Is there anything more recognizably Italian than an espresso?
Last month, I boarded a plane with one mission in mind: to learn more about the history of the espresso machine and how that affects coffee today. And so, I traveled to Binasco, a city 15 kilometers southwest of Milan, and the home of the Coffee Machine Museum (MUMAC).
Through my visit to the museum (which also has an SCA-certified training academy and extensive coffee library), I was able to travel back in time to see how the espresso machine has evolved. Mission: accomplished.
Love espresso? Read on to discover what I learned.
Lee este artículo en español Museo MUMAC: Descubriendo la Historia de la Máquina Espresso
The iconic MUMAC in Binasco, Italy. Credit: Gisselle Guerra
Introducing MUMAC, The Espresso Machine Museum
MUMAC is heaven for espresso geeks. Simona Colombo, Group Marketing & Communications Director, explains that it was founded by Gruppo Cimbali, an Italian manufacturer of espresso machines. It opened its doors in 2012 to mark the company’s centenary.
“The idea was to create the most comprehensive selection of the best pieces all over the world to interpret the coffee culture since the beginning of the century,” she tells me.
The museum is home to over 250 artifacts and also has a large historical coffee library with over 1,000 coffee-related books and more than 15,000 archives. All the machines on display are from the Cimbali Collection and the Enrico Maltoni Collection, which Francesca Gaffuri of Gruppo Cimbali tells me is the world’s largest collection of commercial coffee machines.
Barbara Foglia, the museum’s manager, says that the aim was to tell the story of espresso machines in Italy through the development of different Italian brands. Starting from the 1900s, you can experience a whole century of Italian coffee history across six different rooms.
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Early espresso machines, all dating from the 1900s, including the La Pavoni Ideale. Credit: MUMAC
The 1900s: The Early Years
The story of the espresso machine begins with Angelo Moriondo, an entrepreneur who owned two cafés in the center of Turin and developed several machines.
However, as my guides at MUMAC explained, espresso machine production didn’t begin on a large scale until the early years of the 20th century.
It was in 1901 that Milanese engineer Luigi Bezzera filed a patent for a new espresso machine. This patent was then acquired by Desiderio Pavoni, who officially launched the serial production of espresso machines in 1905 with the La Pavoni Ideale.
A 1905 La Pavoni Ideale. Credit: MUMAC
I was able to view several of these early machines in the museum, and the first thing I noticed is that they were vertical, not horizontal as they are today. The design was rudimentary, but still aesthetically attractive. In fact, they’re a great example of the popular Art Nouveau movement of the time (known as Liberty in Italy). Espresso machines from this period often featured curved lines, enamel, and plant-inspired patterns.
The machines had a large water boiler, the heat of which could create up to 1.5 bars of pressure. The water was then pumped through the coffee bed at this pressure, and a cup of coffee could be ready in approximately a minute – a long time, by today’s standards, but fast enough to be remarkable at the time.
Because of the long brewing time, the coffee would taste burnt and leave a bitter aftertaste. Plus, due to the lack of pressure, the espresso had no crema at all. Another interesting fact is that it took 14 grams of ground coffee per cup!
These espresso machines were costly, thanks to the relatively low production rates and the difficulty of working with the materials. As such, they were only found in the most renowned cafés in major European cities. In turn, this meant that only those who could afford to consumed espresso.
The first horizontal machines weren’t introduced until after WWI. Credit: MUMAC
Between The Wars
After World War I, Italy experienced difficult times. Society struggled with social tensions and a delicate economy. The vision of Italian “self-sufficiency,” which was imposed by the Fascist economic model, also strongly reduced imports – including, of course, coffee.
The 1929 collapse of the New York Stock Exchange in the United States, which led to the Great Depression, only made life harder for Italians. The crisis brought espresso machine production almost to a standstill.
As a result, the world of espresso became even more niche. Only those who could afford to pay a higher price could enjoy their express dose of caffeine.
Yet while national consumption fell dramatically, small concentrations in large urban areas saw continuing coffee sales. This was thanks to the wealthy elite who refused to stop drinking this little luxury.
A reconstruction of a typical 1950s coffee bar, on display in MUMAC. Credit: MUMAC
To meet this small but persistent demand, the first horizontal models were developed. Machines were developed with the brewing groups on the same side, which allowed operators to prepare and serve multiple coffees quickly and efficiently.
Decoration and artwork, on the other hand, were abandoned. Instead, the focus was on the machine’s functionality. And while the designs were clean and almost clinical, they also boasted a new accessory: the cup warmer. Small details like this represent an increasing attention to quality.
MUMAC’s Curator, Cinzia Cona, explains that carbon was used to heat the water in the espresso machine, due to the lack of energy sources at that time. Credit: Gisselle Guerra
The ‘40s & ‘50s: Introducing The Lever
After World War II, Italy was economically wounded – but this also meant the country had a fresh start. And at this time, a major evolution took place in the history of espresso machines.
In 1938, a Milan barista named Achille Gaggia designed a machine with a new technological feature: the lever. The barista would need to pull down the lever, forcing the water through the portafilter (where the ground coffee sits).
This made these new machines extremely efficient. They raised the pressure of the water from the 1.5 bars of the previous machines to a full 9 bars – in line with modern standards. Plus, they had two water boilers, allowing the water to reach 90ºC (194ºF) without creating any steam. Water temperature could also be controlled.
The result was remarkable. An espresso could be made in just 30 seconds and, for the very first time, crema appeared. Espresso finally had its signature foamy finish.
