The industrial revolution is best known for two things – steam power and dark, noisy, crowded factories – both of which revolutionised work and production forever. Factories were all about efficiency, speed and production, so it made sense to feed the workers a strong brew of coffee to keep the production line moving at maximum efficiency.
Out of Africa
Until the late 17th century, coffee drinking was confined to the Middle East and – strangely, less so – to its native Ethiopia. But when it finally spread to Europe it was responsible for an upsurge in productivity and intellectual achievement. Until the arrival of what was then called ‘the wine of Araby’, Europeans, who believed that drinking unadulterated water was unhealthy, imbibed wine and/or beer from morning to night, and walked around half-sozzled almost all their lives. So when caffeine replaced alcohol it resulted in a flowering of European thought, industry and business. Interestingly, both Lloyds of London and the London Stock Exchange originated from the erudite financial discussions that were commonplace in coffee shops, and unknown in pubs or alehouses where raucous insults and fisticuffs were more the norm.
Even across the Atlantic, coffee houses were at the forefront of change. The plans for the Boston ‘tea party’ – and the subsequent boycotting of tea – were laid in the Green Dragon Coffee House in Boston. Hmm, perhaps there was an ulterior motive, but let’s not go there. Suffice to say that the consumption of coffee was revolutionising the way people thought and worked, and it was rapidly becoming a necessary element in the industrialised world.
But making coffee was time-consuming. It could take up to five minutes to carefully filter or brew a cup, which was way too long for the short break factory workers were allowed. So it made sense to utilise the Industrial Revolution’s primary power source – steam – in the production of coffee to fuel its secondary power source – humans. The first steam-powered coffee machines were made in the 19th century with the emphasis not on quality but on speed of delivery – hence the name ‘espresso’. Not only did these machines produce pretty vile coffee – but the factory workers drank it anyhow – they were also dangerous, and liable to explode if not handled with care. On the plus side, they could produce up to 1,000 cups of coffee an hour, thus increasing production efficiency in the factories as the caffeine-fuelled workers scuttled around in an ADHD-type flurry, as compared with the semi-drunken stupor that had, until then, been the norm.
Over the next few decades there were some improvements, the most notable of which was a release valve that slightly decreased the risk of the machine operator dying in a steam explosion while preparing the early morning coffee to fuel the factory workers. But the resultant brew was still vile – mostly because it was not possible to produce a pressure of more than about two bars so the coffee was made with super- heated steam, which gave it a classic burnt taste that could almost be disguised by the addition of copious quantities of milk and sugar.
Putting on the pressure
But then, in the late 1930s, the Milanese bartender and coffee aficionado Achille Gaggia patented the invention that was to change forever the way coffee was made – and it coincided with the Italianisation of the word ‘bartender’ to ‘barista’, which became synonymous with coffee. Gaggia built an espresso machine that used a piston to pressurise water to up to 15 bar, thereby eliminating the need to use super- heated steam. Coffee could now be made at 90°C instead of a scorching 140°C, which removed the nasty burnt taste.
Even more important, the smooth, controlled high-pressure extraction retained the essential oils of the coffee bean, creating an aromatic brew with a beautiful layer of light foam on the surface. It’s something we take for granted now, but it was revolutionary back then. When the punters first noticed it, they complained about the ‘scum’ on their coffee, but Gaggia suggested they try it before they knock it, and he coined the term ‘crema’ to illustrate that this smooth and delicious enhancement was indicative of a superior brew.
War is hell
War really is hell. Not least because it put a hold on the development of the espresso machine. Gaggia’s patent lay dormant all through the Second World War, which saw the ‘perfection’ of instant coffee – that strange hot brown liquid that had been invented during the First World War to anaesthetise the troops against the horrors of trench warfare. And, yes, also the pointless deaths of millions of people, destruction of some of the best art and architecture of Europe, and the displacement of whole communities. So, maybe the delay of the invention of the espresso machine is not the very worst aspect of World War Two, but it’s up there.
Coffee is heaven
And the rest is history. Gaggia produced the first home-use espresso machine in 1952. It was a single-lever machine that was as much a work of art as was the coffee it produced. And, being hand-made, it was pretty darn pricey. So it was only in 1977, when the Baby Gaggia hit the shelves as the first mass- produced domestic espresso machine, that espresso culture finally made it to the kitchen. Some of those original Babys, which are now collectors’ items of note, are still working on countertops around the world. And now espresso is a necessary pleasure world-wide, not just fuel for factory workers.