing it was time-consuming. To speed up production, in 1884, Italian inventor Angelo Moriondo patented a “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverages.” This was essentially a prototype of the espresso machine, although his invention could only produce the beverage in bulk.
Shortly after, Italian inventor Luigi Bezzera created the first known machine to use pressure to force steam and hot water through ground coffee into an individual cup. His machine provided customers with the freshest possible brew and reduced the brewing time to only 30 seconds. In 1903, Bezzera’s patents were purchased by Desiderio Pavoni. Pavoni improved the machine by adding the pressure-release valve and the steam wand for frothing beverages. Together, Pavoni and Bezzera introduced their new coffee machine called the Ideale and their new product, caffè espresso, at the 1906 World’s Fair in Milan.
There are many factors in making an espresso that contribute to the drink’s distinctive flavor. For one, the finely ground coffee beans provide more surface contact with the water, which produces a highly flavored and aromatic brew. The quality of the finished product can be impacted by the gauge pressure, water temperature, duration of extraction, and the volume produced. Even small variations in the size of the coffee particles in the grind can change the flavor.
The quality of the espresso machine is also an important factor. To produce a high-quality brew, the pressure and temperature should remain absolutely consistent from shot to shot. Such uniformity is difficult to achieve, and the high price of top-ranked espresso machines is often due to their ability to deliver that all-important consistency.
On a well-pulled shot, the golden to reddish-brown foam called “crema” should linger on the surface for 1-2 minutes instead of dissipating immediately. By blanketing the surface, the crema helps trap the aromatics in the drink below. The crema is traditionally considered a key element of a well-prepared espresso shot. But in recent years, some baristas have begun skimming the crema off the shot before serving, resulting in a sweeter-tasting shot. Regardless of its presentation, a shot of espresso should be consumed immediately before its aromas dissipate.
The Best Espresso Beans
The machine is a key factor in making great espresso, but it’s also important to select the right coffee beans to brew. While it’s traditionally made with a darker roast, using coffee beans strictly labeled as “espresso” isn’t necessary.
The espresso procedure amplifies the distinct flavors of the beans – both good and bad – so roasters often use a blend of beans from different sources. Beans may also be roasted to different degrees to bring out various levels of fruity, floral, spicy, or earthy flavors. Much like vintners blend wine grapes, baristas can blend coffees to balance the best qualities of individual beans.
Regardless of the beans you choose, it’s important to ensure you’re using the coffee at its prime to ensure freshness. Coffee is usually “rested” for a few days after roasting to allow for the off-gassing of CO2, which affects brewing, so the ideal timing for individual beans can vary based on how they were packaged. But as a general rule, beans should start being used within several weeks of roasting and packages should be finished quickly once opened.
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