In 1948, Gaggia sold the patent to FAEMA, who eventually placed the technology in the coffee machine market.
The 1950s were also the decade in which coffee ceased to be a privilege only for a few. Instead, it started to become a daily ritual in the lives of many. Once a luxury, it was now the social lubricant it is today, with cafés just as popular as the ones on your local high street.
“I prefer the fifties,” Cinzia Cona tells me, “because [coffee takes] a big step from the upper classes to everyone.”
And in true ‘50s style, you also started to see some striking espresso machine design.
A 1956 La Concorso by La Pavoni. Credit: MUMAC
The ‘60s and ‘70s: The Golden Era
Cinzia tells me that this next stage was the “golden era” of espresso machine production. Coffee had become a daily ritual, leading to increasingly successful coffee bars – and the result was visible in the espresso machine development.
It was at this time that espresso machines became an essential feature for most coffee shops. And as manufacturers set out to meet increasing demand for quality machines, we saw the release of several celebrated models.
La Cimbali’s Pitagora is one example of this: it was awarded the Compasso d’Oro, an Italian prize for industrial design, in 1962 in recognition of its stainless-steel design. And then there’s the Faema E61, one of the most popular machines of the era. Its name is still recognised today.
The Faema E61, designed by Ernesto Valente in 1961. Credit: Gisselle Guerra
Plastic and steel also became more commonplace – but it’s not just the aesthetics that were changing.
It was during this period that the volumetric pump first entered the picture. But what did this mean? Well, instead of baristas using their own strength to create pressure through a lever, for the very first time, a motorized pump instead provided the 9 bars of pressure that set espresso apart from other coffees.
La Cimbali’s Pitagora, awarded with the Compasso d’Oro in 1962. Credit: Gisselle Guerra
The last major change from this period was the movement of the espresso machine from the front counter to the back – in Europe. The United States and Australia kept their machines at the front, however, meaning that both sides of the machine had to be aesthetically appealing.
This, of course, shaped both the design of espresso machines and the customer service experience for years to come.
Rodolfo Bonetto’s design for the La Cimbali M20. Credit:MUMAC
The ‘80s and ‘90s: Early Automation
The first home computers appeared in the late ‘70s, while Time Magazine crowned “The Computer” as their Person of the Year for 1982. And it’s in the ‘80s and ‘90s that electronics began affecting espresso machine design.
Walking into Room 5 of MUMAC, which is dedicated to these two decades, I saw espresso machines with buttons and programmable dosing for the first time.
What’s more, super-automated machines appeared. Their integrated grinders enabled baristas to deliver quality beverages with less effort.
As espresso machines became easier to use, they also became more popular around the globe – including towards the East.
La Cimbali’s M39 featured buttons, allowing baristas to brew coffee with ease. Credit: Gisselle Guerra
Today & Tomorrow
Touring MUMAC, it’s clear that we’re not just experiencing the history of the espresso machine: we’re also seeing the evolution of modern societies. Simona tells me that the museum is like “a tour within the cultural and the social changes of how people conceived going out and having a cup of coffee and getting together.” And personally, I couldn’t agree more.
So, where does that leave us today?
As you go through the different rooms, it’s evident that the espresso machine evolved to meet the needs of increasingly quality-focused consumers and baristas. And this is something that we still see today, with the specialty coffee industry.
Back in 1974, the late Erna Knutsen introduced the world to the term “specialty coffee.” Writing in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, she used it to describe coffees with delicious flavours that were produced in microclimates.
Since then, the specialty coffee industry has boomed. Single origins, manual brewing methods, lighter roasts, coffee varieties and processing methods, water quality, grind size and grinder quality – these are all points regularly discussed today in the name of “quality coffee.”
And espresso is no exception to this trend.
Find out more! Read What Is Third Wave Coffee & How Is It Different to Specialty?
What’s more, in an increasingly globalized world, espresso became less Italian.
Filippo Mazzoni, Coffee-Tech Specialist at Cimbali Group, tells me, “Historically, the good-quality coffee produced in Latin America went mostly to northern Europe.” And the coffee culture there, he continues to explain, was focused on the consumption of higher-quality washed Arabica beans, rather than bitter, cheaper Robusta.
As such, espresso preparation was reinterpreted through the lens of other countries’ coffee cultures.
This Northern European, quality-orientated way of preparing espresso quickly spread across English-speaking nations, such as the United States and Australia. “In some way, this interpretation of espresso is the culture that nowadays keeps spreading in the world,” Filippo adds.
It’s less about Italian espresso culture, and more about specialty espresso culture – even in MUMAC.
A training room at MUMAC Academy. Credit: MUMAC
MUMAC is more than just a museum. It also houses an academy, which serves as a space for education, training, and research. An SCA-certified campus, it offers barista, roasting, and cupping courses which are open to anyone that wants to participate.
Now, more than ever, training is key. “There are different origins, different varieties, processing methods, roasts, different machines…” Filippo tells me. “How can you match technology and coffee, if you don’t understand the coffee that is there?”
Gabriele Limosani, a MUMAC Academy Trainer, uses the Faema E71E for a training session. Credit: Gisselle Guerra
We’ve seen the history of the espresso machine, but its future is yet unwritten. And the only thing I am certain about is that its design will continue to change. Already, manufacturers are offering programmable pre-infusion settings, pressure profiling, different boilers for different groups, and even energy-saving modes.
As specialty coffee culture evolves, no doubt, so too will the espresso machine.
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