La Cimbali looks at the history of espresso machines

Growing up as a typical tea-drinking Brit, Jonathan Morris, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, reflects that it seems rather unusual he adapted such a niche expertise in the history of coffee. Having produced many publications on the subject, including the soon to be released Coffee: A Handbook, Morris today is a world-leading specialist on the history of coffee. So much so, that when LaCimbali was seeking a historian to work with in the development of their new coffee machine museum that opened last October in Milan, they turned to Morris. The company is now planning to feature Morris as a central speaker at The London Coffee Festival, where he’ll give daily presentations on the history of espresso machines for fortunate visitors. Matthew Tuffee, UK Sales and Marketing Manager for LaCimbali, says that with the company celebrating its centennial, the festival is an opportunity to educate customers about how far espresso has come. “We aren’t necessarily looking to sell the historical pedigree of the company, we feel that speaks for itself,” says Tuffee. “At this event, we thought we could add value by helping consumers understand the value of the espresso machine in the coffee-making process.” As a coffee historian, Morris should come in handy in this regard. Morris explains that how a Brit came to be such an expert on coffee, and espresso in particular, has been a matter of circumstance. He started his career focusing on Italian history, a path that eventually brought him to live in his country of interest. “As a true Brit, I drank a lot of tea back then, but in Italy, the tea isn’t like what you find in England,” he says. “So, being in Italy, I started drinking espresso.” In the late 1990s, when espresso-based drinks started taking off in coffee chains in the UK, Morris’ interest was peaked beyond his taste buds, and into the academic arena. Developing an expertise in the history of espresso, and specifically espresso machines, has proved more challenging than Morris expected. He explains that little formal documentation on the development of espresso machine technology exists other than company archives, and in many cases those archives are not openly accessible. In many cases, Morris collected his information by interviewing various experts within each company. Morris has worked extensively with Enrico Maltoni, a private collector who recently handed over his collection of espresso machines to the Milan museum. The development of espresso machine technology has been a fascinating trajectory, Morris explains. While a few key individuals and companies can be credited with making major advances, LaCimbali being a central influence with 100 years in the business, Morris says political and economic context has helped mould the espresso machines we are familiar with today. Dating back to the early 20th Century, Italy held a fascination with “American bars”, places where people would stand over the counter to get a drink. This generated the need to serve one coffee at a time in a relatively quick manner. “This was a new concept at the time, where people would just be going in, and taking a drink over the counter while chatting to the bartender,” says Morris. “There was a need to fit coffee service into that.” The result was the first espresso machine released in 1905, using steam and water pressure to produce one cup of coffee in a relatively short time frame – just 45 seconds. For the first half of the 20th Century, Morris explains there weren’t many improvements on this original design. The machines were limited in their usage, thus their development, because they were expensive, and so was the coffee. “Coffee drinking out of the home was really confined to a small class of people,” says Morris. A major problem with these models was that the steam had a tendency to burn the coffee. The post-war era brought about the next breakthrough that helped solve this glitch, with the invention of the spring piston. The piston allowed bartenders to apply physical pressure to the coffee, eliminating the need to pump through so much steam. The post Second Word War era, however, saw the most major advancements in espresso machines, both on the technological front and popularity. When industry took over from agriculture as Italy’s largest economic sector, a huge migration to the cities meant plenty of people away from home were looking for spots to socialise. The country was also connected to the electricity grid, which meant machines could take advantage of electric pumps. From this period of innovations, Morris has observed that the next significant advancements didn’t come until the 1990s, with the automation of machines via microchip technology. These digital measurements and controls now allow operators to refine their settings, and work out the ideal delivery methods for individual coffees. LaCimbali will exploit these digital controls to turn back the clock on visitors, at their stand during the upcoming London Coffee Festival. In addition to Morris’s public talks on the history of espresso, the M100 LaCimbali model will be set-up to brew coffee at parameters consistent with these different periods of history. LaCimbali’s Tuffee says espresso machines are often taken for granted by general consumers, many of who wouldn’t notice the brand of the machine. He says that when you highlight a machine can cost “as much as a small family car”, consumers then start to pay attention.
With coffee only really taking off in the UK in the past 10 years, Tuffee says customers are starting to appreciate better tasting coffee, with less milk and more of the coffee flavour. As their education progresses, the company is hoping to guide that development along. Other highlights at the LaCimbali booth will include a special blend developed by coffee creatives Dunne Frankowski, which will be sold at the booth with the money donated to The London Coffee Festival’s main charity, Project Waterfall, which helps deliver clean water projects in coffee-producing countries in Africa. The London Coffee Festival is the flagship event of the UK Coffee Week from 22 – 28 April. The 2013 program includes an extra industry day, new ‘Innovation Stand’ and an engaging Lab education program. 

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